by Indy Zoeller
Poker is a great metaphor. The artful bluff, the showdown, the highs and lows, the agonizing bad beats and triumphant reversals – there is much of life in poker. So much that it makes even a visually uninteresting game (it’s essentially people sitting at a table pushing around pieces of paper and plastic chips) a televised and widely watched sport.
This isn’t a list of the best-portrayed poker games in media. Actual poker players know that very rarely does realistic poker make for climatic moments (see Casino Royale for details).
Rather, this is a list of poker scenes where poker is used as a way to communicate something, a way for the characters to explore some aspect of the human condition in an interesting way.
The Sopranos – The Happy Wanderer (Season 2, episode 6)
Ah, the sore loser. The illogical rage that comes from losing repeatedly. We’ve all had a bad game of Monopoly and experienced this. Everything bothers you; you lash out over nothing. You feel like you are destined to lose, like it’s already over, and somehow the fates have conspired to piss you off.
Silvio’s reaction to the cheese being swept from under him is so spot-on it’s not even funny. And as he explodes, the reaction of the other players – quiet, almost embarrassed, no one laughing but all of them wanting to… it’s incredibly true to life.
We’ve all known a Silvio, and unless you’re a goddamn saint, you’ve been one, too.
The Wire – Refugees (Season 4, episode 4)
Here’s poker in all its glory. Poker is about truth and lies, and distinguishing one from the other. Watch as drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield is smoothly, artfully talked into a bad call. And as he loses, watch for one of those hilarious lines that makes The Wire great. But the real power of this scene comes later. After losing big, Marlo waits for a ride near a grocer, buying bottled water and stealing a lollipop. The security guard notices, follows him out, and calls him on it.
It’s a powerful moment. “You want it to be one way,” says Marlo. He’s articulating what the guard is trying to say, which is: “you can’t steal in front of me; I have the power of the law behind me.” The guard taking a stand, trying to impose his version of reality, his conception of ‘The Way Things Should Be’.
And then, in one of the show’s most chilling, amazing moments, Marlo says: “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”
With a few words, Marlo shatters his illusions. Because in reality, the guard has no power. None at all. He’s a man in a uniform with a flimsy kind of hypothetical power, and Marlo, on those streets, in that places, wears a crown. Truth and lies. Reality and unreality (omg that’s the name of this site!).
The West Wing – Evidence of Things Not Seen (Season 4, episode 20)
Here, a poker game serves as a kind of scorekeeping for a separate argument. CJ and Toby offer different interpretations of the same story. Toby sees the story as a failure of humanity, but CJ spins it in a positive light. The moves and counter-moves of the poker game mirror the beats of the argument.
The interesting thing here is that when CJ wins the hand, she seems to win the argument as well. Though they’re not logically linked, the game and the debate are linked narratively, so that when CJ lays down her full house, it seems like the final point. As illogical as it is, this kind of thing happens in real life, too.
Sports Night – Shoe Money Tonight (Season 1, episode 10)
Here’s the same device taken to a more meaningful – and more personal – degree. Jeremy and Natalie are having a fight. A recent couple, Jeremy blew off Natalie’s ‘date night’ to play a regularly scheduled game of tennis with a friend, who happens to be a beautiful actress.
As they bicker during a game of poker, Jeremy finally takes a stand– he links his own trustworthiness, his word, to his honestly about their respective hands. It’s a moment that’s played for both comedy and heart. Poker tells us something about ourselves: what we’re willing to risk, how much we’ll let emotions effect our decisions. Most importantly, what we’re willing to fight for.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – All Good Things… (Season 7, episode 26)
Star Trek: TNG used poker to great effect through its long run. Frequently it was used to showcase part of the human condition, especially as it applied (or didn’t apply) to Data. This clip is from the very last episode of the series, and as a nice counterpoint to most poker scenes involving conflict and deception, this one evokes friendship and comradery.
In the fading moments of the episode, the senior staff gathers for one last game. Throughout the series, Captain Picard has never joined the game. After an episode that’s almost entirely focused on challenging Picard’s sense of self, he finds himself joining the crew at the poker table.
As he shuffles the cards, he says almost to himself, “I should have done this a long time ago.” Troi replies, “You were always welcome.” It’s a genuinely heartfelt moment, hitting the themes of solidarity and friendship and highlighting them as the final message of the series.