Casino Royale Flush: What Do Hollywood and Poker Tournaments Have In Common?


In the wake of the sensational 2017 poker thriller Molly’s Game, one thing became clear to us: poker and movies go together as well as popcorn and movies. Since the early days of filmmaking, poker has taken centre stage in many titles like Casino Royale where the action focuses on everyone’s favourite secret agent taking part in a high-stakes poker tournament as well as shoot-outs and fist fights. It’s hard to say out of everything featured in the film which is the most exciting because while the thought of Bond taking down a group of armed baddies with nothing more than a pistol and his two hands is always pulse pounding, the intensity supplied by a couple close hands of poker can be just as exhilarating.

Obviously there’s enough interest in poker as the popular Poker After Dark show made a comeback on PokerGO after the series ended its run on NBC in 2011. The show features top-level professional players facing off in a multitude of poker variants and is known for insightful, yet colourful commentary playing to the backdrop of some of the biggest moments the sport has to offer.

As a matter of fact, cinema has even tried its hand to emulate the excitement these players produce with The Grand, a flick that invites many actors as well as real-world poker players into the story such as Ray Romano, Jason Alexander, Doyle Brunson and Phil Hellmuth. The 2008 film was a flop only making $115,879 domestically, but other poker-inspired movies such as John Dahl’s Rounders and The Cincinatti Kid managed to make not only a fair bit of money with Rounders bringing in nearly $23 million but also a mark on the industry as a whole.

And that got us wondering: What do live and online poker tournaments and movies have in common? What big similarities create such a unique merging when the two meet? To that end, we’re going to do our best to give you the three biggest traits shared by films and poker tournaments in an effort to fully understand just what makes the pairing so satisfying.

John Malkovich throws chips on the table as he squares up against Matt Damon as a poker savant

#1 Suspense

The whole concept of poker and wagering that you can either outplay or outsmart your opponent is built around suspense. At some point in a game, two or more players will feel they are making the better move and the round will come to a decisive point. Films are constructed in largely the same way as the story will often build to a big character or plot-defining moment that grabs at the audience’s emotion even though they’re not physically involved or invested. That’s how you maintain viewers’ interest and that’s how you continuously push out content.

This rings true especially for slasher/thriller movies such as No Country for Old Men or Halloween where specific scenes have you on the edge of your seat. In No Country for Old Menwhen Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff Bell enters the hotel room that Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh’s is hiding in, the viewer is left frantically wondering whether the assassin will be killed or the senior lawman will bite the dust. A few tense minutes pass and Bell leaves the room without a confrontation. It’s the thought that something could happen that riles up the audience and to that same end, live and online poker tournaments draw in viewers. Many of these tournaments have players with storied pasts and icons are constantly facing off for absurd amounts of money that are sometimes determined by one hand.

A great example of poker-building suspense but actually delivering is the first meeting of then Internet player Tom Dwan taking out poker hall-of-famer Phil Hellmuth in a game of heads up. While it might not be shot as well as most mentionable movies, the heart and drama are still very much there. Playing for tens of thousands of dollars is bound to incite that sort of suspense.

Amateur poker player taking a quick cash bath after a 2nd place Vegas poker tournament. Source: KKTV 11 News

#2 Stars

Speaking of Dwan and Hellmuth, one of the main reasons people love following Texas Holden and other poker tournaments as much as they do is for the stars playing in them. In many cases these are players who have been around for decades – players that both fledgling and veteran players try their best to emulate just like sports players. Sounds familiar? If not, just think about your favourite films. Many of those pieces aren’t your favourite just because of the plot but rather the actors that brought their own flair and personality to that plot.

Take casino thriller Ocean’s Eleven for example. While the movie was a remake of the rat pack classic with a similar plot, many people were interested because of the star-studded cast. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Bernie Mac are just a few of the big players that brought people to the movie theatres.

Poker stars also put eyes on screens as the presence of Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Laak or Mike Matusow is bound to grab the attention of people who have been following poker games and their variants, from Texas Holdem and Omaha to 7-card stud and fast-fold versions such as Flopomania. To this same end, online poker sites draw in players by showcasing professional players being a part of or sponsoring their website. accomplishes this by having Swedish poker player Martin Jacobson’s picture on their page along with a title saying he’s “joined the team.” The man who won $10  million at WSOP 2014 has indeed joined a team which includes Chris Moorman, who’s been part of the Global Poker Index Top 10 and German TV host Natalie Hof. Partnering with famous poker players certainly catches people’s eyes and draws them to online poker sites alongside sign-up bonuses and other promotions.

But that’s because viewers are just as much in it for the stars as they are for the plot or game that interested them in the first place.

#3 Money

The highest-grossing movie franchises can reach $6.53 billion!

Money may very well be the root of all evil, but it makes for a hell of a good time when watching people compete over it. Although people aren’t necessarily competing in movies the same way they are in poker tournaments, they’re still competing nonetheless with the highest-grossing movie being the strongest competitor and the first-place winner being the best/luckiest player.

The highest-grossing film of all time was Avatar earning more than $2.7 billion worldwide. While poker tournaments can’t exactly compete with that number, you have to remember that the highest first-place payout for a poker tournament was $12 million in the world Series of Poker in 2006 going to Jamie Gold. That’s a lot of dough to go to one guy!

It’s for this reason that poker and movies find another similarity as both of them are looking for the same thing: a nice paycheck. Knowing this, fans of watching poker tournaments or movies can expect quality programming with so much buying power on the line.

Who has got the highest stack of chips?

So while many of these comparisons are basic in nature, they make up the basis for viewership in the two fields and give us more than enough reason to tune in. If only we could make money by watching movies and betting on the box office outcome. Then we could really turn a profit!

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