The world of gambling is an interesting world full of tense situations, eccentric personalities with mustaches to match, and thousands of dollars on the line. When watching an intense hand of poker being played on TV, it’s difficult to tell what else goes on around these players. Rarely do we know what’s racing through their minds, and little yet, do we know their upbringing in life. Many pro players, and this goes for all sports and reality TV in general, are packaged to viewers in an unrealistically personable format. We’re led to believe that reality TV portrays these people in a real honest manner, when even in shows like Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars, they’re not any different than your run-of-the-mill Soap Opera actors. The truth to it is, reality is stranger than fiction, and, in many cases, more interesting as well. Of course the same can be said of movies. Everything about a movie is predetermined to fit it’s standard; from target demographic to plot synopsis. In the end, they always have something to teach, and if it’s not outright visible, we still find meaning in it.
I find it hard to believe that many card players haven’t lived a life worth telling as I imagine telling your parents you want to be a professional card player being akin to me telling my parents I want to write about video games for a living. There’s laughing and empty encouragement, but as you get older and your dream more serious, their foreheads get more wrinkly, and disappointment begins to set in. Hardships follow but ultimately, you do what you love. It’s not something people tend to nurture, but ironically find great pleasure in admiring the skill it takes. It’s weird how you’d find more respect being a bank manager who happened to be an incredible card player, when the person in question sees themselves as the opposite. Owning Mahowny, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman aka, the guy that sharts, is exactly about that, and I’d advise you to see it.
Well, in spite of all I’ve said, here are two movies that show that gambling with friends can be rewarding and two which will make you reconsider who you call ‘friend’. Although not all of these movies center around card playing, gambling is at the heart of them as well as the lesson that the company you surround yourself with can be your best friend, or your greatest enemy.
The Film: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
The Plot: Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is a thief newly released from prison on condition of parole. Of course after being imprisoned for theft the first thing Danny decides to do is hire ten other encourageable criminals to help steal $150 million from Las Vegas Casino owner, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Although not such a simple task, Danny makes sure to hire close friends and other criminals who excel at certain aspects required for the job. Danny is eventually found out by master pickpocket, Linus (Matt Damon), who was tailing Danny to discover his motivation for robbing Benedict. Linus inevitably informs the rest of the group as to Danny’s true intentions of not actually stealing the money, but stealing his former sweetheart back, Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts). It’s silly to be too shocked by that when getting with a woman is Priority Numero Uno after being released from prison.
Rusty (Brad Pitt), when told of Danny’s true scheme, is furious and threatens to leave the operation. Danny assures Rusty that his plan will not compromise the group, and Rusty obligingly stays on board. Not only does he stay on board, but he practically convinces everyone else to stay on board as well. But with $15 million as each member’s personal take, I’d say the risk is worth the reward. This boosts everyone’s morale, and reinvigorated, the group is ready to steal some cash. The only issue; Danny is now red flagged after he makes his presence to Benedict known. He’s watched like a hawk by security, disabling Danny’s part of the operation.
Why it’s Good: Linus, who had his doubts from the very beginning, is put as the head of the operation. Finally putting his skills to good use, the team realizes their full potential and steals the crap out of that money, taking in $150 million, Tess’ heart (not literally) and Benedict’s pride (super literally), in the most intricately, stylish way possible. To add insult to injury, they literally walk right past Benedict with the money in their hands. In the end, Danny goes to jail for violating his parole, but not without making Benedict look bad in front of Tess, forcing him to choose money over bitches; MOB being a popular gang term and tattoo that is dignified within that culture; although hardly ever followed. Because women usually get men intro trouble more often than money does. Makes you wonder, don’t it? Obviously, Benedict sort of cares that she left him, but only because Danny made him look like a bitch in the process. In the end, Danny gets of jail out on good behavior, as Handsome Criminals Law dictates, and rides off with Tess and his good buddy, Rusty… and A couple of Benedict’s goons tailing them.
Okay, so it doesn’t end so happily, and it takes them two more movies to resolve their issues, but it’s the same rag tag group of handsome hooligans that join Danny Ocean on his crazy heists to get the one-over on the bad guys, time and again. Granted, the movie has less to do with gambling than it does with revenge, but I’d argue the biggest gamble of all was trusting 10 people, about 8 of them who are strangers, with the impossible promise of instant fortune, and creating a meaningful and handsome relationship. With friends like these, the money’s just a perk?
