Top 10 gambling movies of all time
This week's cover story, "All In," focuses on the work of University of Denver professor Robert Hannum, who's been researching the mathematics of gambling and the science of poker for almost two decades. Of course, we all know (or think we know) something about Las Vegas casinos and card games, much of it shaped by movies about Danny Ocean planning to knock over all the top joints on the Strip or the Corleone family making a move on Moe Greene and the Tropigala.
But what movies about casinos and gambling really get it right? Here's our top ten list of the most memorable, palm-sweating, risk-taking moments on the big screen.
10. Casino Royale (2006)
Along with successfully rebooting the sputtering 007 series, this boisterous film helped fuel the Texas Hold'em frenzy with its insanely high-stakes showdown between James Bond and Le Chiffre. The final, improbable, ball-breaking hand brings four players all in, with successively impressive cards. But it's not exactly a shocker when we learn who emerges top dog in this show -- even if he does undergo some testicular torture of his own once the game moves outside the casino.
9. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
A classic poker fable with a big-name cast, led by icy-hot Steve McQueen and the incomparable Edward G. Robinson; Ann-Margret at her trampiest and Jack Weston at his sweatiest; and a bouncy title ballad, sung by Ray Charles. But the script (by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern!) is awash in clumsy melodrama and stock characters. The proceedings don't really come alive until the final hand of five-card stud, which has a lot in common with the Casino Royale showdown. (Note to self: Never rely on an aces-over-anything full boat against 007 or The Man.) It's a riveting sequence that makes you wonder what the movie would have been like if it hadn't been in a coma for most of the first ninety minutes.
8. The Sting (1973)
Cutesy, yes, but George Roy Hill's Redford-Newman extravaganza is also a clever and well-researched exposition of elaborate race-track and stock-market swindles in their heyday. Based in part on David Maurer's seminal work, The Big Con, an earnest study of the notorious scams run in the 1920s by con artists like Denver's own Lou Blonger and his Million Dollar Bunco Ring, The Sting is both a crowd-pleaser and an education in suckerdom, right down to the final blow-off involving a device known as a cacklebladder.
7. The Cooler (2003)
William H. Macy shines in one of his finest roles, as the house jinx brought out to chill any player on a big run. Maria Bello is the tough cocktail waitress who isn't quite what she seems. And Alec Baldwin, the vicious casino boss, damn near steals the movie. A sexy, violent fantasy of disillusionment and crushed hopes. Kind of like Las Vegas itself.
6. California Split (1974)
One of the lesser-known Robert Altman films, this tour of poker rooms, casinos, race tracks and other fields of doom has been denounced as muddled and rambling. But the chemistry between the itching-to-bet George Segal and the ever-yammering Elliot Gould is terrific, and the aimlessness of their journey is the point, to the extent the movie has one. When a man's obsessed with risk, winning doesn't satisfy, and even the hot streak of a lifetime doesn't guarantee a happy ending.