Top Gambling-Themed MoviesAnyone who loves gambling will understand the tension and excitement of the make or break moment – a potential big win or a disappointing loss. Filmmakers understand that this subject makes for a riveting plot, and there are a fair number of great movies about gambling and gamblers. Unsurprisingly, many of these films focus on poker, perhaps one of the most intriguing table games. We’ve compiled a list of just a few of our favorites to reminisce about, or make you want to watch for the first time.
Based on a book about the true story of the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas in the 70s, Martin Scorcese’s film has all the grit and backroom machinations of how a Mafia-controlled casino was run back then.
The film begins with Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert de Niro) who runs the casino being blown up by a car bomb, then tracks the course of events that led up to his demise. It also explains, narrated by Ace and others, how millions were siphoned out of the casinos, stuffed into a suitcase and delivered to the mob bosses in Kansas City each week.
Ace’s Delilah to his Samson is the high-end call girl Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) whom he falls for, showers her with expensive gifts and persuades to marry him. It is not a happy union, she takes to drinking and she finds consolation with another mean mobster, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), Ace’s business partner and childhood friend.
Set against the lurid and fantastical backdrop of 70s-style Vegas, and telling the story of a complicated triangular relationship, the film is also an exploration of the history of the Mafia’s brutal grip on Las Vegas, which would come to an end by the beginning of the 80s.
Vegas Vacation (1997)
Vegas Vacation is a the fourth film in National Lampoon’s Vacation comedy series, starring among others Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid and Wayne Newton. Clark Griswold gets a large bonus check at work for inventing a long-life food preservative, and decides to take his wife Ellen, son Rusty and daughter Audrey on a vacation where the couple will renew their wedding vows.
Once there, a series of misadventures ensues, including Clark having to be rescued at a visit to the Hoover Dam when he accidentally causes a leak. They are invited to a Wayne Newton concert, only to discover that wife Ellen is Newton’s object of desire. The family parts ways the next day, each left to do their own thing. Ellen spends time with Wayne Newton, Audrey hangs out with an exotic dancer, while Rusty buys a fake ID and wins four cars gambling. Clark also gambles and becomes addicted, losing all the money in the family’s bank account, mostly at the blackjack table. Furious, the family abandons him. After trying to recoup his losses, and failing, Clark realizes his family is more important than the money and manages to get them back together.
They spend their last two dollars playing keno. Sitting next to them is a lonely old man whom the family befriends. They lose, but the old man has the winning ticket. He suddenly collapses and dies, but not before telling them to take his ticket. With their fortunes happily reversed, the family leaves Vegas, each driving one of the four cars Rusty had won.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
In the little town of Laredo, the area’s richest men are gathering in Sam’s saloon for their annual high stakes poker game. Meanwhile, a couple and their son, passing through on the way to San Antonio to buy a homestead, have to stop when a wheel on their wagon breaks. They wait in the saloon while it is being repaired and learn of the imminent poker match. The husband, a reformed gambler, can’t help himself and buys into the game, taking place in a back room.
He is not a good poker player and has staked the entire $20,000 meant to buy a home, but has no money left to raise and stay in the game. He collapses with a probable heart attack. Semi-conscious, he calls for his wife to take over his hand. The trouble is that she doesn’t know how to play poker! She is told that she will be out of the game if she can’t raise money to continue playing.
Despite initial protests from the other players she goes over to the bank with them, shows the manager her hand and gets a $5,500 loan. Knowing the bank manager’s tightfisted ways, the other players fold, and she wins a great deal of money, without having to show her hand. The twist in the tale is that this ‘little family’ of naïve homesteaders is not what it seems, but professional con artists and canny card sharps. The meek ‘wife’ is actually the banker’s girlfriend who, together with him, settle an old score and pull the wool over the eyes of these self-important men.
Based on an autobiography by Molly Bloom, formerly a skier who had to give up her with Olympic aspirations after a bad accident. Her plan was to attend law school, but instead she decides to take a year off and move to Los Angeles. She becomes a waitress at a club, where she meets Dean, a real estate developer, and becomes his office manager. Soon she gets involved in organizing underground poker games for him, frequented by high profile people from the movie industry, sport and business, and earns large sums of money in tips.
As she becomes more independent in organizing the poker games, Dean sees it as a threat and fires Molly. She starts out on her own, and later moves to New York and begins a new underground poker game there. Although she’s successful, she worries about being unable to cover losses that players can’t pay. Her dealer suggests she begins taking a ‘rake’ (a commission or percentage of players’ winnings) that will allow her to cover potential losses but making her enterprise an illegal gambling operation. Her premises are raided by the FBI and her assets are seized as one of her players turns out to be an informant.
In the book she subsequently writes about her life, a few of her players are named. She is arrested by the FBI for involvement in illegal gambling. Charlie Jaffey, a high-profile lawyer, agrees to represent her after learning that she has been protecting innocent people affected by her business. Charlie negotiates a deal for Molly to receive no jail sentence and for her assets to be returned in exchange for information; however, Molly turns down the deal and pleads guilty. The judge rules that she has not committed any serious crimes and sentences her to community service, one year’s probation and a fine.
