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Risk Versus Reward
Mixed Messages About Poker in the Movies

21/11/2018 by Martin Harris
Book Excerpts
D&B MAGAZINE

As I’ve noted here before, the subject of poker in popular culture is kind of a bottomless well. There’s no end to examples of poker turning up in “mainstream” contexts like feature films, radio and television programs, music, literature, magazines, paintings, and elsewhere.

Indeed, practically all of the chapters in my forthcoming book Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game could be expanded much further to full length books themselves.

Take the topic of poker in the movies, for example. You wouldn’t believe how many movies have included poker either incidentally or as important elements of their stories, going all of the way back to the days of silent film. I haven’t yet counted how many films I am referencing in my book, although I’m sure it is over 100. That said, I’d estimate there are probably at least 300-400 feature films in which poker pops up, maybe even more.

That fact alone provides substantial proof of poker’s significance to American culture. Of course, these depictions of poker in movies have also had a lot to do with shaping opinions about the game – including, in a lot of cases, helping further negative ideas about poker as dangerous or immoral. That’s a part of the story of I explore in detail in the book.

In fact, such negative connotations date all of the way back to the very first “poker movie,” a short 20-second film made by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1899 titled Poker at Dawson City.

As you can see below, it isn’t much of a movie – just a single shot of what appears to be a barroom brawl between players, seemingly caused by a disagreement over cards. Notice one of them waves a pistol in the air while the barkeeper tries to cool the hot tempers with a spray bottle:


Poker at Dawson City is considered by some to be one of the earliest “westerns” given the reference in the title to a location connected with the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 1890s. A lot of westerns both from the silent days and during the genre’s “classic” era extending all of the way into the 1960s tend to associate poker with cheating and violence, with the drawing of cards often followed by the drawing of weapons.

It’s not a stretch to think that such depictions of poker might have made some viewers think negatively about poker as a game containing too much risk for its potential reward. You see the same thing in many non-western films, too, in particular crime dramas where poker often comes up in association with various types of criminal behavior.

Speaking of, I was just recently watching an entertaining crime film from 1931 – that is, not long after sound was introduced – called Smart Money. It stars a young Edward G. Robinson, an actor you probably know from his later role as Lancey “The Man” Howard in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

In Smart Money Robinson plays a young entrepreneur named Nick Venizelos who runs a barber shop where he offers some small-time gambling action, thus earning him the nickname “Nick the Barber.”

Nick has aspirations to play for higher stakes, though, and his friends pool their resources to help buy into a high-stakes poker game happening in the “big city.” With a stake of $10,000 (half of which is his own), Nick gets himself invited into a game with a famous high roller named Hickory Short.

The situation neatly mirrors the one in The Cincinnati Kid, only in this case Robinson is playing the role of the up-and-comer (the “Kid”) gunning to take down the famous, established player currently considered to be the best around. They even play five-card stud, too, just like in The Cincinnati Kid (which if you recall was set back in the 1930s).

Alas for Nick, when he plays in the big game he’s gets duped in more ways than one. Not only do the other players collude and cheat against him, taking him for his entire bankroll, but even worse, he wasn’t even playing against Hickory Short, but someone else named Sleepy Sam pretending to be the famed gambler.

Nick gets his revenge, though, coming back to wipe out Sleepy Sam using decks he had prepared beforehand by cutting the sides of the cards so as to help him identify them by feel as he dealt. As you might imagine, Nick the Barber takes full advantage of the opportunity afterwards to deliver some choice words about having given the men a “trimming” by using “shaved cards.” (And later he gets a shot at the real Hickory Short.)

There’s more cheating and violence to come, but you get the idea – the film is somewhat typical in the way it associates poker with criminality, helping support the position of those who wish to take moral objection to the game.

There are also positive depictions of poker in the movies, though, among the hundreds of examples, including several that have served to encourage viewers to take up poker rather than scare them away from the game.

Even so, I’m probably going to think twice if I’m ever invited to play with someone named Nick the Barber.

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