First and foremost, let’s get Indian movies out of the way, shall we? Nobody wants to see Emran Hashmi play poker with an item number squeezed in between the turn and river on the final hand. Or for that matter, neither do we want anybody to introduce Ekta Kapoor to poker and run the risk of her producing ‘Kyunki Ace Bhi Kabhi Ikka Tha.’
When we talk about the influence the entertainment industry has had on poker, and movies and televised poker have been a major influence for individuals who’ve taken up poker as a profession, it’s important to recognise and appreciate the sources. This influence can be can be measured broadly via 2 channels – the mainstream Hollywood productions and the cable productions made for Television.
Perhaps the single largest influence on the millennials who’ve taken up poker – whether as a full-time profession or as a recreational activity – has been that of 2 movies – Rounders and Casino Royale. Each movie is a standout in itself with contrasting impacts.
“Mr. Son of a b***h, let’s play some cards” ~ John Malkovich/Teddy KGB
Beginning with Rounders, the 1998 drama follows two friends who need to quickly earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a large debt. Starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich in leading roles, Rounders performed modestly upon release but went on to become a cult classic in the poker community. The movie was centered completely around poker and the perils of the high stakes game complete with the Russian mob and even featured a cameo from poker legend Johnny Chan.
The beauty of Rounders is its ability to appeal to even those individuals who know nothing about poker. Rounders touched upon many interesting facets of the game, but the biggest debt the game of poker owes to the movie is that Rounders dispelled the notion that poker is a game of luck. With some stirring performances and memorable dialogues, Rounders can comfortably count itself as the most impressionable movie to have hit the single screens. If you are planning to take up poker, then this movie should be at the top of your must-watch list.
“That last hand… nearly killed me” ~ James Bond
Casino Royale on the other hand is not what one can categorise as a typical poker movie; mostly because it is not. The first James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Casino Royale would be thrilling in itself even if the poker related aspects were removed. It involves a complicated (yet engaging) plot which culminates with Bond having to beat a terrorist in a high-stakes game of poker in Montenegro. The movie is ludicrously fun and ends with a final hand that is as gripping as it is improbable.
As mentioned, Casino Royale was never made with the intention of it being a movie on poker. But, since its plot revolved around poker, the movie spurred many people around the world to understand the basics of the game in order to better understand the intricacies of the film. Unwittingly, it not only introduced poker to millions who’d never heard of it before but also got some of them to play it afterward. With the game taking place in an absurdly plush casino in the middle of Europe, the movie also gave poker an aura of style and elegance – one unmatched by any other on this planet.
There have been other movies which have graced poker with distinction such as The Cincinnati Kid (1965), High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003), and Lucky You (2007) among others, but none have reached the levels of popularity of Rounders nor have they spread the sport of poker as far and wide as has Casino Royale.
What all these movies have, in unison done, though, is project poker into the mainstream. Poker, a sport traditionally played behind closed doors or in underground gambling dens, slowly and steadily came into the spotlight and with a bit of luck along the way, morphed into the $10 billion industry it is today.
In India, the effect of feature length films on the poker industry has perhaps been muted in comparison to that of televised poker. The difficulty in explaining the poker to the masses and the auto-classification of all such sports as gambling have meant the production of zero in-house movies on poker. Consequently, a heavy reliance on foreign media has led to YouTube being the biggest source of poker content and shows such as High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark (to be covered in Part II) etc have had a loyal following to this day.
But while televised poker may take the plaudits for making poker professionals into better players, movies are what got them hooked in the first place.