Split Decision: Place Your Bets

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

In honor of Solo: A Star Wars Story, what your favorite scene that features characters gambling?

I love con man movies, and David Mamet’s electrifying debut, House of Games is classic of the genre. A psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) is seduced by the behavior of a grifter (Joe Mantegna), with unforgettable results. An early scene in the film involves a poker game where the stakes escalates when someone puts a gun on the table. It features a terrific reveal, but it is only one of many in this remarkable film. Mamet’s subsequent film, The Spanish Prisoner, a decade later, is just as good.  And for the trifecta, I’m a sucker for Focus, the Will Smith-Margot Robbie con artist film, which has a nifty, extended gambling scene where the pair bet against B.D. Wong at a football game. Gary M. Kramer

This is probably cheating, but I’m new and am pretending to be naïve. I think of Miller’s Crossing, maybe my favorite film, as a movie about gambling that only takes place between the losses. In the opening scene, crime boss Albert Finney offers to settle Gabriel Byrne’s horse race debts with a frequently mentioned but never present bookie (“You haven’t played a winner in six weeks, people’ll speak ill of me if I let him break your legs”). Byrne says he’ll pull himself out of the debt by his own bootstraps (read: more gambling). The title credits roll, the music swells and we rejoin Byrne after he’s lost his hat and all his money to a night of cards and blackout drinking. He wakes up, makes another bet and staggers into the rest of the film. By the end of the movie, he’s earned enough to get straight with the bookie… and he’s put in a bet on an upcoming boxing match. There’s nothing sexy here. Nobody’s blowing on the dice. Gambling in Miller’s Crossing is pure compulsion, and in a movie about power struggles, our protagonist’s first move is to slide from bad to worse debt. —

I know absolutely nothing about playing cards or gambling. I am that annoying guy that needs all the rules re-explained to me everytime I am about to play a game with someone. I can’t remember the rules for Blackjack no matter how many times I have played it. Even so, I love watching people gamble and play cards in movies, especially when they seem to really know what they are doing. Once again, the problem is that since I don’t really know what is happening when they are gambling, I don’t really follow, I just think they look cool. So I will probably go with the most memorable one at the moment, in Casino when they use a cattle prod on the guy who is helping someone cheat at cards, and they take him back and use a hammer to break one of his fingers. Now THAT’S something I can understand.Andy Elijah


This is likely the most obvious one, but Daniel Craig’s first foray as James Bond in Casino Royale contains what is still the best high stakes poker game ever put to celluloid.   What can be better than a poker-face stare down between Craig and Mads Mikkelsen as the players show their cards to one-up each other for $115 million dollars?!  Oh, and this is after Bond loses the game initially, gets re-staked, AND recovers from being poisoned by Mikkelsen’s girlfriend henchman.  Come to think of it, Casino Royale may be my favorite Bond film.

Runner-Up: Mel Gibson taking on Alfred Molina and besting his straight flush with a royal flush in Maverick.  I’ll have to go back and see if that flick is as fun as I remember…  

I was initially going to say Casino Royale, but Jeff said it all better than I ever could. And yes, Jeff, that IS the best Bond movie. So in lieu of that, I am choosing the best moment in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery as not just my favorite gambling scene, but also probably the most spot-on moment of Bond parody in existence. 

The scene involves a quick game of blackjack in which the lead evil henchman, Number Two, is dealt a very high hand. A hand which any respectable blackjack player would see fit to let stand. Number Two, however, requests that the dealer give him another card. The dealer asks if he’s sure about making such a risky move, unaware that Number Two has X-Ray capabilities in his eyepatch and knows that the next card will give him a perfect 21.
“I like to live dangerously,” he assures.
Austin Powers is dealt a supremely low hand. Something like an 8. “I’ll stay,” he remarks to the dealer. The dealer, seeing that this is a guaranteed loss no matter how you slice it, urges Powers to take another card. Powers refuses, noting, “I ALSO like to live dangerously.”
It’s so so so dumb, but it highlights the way in which James Bond seems to always win at cards using nothing but confidence and swagger. Not so for Powers, who loses the hand. Fortunately, he later wins when he kills Number Two in the bathroom. Dan Scully

For me, great gambling scenes either involve James Bond or Paul Newman. Not only does the title character in Cool Hand Luke get his name from a poker hand, but The Sting is a con artist movie all about conning a gambler out of a whole lot of money as revenge. There’s a complicated plot, but the con starts with Newman’s character hustling his way into their mark’s (Robert Shaw) private poker game, acting obnoxiously, and eventually out-cheating Shaw’s character for $15,000. The scene is anchored by perfect performances by Newman and Shaw, and the direction actively deceives the audience in order to maximize tension and surprise.  Ryan Silberstein

I don’t really have a love of gambling moments, but I did say the following to Dan while discussing this split decision question:
Me: “What about that one movie?”
Dan: “Mississippi Grind?”
Me: “Yeah! That one about gambling.”

So Mississippi Grind is my answer.—Jenna Kuerzi

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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