The Film: The Color of Money (1986)
The Story: Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is an old pool shark, low on confidence and high on skill. After being down and out in his twilight years, he comes across a young man named Vincent (Tom Cruise), who reminds him of how great he was back in the day, skirting the law with Robert Redford (foreshadowing). After observing Vincent and the way he plays, Eddie feels he can polish him into an incredible pool shark, and they set off cross country taking advantage of anyone who picks up the sticks, along with Vincent’s conniving girlfriend. He teaches Vincent all the tricks on how to con his opponents, by gambling large amounts of money while looking like a sucker, and how to take all the monies home. As they travel, Eddie begins to gain back his confidence and feels like he’s ready to get back in the game and go legit for once in his life. Although he feels like Vincent is too much of a show boat, and blows a few jobs, Eddie feels it’s a matter of time before Vincent finally gets it through his thick skull.
Eddie and Vincent end up clashing with each other, partly because of Vincent’s bitchy girlfriend, and they part ways. Eddie sees this as his chance to enter the tournament circuit, and redeem himself for all his past transgressions, by playing a clean game of pool. But Vincent sees this as another chance to turn a profit, as he’s perfected Eddie’s craft. Eddie’s created a monster now, and what he considered to be his protege, maybe even his legacy, he now sees Vincent as his greatest sin against Pool-kind. Eddie and Vincent are eventually pitted against each other in the tournament, and Vincent wins convincingly. Vincent later confronts Eddie with a wad of cash, Eddie’s cut, since Vincent threw the match between them for a bigger payout. Disgusted that his victory wasn’t earned, Eddie refuses the money and forfeits his next match, as his win against Vincent is now tainted, tainted with the color of money. Eddie challenges Vincent to a match of pure skill to see who will take the stick and balls home.
Why It’s Bad: In order to regain his confidence, Eddie corrupts a young man with incredible potential and inadvertently turns him into a greater con artist than he, himself, ever could have hoped for. Midway through the movie, Eddie becomes a voice of reason, now seeing the error of his ways, but all his self-realized faults are now in Vincent and he’s almost unapologetic of the fact. It’s hard to say who’s the bad guy, but I think it’s Eddie. He literally barters his sin for Vincent’s naivete and becomes the better for it, while judging Vincent’s lack of respect for the game, from on high in his ivory tower. You could argue, had Vincent never agreed to seek Eddie’s tutelage, he would have been spared of all the grief Eddie endured, in his later years. He’s destined to become that reflective old man that Eddie was, and will eventually pass the buck of sin on another young chum full of potential, in order to gain his own shot at redemption, and a spiritual sequel to this film. This is what we call a recurring cycle, and it’s a bitch. And that bitches name is Fast Eddie Felson.
The Film: Rounders (1998)
The Plot: Mike (Matt Damon) has $30,000 burning a hole in his wallet, and what better way to spend it than by taking on a Russian mob boss who’s infamous for cheating? Needless to say, Mike loses it all, but you never know unless you try, right? Distraught from losing all his money in an instant, he decides to go the straight and narrow path, goes to law school and finds a steady girlfriend, who nags him constantly. His best friend, Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of jail seven months after Mike lost everything. Worm entices Mike to partner with him in some card games, in order to make some easy money, and you know, to hang out with Edward Norton. Apprehensive at first, Mike decides to help Worm out, and justice, like lightning, he’s quickly roped back into his old ways. If I were in Mike’s shoes I would have directed Worm to Lucky Nugget online casino and wished him good luck in winning enough in online pokies to pay off his own debt while I attempted to swallow my half-burnt steak dinner as my girlfriend complained about the wine selection. You tell me which sounds better.
But Worm isn’t the greatest guy in the world, as if his getting out of jail wasn’t a big tip off. Worm, already owing thousands of dollars due to his habit, pulls Mike into his troubles, creating turmoil between Mike’s school work and his girlfriend. Worm is given five days to pay his debts, and Mike, being the great guy that he is, decides to help him every step of the way. But much like Eddie Felson, Mike opts to do it the clean way. And being the gratuitous person that he is, Worm decides to go against Mike’s wishes and gets caught cheating during an important high stakes game. Mike and Worm are thrown out of the game and lose all the money they had. Having only one day left to come up with the money, Worm decides to skip town, forcing Mike to either wait and die, or find some way to make the money back. Mike’s law professor, who he’s actually pretty close with, lends Mike the money he needs and Mike returns to where his trouble began seven months prior; The Russian Mob Boss (John Malkovic). Talk about a gamble.