A “rounder” is someone who travels from around looking for high-stakes card games. The story focuses on two friends, Mike and Lester (Matt Damon and Edward Norton), who need to pay off a large debt by winning at poker. Mike is a law student whose dream is winning the World Series of Poker. But in an underground game run by Teddy “KGB” (John Malkovich), Mike loses his entire $30,000 bankroll in one hand. Disheartened, he promises his girlfriend Jo he’ll quit poker and concentrate on his studies, taking a part-time job to pay the bills.
Months pass and Mike remains on the straight and narrow, until childhood friend Lester (aka Worm) is released from prison and brings a whole lot of trouble with him, getting Mike into debt by playing on his credit and owing money to a dangerous pimp, Grama, who gives them five days to pay off the debt. Mike decides to help Worm by taking on a number games around the city and makes $7,200, but still double the money within two days. Worm takes Mike to an out-of-town game, where he wins almost the full $15,000 debt before Worm joins the game unexpectedly. The players catch Worm base-dealing to help Mike; after being roughed up all their winnings are taken.
Grama refuses to extend the time for payment. Desperate, Mike asks for help from his law school professor, who lends him $10,000. To make up the balance, he challenges KGB to a game, with winner-take-all stakes. Mike beats KGB in the first session, winning $20,000. KGB invites Mike to continue the game and declines, but then changes his mind and decides to continue playing. KGB becomes rattled and loses fair and square, leaving Mike with $60,000 to pay off his and Worm’s debts and enough money to travel to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.
This film is inspired by the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team who beat the house in Las Vegas. Ben is a mathematics major at MIT and has been accepted into Harvard Medical School but can’t afford the $300,000 tuition fee. He applies for a scholarship that would cover his fees, but there’s fierce competition and is told by the director that the scholarship will be awarded to the student who impresses him the most.
At MIT, Professor Micky Rosa invites Ben to join his blackjack team. By counting cards and using secret signals, they are able to substantially increase their probability of winning at casinos. The team regularly flies to Las Vegas over weekends and come to enjoy their lifestyle as high-end players. Ben’s skill is impressive, which attracts the attention of Cole Williams, the head of security who has been monitoring the team.
Ben falls out with his friends when he flunks out of an engineering competition because of his involvement with gambling. On the next trip to Vegas, he is distracted and misses the signal to walk away and loses his $200,000 winnings. Micky is furious, quits the team and demands that Ben repay the $200,000. Ben and three students decide to continue to play blackjack anyway, but they are caught by Williams who is tipped off by Micky, and Ben is beaten up.
Then Ben learns that he won’t be able to graduate, failing a course due to Micky’s influence, plus his winnings are stolen from his dorm room. The team gets Micky to make one last trip to Las Vegas before they install face-recognition software. In disguise, they win $640,000 but are spotted by Williams. Micky flees with the chips, but discovers that they are fake. It transpires that Ben and Williams lured Micky to Las Vegas so that Williams can catch him and beat him up because he has a longstanding grudge against him. In exchange, Williams allows Ben one more night in the casino without fear of reprisals. Ben’s old friends (who he has reconciled with) prove to be adept at card-counting too, and the now 6-man team rakes in a lot of money. The film ends with Ben telling the whole story to the astounded scholarship director.
The Color of Money (1986)
The character Edward "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) first appears in The Hustler in 1961. Now, over 25 years later Eddie has retired from the pool circuit and is a successful liquor salesman, but still stakes bets for hustlers. There’s a new kid on the block, Vincent, who can outplay Eddie’s other protégés. Recognising Vincent’s talent and his girlfriend Carmen’s inexperience round the pool scene, Eddie tells them that they have great potential for hustling.
Eddie finds Vincent working in a toy store, and persuades him to come with him for six weeks of hustling on the road, ending in a nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City. Vincent and Carmen travel with Eddie, visiting various pool halls along the way. Eddie acts as Vincent’s ‘stakehorse’ and tries to teach him the ways of hustling, but Vincent is too arrogant to lose games – one of the cardinal rules. Fed up with Vincent, Eddie leaves then returns to find Vincent beating the pool hall’s best player but scaring off a potential mark with more money. The two a heart to heart and Vincent agrees he has to keep his ego in check if they want to make money.
After a series of winning games, Vincent plays the famed Grady Seasons, but Eddie orders him to lose to increase the odds against Vincent in the upcoming tournament. Vincent’s ego gets in the way and he nearly fails to throw the game, inspiring Eddie to play again. After some success on the pool table, Eddie is conned by a pool shark and, feeling humiliated, leaves after ensuring that Vincent and Carmen have enough money to make it to Atlantic City.
Eddie regroups and refines his skills at his friend’s pool hall, and goes on a winning streak that takes him to the Atlantic City tournament, where he runs into Vincent and Carmen. Eddie beats his opponent, Vincent wins against Grady and the two are set to face each other. Eddie wins the match, but Vincent surprises Eddie with $8,000 – his cut of the winnings from Vincent intentionally losing the match.
Eddie starts the semifinals, but has a change of heart, forfeits the game and returns Vincent’s money. Determined to win legitimately, he challenges Vincent to a private match.
These are just a handful of the many outstanding gambling-themed movies out there, but space doesn’t allow us to discuss any more. Are any of these your favorites, or did we leave out yours?