James Bond (Daniel Craig, “Spectre”) is on a private jet to Montenegro, where he will play in the world’s biggest poker game: $150 million in felt, organized by a global terrorist financier and a evil mathematician. , The Number (Mads Mikkelsen, “At the door of eternity”). During the flight, he states a simple credo: “In poker, you never play your hand, you play the man in front of you.” Interestingly enough, this was identical to the statement I fact about the game in my first entry to this series of poker on the western “Maverick”. For this second installment in my series exploring the implications of unrealistic portrayals of poker in film, we’ll look at the 2006 Bond film, “Casino Royale.” I will focus on how the characters interact with the film’s chosen game, Texas Hold’em. As a clever spy thriller, its natural overlap with poker’s complex mind games should provide mutual enhancement, but how well do the cards and logic really hold up?
The unfortunate part of “Casino Royale” is how often it violates the principle it so smugly lays out on this roll. If Bond says his poker prowess comes from skill and not luck, then every hand he plays in the film should be judged by that same principle. And just like most poker movies, “Royale” cuts corners. This is obviously leaning into ridiculous odds, because if the stakes are so crazy, why shouldn’t the hands be too?
Almost every poker movie has an establishment game in its first act, both to tease the finale and to showcase the characters’ skills. “Royale” splits this feature between two different games: a Le Cipher plays and a Bond plays. Le Chiffre’s final hand goes like this: He goes all-in and simply declares, “I have two pair, and you have a 17.4% chance of making your straight,” to a trembling, wide-eyed opponent. It’s a brilliant line in a totally realistic scenario. Two pair against a four-card straight draw is a perfectly conceivable hand, as is Le Cipher’s accurate reading of the man in front of him. It’s simple, powerful storytelling, one of the film’s most compelling hands.
The first Bond game, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. After pursuing a corrupt Greek henchman in the Bahamas, he sits down at the resort’s casino, directly across from the man. However, the hand Bond shows is neither realistic nor a demonstration of his skill. The tension continued to mount until his opponent moved all-in, throwing the keys to his Aston Martin to coax Bond. After the two push, Bond’s opponent turns over three kings, only to be beaten by Bond’s three aces. It’s the kind of hand that at least makes you scratch your head, no matter how well you know poker. The odds of both flops are less than one in 400, and the odds of Bond’s set beating his opponent’s are even lower.
More importantly, this scene breaks the movie’s poker rule. You don’t have to be an expert player to double down with three aces when your opponent has kings. In fact, even someone who has never played a hand of poker in their life could do just that. The truth is, Bond wins by luck – luck that diminishes the audience’s confidence in his card-playing skills for the rest of the film.
If rolling three aces and winning the Aston Martin was the only outrageous feat Bond pulled off in the movie, that would be one thing. But when he finally sits down at the ten-man table in Montenegro to bet $10 million of British government money, his luck remains in disbelief.
Of course, a poker movie trope that’s as common as the setup game is the crushing hand, the bad beat that destroys a protagonist’s confidence and their chip stack. In “Royale,” the crushing hand plays out like this: a prized pot turns heads before the river (the last community card), and Bond reveals his full house, kings over aces, to the camera. He and Le Chiffre both push, and before you can even roll your eyes, the latter flips over his quadruple jacks. It’s yet another example of Bond’s earnings fluctuating wildly with his luck – really, terribly mind-blowing luck that the film imposes on him – rather than his own reading and arithmetic abilities.
At the same time, a poker trope that “Royale” impressively subverts is the obvious telltale. Typically, when poker movies walk an audience through a character’s point of view, they hyperbolize the subconscious body language an opponent uses to telegraph their cards. Here, however, the movie misleads us by insinuating that the cipher is about touching his cheek in a specific way when he’s bluffing. Cleverly, we as an audience and Bond himself fall into this trap, and Bond loses big in this particular confrontation.
If luck rules Bond’s poker so far in the film, it absolutely dominates his final hand. It’s almost as if the film is asking itself, “Which hands are left?” What hands could surpass everything in front of them? Miraculously, the four remaining players threw their chips into the pot only for Bond to show a straight flush. He stops a global terrorist network and saves the day thanks to – and I can’t stress this enough – sheer luck.
Perhaps this incredibly good fate is an unintended synecdoche for the action series as a whole. Amid all his tireless crime investigation, jumping and swerving, near-death brushes, maybe Bond is just lucky. He’s a trained and scrupulous badass, but he couldn’t do what he does without a considerable fortune in his favor.
Royale poker also offers insight into the critical importance of mastering the mechanics of poker if the game is central to character development. Stating such a self-righteous principle as Bond’s at the start of the film is ambitious, but without careful consideration of the odds at stake, long-term odds after long-term odds wear down both movie logic and arcs. of characters. It’s hard to believe that Bond is the poker mastermind he claims to be, because in almost every hand presented, he doesn’t have control. Luck is.
One of the misconceptions of “Royale” from the very beginning is that a Texas Hold’Em shark wins its hands in showdowns. A more impressive approach would be for the film to demonstrate Bond’s strong ability to bluff his opponents with huge pots. It would be just as true to the character’s wry, tongue-in-cheek disposition and consistent with how real-world professionals play their opponents rather than their cards. That way, the movie could save its admittedly well-shot climactic showdown for last. Instead, where “Royale” should be tight and suspenseful, it falls for plenty of poker movie cliches.
If you think I’m an over-analyzing cynic at this point, I can’t blame you. But believe me, there is light at the end of this tunnel, and more specifically at the end of this series. Poker movies are wrong, but some are much better than others.