How Cinematic Maestros Utilise the Story-Telling Power of Classic Gambling Games


A great deal of the art behind a film comes from the creators’ ability to relay important information to you without having a character all-but directly inform you as such. When people in movies have to spell everything out for the audience, you know that very little work has gone into the cinematography: oftentimes, it’s the scenes where people nothing is said but everything is shown that are the most captivating.

The best ways to utilise such show-not-tell sequences is to offer a vision of a situation that people can relate to, or at least understand on a base level. It’s why so many villains are introduced in the midst of some violent activity, and why creatives regularly turn to storied, classic gambling games. Everyone knows how the games work as they’ve been around for so long, as well as the persona surrounding those who play.

Public perception of classic gambling games and people who find success at the tables hasn’t changed over the last several decades, which has been further helped by cinema’s continued draw to them. So, when set out in movies, people can easily understand the set-up and then focus on what else the creators are showing.

It’s their lucky day

While all gambling games are played alongside a degree of luck, some are purely luck-based. The millions, if not billions, of superstitious people from around the world, find games like roulette and its many new variants, such as auto, sapphire, blaze, double ball, and night club more appealing because it all just comes down to the luck of the spin. As such, luck at roulette would infer that you’re having a lucky day, as is often used in the movies.

This idea of needing to have luck on your side is epitomised in the German flick Run Lola Run, in which, Lola has to run around to try to get enough money to save her boyfriend’s life. She comes across a roulette table in a casino, puts 100 marks down on 20, wins, and then rolls the 3500 marks of winnings on 20 again, proving that it’s her luck day once more.

Proving superior intelligence to the ‘man’

All casino floor games see the player wager against the house, with a house edge calculated to ensure that, over time, the house takes a larger cut. However, blackjack has become unique in this regard because players can use skill and strategy to win money from the house, making it a recognised game of persistence and intelligence.

Throughout the 1990s, a team of players strategised and coordinated to conquer blackjack tables in the United States, known as the MIT Blackjack Team. That real-life story became the basis for the movie 21, which leaned on the intelligence, quick thinking, and all-conquering desire needed to beat the casinos through the game of blackjack. Players being skilled in the game alone was enough to give the movie a sense of intellect and raise the prestige of the team members.

Beat the players, not the game

Poker is distinct from most other classic gambling games as it pits players against each other as opposed to seeing them take on the house. While there is luck in play by the deal of the cards, poker comes down to how well you can read others and force them to react favourably, making it more of a sporting affair. Those who win at poker can claim themselves superior to their fellow players as they literally take their chips.

James Bond is notorious for frequenting casinos as they exude class, money, and the ability to get lucky. Always the case with the spy, it’s never about the game at hand: there’s still something else in play, with the game merely being a vehicle to help portray this. This best put on show in Casino Royale, where the stakes really aren’t on the cards being dealt. In fact, to capture the real poker tension, they hired a formal poker consultant to capture the subtleties of the classic card game.

While they can all be found under the same roof, classic casino games can be used differently by skilful moviemakers to relay critical information about a setting and characters.