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Why is Fictional Poker so Hard to Watch? A Look at an Episode of HBO's "Luck"

Matt Damon

In the new era of poker, where terms like VPIP and range merging are more widely understood than ever, it’s very difficult to create credible poker entertainment. Poker players become irritated when they see outlandish hands or minor mistakes on the big screen or on television. Before the poker boom, people enjoyed old school poker flicks like Maverick, The Cincinatti Kid, and The Sting. Now, these films are picked apart for infinitesimally small reasons.

Even Rounders, poker’s cult classic, isn’t safe from criticism. A YouTube user named floopymann commented on a clip of Matt Damon’s hand against Johnny Chan, saying, “And that is the story of most wannabes. I had 10 bb, I made a 4 bet with nothing and he folded.”

That’s harsh.

If any poker scene deserves criticism, it’s the last poker scene from Casino Royale. As if playing $500,000/$1,000,0000 wasn’t ridiculous enough, the writer decides to give all four players the virtual nuts, including James Bond, who has a straight flush. All four players then slow-roll one another, an act which in real life would lead to a triple homicide, especially from the player who had aces-full.

Two weeks ago, HBO premiered a new drama show, Luck, based on the horse-racing business. In the second episode of the season, Jerry — played by Jason Gedrick — plays poker at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Casino Los Angeles. As usual, the poker scenes were underwhelming.

In the first poker sequence, the opening shot is of a plate of eggs covered in ketchup. Strange, right? Well, once you hear the buzzing of a vacuum cleaner, you realize this scene takes place in the morning and that Jerry has been playing poker all night. The camera racks to the board, which has just been completed: {6-Diamonds}{8-Spades}{7-Spades}{3-Diamonds}{K-Spades}. Jerry bets $2,000, and then we hear epic music as if it’s the biggest bet ever made. The scene changes to the horse track, but seconds later we’re back in the casino.

The action is on a man named Lester, upon whom, after about ten seconds of banter, Jerry calls the clock. There is an intercut of a short horse race, and then we’re back at the table where Lester has 15 seconds. He says he made his flush on the river and then moves all-in. Jerry sweats his cards ({10-Hearts}{9-Hearts} for the straight), then calls, turning them over. Lester, very slowly, turns his cards over one by one. The first is the {10-Spades}; the second is the {a-Spades}. Jerry freaks out and goes and gets more money.

When we return to the poker table — nearly a half an hour later — the board is again completed: {10-Hearts}{k-Clubs}{q-Clubs}{9-Clubs}{4-Spades}. Jerry takes a peak at {q-Hearts}{8-Hearts}, and calls all-in for what looks like $3,300. He shows first — again — and Lester slow-rolls him. Again. This time he has a set of tens {10-Diamonds}{10-Spades}. Jerry freaks out again, then pulls out a wad of $100 bills and slams them on the table.

Before the third and final poker scene, Jerry runs to his car, grabs $25,000, puts it in a plastic bag and runs back into the casino. When we return to the table, a floor person announces that Jerry and Lester, while heads-up in a pot, we're allowed to use cash that was not on the table and put it into action.


The flop was {q-Diamonds}{8-Diamonds}{a-Clubs}, and for the first time, Lester showed first: {a-Hearts}{q-Hearts}. The rail buzzed with excitement. It was Jerry’s turn to show, and if he ran to his car to grab an additional $25,000, he has to have no worse than a set of eights, right? No, instead he has {k-Diamonds}{k-Clubs}.

What is going on??????

Jerry looks sick as the {2-Clubs} turns, and one railbird emits a really strange grunt. Miraculously, the {k-Hearts} spikes on the river — who didn’t see that one coming — and Jerry breaks into a huge smile. The rail explodes into cheers as if Jerry skillfully navigated his way to the two-outer, and the floor person announces that normal house rules will resume. Jerry then asks the floor to cash him out, executing the sickest hit-and-run in history.

Upon further review, poker and entertainment should be mutually exclusive unless John Dahl, David Levien, and Brian Koppelman are involved. It’s too tilting to watch. Believe me, I don’t expect poker scenes to be perfect — the game is rarely “perfect,” even when the best in the world are playing — I just want them to be believable. These three sequences from Luck are mind-blowing, especially the final one where they make up rules, and have no place on television. We’re trying to get this thing legalized and regulated online, and portrayals like this make it look like we’re playing slots.

Perhaps we as poker fans should stick with nonfiction; Jay Rosenkrantz’s Boom documentary is currently in the editing room, and according to their Facebook page, they’re trying to screen it sometime before June. Now that’s something that we’ll all be able to watch and enjoy.

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