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From the Computer Screen to the Big Screen

Jack Beresford places his bets on three upcoming poker movies, including Rounders 2 – and cries us a river over Hollywood’s past poker flops.

Sometimes watching a bad film can be akin to a miserable session of online poker – with each bad hand or ill-advised bet, you revel in the absurdity of the situation, because if you didn’t laugh you would cry. Or break something.

That was the feeling that came over me when watching the trailer for Poker Night, a new thriller starring Ron Perlmann with a fresh twist on the card-playing movie subgenre – one that ignores the action on the green felt in favour of guns, running around and more guns.

Another poker-based film, All The King’s Men, is due for release later this year. But given that the protagonist has the cringe-worthy moniker Ace Macbeth, I wouldn’t bet high on that one, either.

News of these productions left me banging my head against my computer screen, and yet a few months ago there was a glimmer of hope, something that suggested Hollywood finally understood what make online poker players tick at the movies – Rounders was getting a sequel.

Released in 1998 and starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton, the film succeeded in showcasing the highs and lows of poker, as well as the way hands really play out – sometimes absorbing, other times mundane.

Its biggest triumph was in realising that the stars are not the cards being played, but the men behind them, from Norton’s unreliable Worm to John Malkovich’s villainous Teddy KGB. Every move demonstrated a character’s strengths and weaknesses and how they shaped the drama.

For all the praise levelled at the production, the film generated just $22m at the box office, off the back of $12m in production costs. The film has attracted a cult following since, though, and with Texas Hold’em an increasingly global phenomenon, Harvey Weinstein is talking up a sequel.

“The guys have a great idea, a way to make it more international where you start the card game in Paris, that’s all I want to say,” he said last December.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out to be another bad beat, like Rounders co-writer Brian Koppelman’s more recent poker movie, Runner Runner. To say it fails to hit the mark would be a bit like stating that the Titanic’s maiden voyage didn’t go particularly well.

The reality is that, while playing poker online is thrilling, creating a film featuring Justin ‘Trousersnake’ Timberlake et al enjoying the ride translates to scenes involving the star smiling – while in a vest – in front of a computer.

A film focusing on the online format of the game was likely to struggle, but Hollywood has been making a mess of poker movies for some time.

A great example comes with The Cincinnati Kid where Steve McQueen, in the titular role, goes up against Edward G Robinson’s Lancey Howard. Here “The Man” beats “The Kid” with a full house against a straight flush; something Anthony Holden estimates is a 45,102,784 to 1 shot of actually occurring, adding that “The Man” would likely have folded to the third street bet prior to any showdown.

Four decades later, poker fans were pulling their hair out over Casino Royale – a film in which they were so worried viewers might get bored by the poker action, they had 007 poisoned during a break in play to liven things up. Going up against Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre – who cries blood in arguably the worst tell ever – in a four-way final table we see all four go all-in for millions on the river.

They reveal, preposterously, a flush, full house, superior full house and straight flush – yet none of them bet the turn.

So let’s give Rounders 2 the benefit of the doubt. As long as Matt Damon doesn’t end up restarting his heart with a portable defibrillator behind the wheel of a Jaguar, it can’t be any worse a poker film than those – can it?

Photo: Matt Damon in Rounders (1998)

> Copyright: Miramax Films