Why It’s Bad: Worm is basically non-existent the last 30 minutes of the movie. As far as the audience knows, he’s believed to have skipped town. Although Mike has already cut ties with Worm, the damage is done, and in just a couple weeks, Mike’s life hangs in the balance. Had Worm not entered the picture, Mike would have been on his merry way to finishing his law degree, and maybe marrying his bitchy girlfriend a few years down the road, and downing scotch like water every evening in his office, just before his assistant goes down on him, while he reminisces of how his life would be had Worm entered his life, and how his Friday’s are reduced to eating his wife’s crappy food, instead of playing poker with his buddies. Although more of a bittersweet life, at least he didn’t have Worm fuck it all up Right?
Oddly enough, getting used and shat on by Worm has the opposite effect on Mike than it would most people. Mike’s resolve is tested, and found worthy. He beats The Russian Malkovic at his own game, the clean way, dumps his craggy girlfriend, pays Worm’s debt, which he’s probably already doubled somewhere else, and also pays the debt he owes his professor. Not only that, but he recouped his thirty grand that he initially lost! After coming out on top, he decides to ride this high and takes his chances out on the road. He drops out of law school to enter the World Series of Poker tournament a few weeks later. You can’t spell “win” without “in,” and you can’t be all in unless you’re willing to put it all on the line.
The Film: The Sting (1973)
The Plot: Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) just finished a big con with his best buds. After blowing all the money he stole, he soon discovers that the guy they conned was connected to Joliet’s biggest gangster, Doyle Lonnegan. Lonnegan kills Hooker’s partner, causing Hooker to flee to Chicago before he meets the same end. Before he died, Hooker’s buddy, Coleman, advises Hooker to seek out Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), an old friend who knows the Art of the Long Con. Hooker then pleads with Gondorff to help him get over on Lonnegan for all he has.
Reluctant at first, Gondorff decides to help Hooker using an outdated con called, “The Wire.” Although it didn’t contain any of the intensity and grittiness found in the HBO counterpart, “The Wire” does call for a mass amount of colorful people in order to carry out the plan. If you’re familiar with the King of The Hill episode, The Substitute Spanish Prisoner, you’ll be familiar with how this plan works. They rent out an empty basement and convert it into a gambling parlor. There they plant fake horse racing bets and trick Lonnegan into thinking he’s winning. It’s like Punk’d for gangsters, except dozens of people die in this version. Convinced this system works, Lonnegan is told by Hooker, who is faking he’s someone that Lonnegan is not trying to kill, states he wants to take over Gondorff’s fake betting parlor. Intrigued, Lonnegan bites at the chance to take out some competition, but never manages to find Hooker, because he’s sucks with remembering people.
Eventually the day arrives to finalize the con on Lonnegan, and he arrives to place a $500,000 bet on a specific horse to win. After the race starts and the horse doesn’t look to be fake-winning, Hooker tells him the bet was supposed to be for Lonnegan to bet on the horse placing, not winning. This is why reading comprehension is sooo important. Lonnegan tries to renig on the bet, but it’s too late. The FBI strolls in, to carry him and Gondorff away, and it seems as if Hooker ratted them both out. An FBI officer in charge of the sting operation, Polk, informs Hooker he’s now safe, which causes Gondorff to go ape shit, pull his gat out and puts Hooker out of his misery. Polk then turns his pistol on Gondorff, leaving Lonnegan to wonder if losing $500,000 isn’t such a bad thing after all. As Lonnegan is rushed out of the parlor, Gondorff and Hooker get up revealing it was all part of the scheme. The “FBI” officers were in on “The Wire” as well, leaving everyone involved to split the money evenly. Hooker and Gondorf then leave the room with no vig, content in knowing they ruined the man who killed their mutual friend, then running over to another studio to make Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Best Friends Forever!
- The “Butch” Agamemnon and The “Sundance” Prometheus