High stakes: classic card games on-screen

3 minutes



Classic card games never go unnoticed in cinema. They’re a perfect catalyst for creating pivotal plot points and as film fans, we know to pay attention whenever there’s a deck in hand.

But, just how do writers and directors turn a simple card game into a scene-setting scenario? What’s really going on in the creative process? Here are two lesser-known examples to help us understand.

The catalyst
A catalyst – aka an inciting incident – is a scene that sets the story rolling. Something that shakes up the plot and sets a path for the main character. Card games have become some of the greatest catalysts over the years, mainly because of their suspense and decisive outcomes.

Now, we all know classic card games for what they are, entertainment. More people than ever visit online casinos and card games are becoming increasingly accessible. According to Bonus Finder’s Live Blackjack Canada section, playing live casino via the internet “marries the thrills of a real land-based casino with the comfort and convenience of online gaming”. So, when watching movies featuring card games, many of us can relate to the game in play. Directors know how to take this familiarity to build suspense and create dramatic turns.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a lesser-known, but an outstanding example of a card game catalyst. A rogue mobster cheats the unsuspecting main character in an extremely high stakes game, setting the wheels in motion for a dramatic, action-packed British gangster movie.

Guy Ritchie is synonymous with creating exciting on-screen catalysts and many critics agree this was one of his finest. We as viewers know the reveal well before the main character, which only adds to the drama as we’re sat waiting for the inevitable. If you haven’t seen any of Ritchie’s movies, we’d recommend starting with the infamous Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to get the full flavour of his style.

The showdown
When film fans think of a showdown, we’re instantly beamed back to the hay day of Western gunslingers duelling pistols at dawn. Red sand swirling down a dusty road. Many directors have used card games in the same way, creating suspense-filled showdowns without the need for violence, or over the top action.

Take the final hands of The Cincinnati Kid as a key example. Sixties cinema buffs will remember how the plot spins a tale of an up and coming poker player challenging the seasoned professional. One man is a rising stud travelling from town to town, clean sweeping poker halls as he goes; the other, simply known as “The Man” and considered America’s best hand, waits for his young rival in New Orleans.

It’s all a classic tale of an upcoming underdog versus the grizzled long-toothed veteran. So, as viewers, we’re invested in the backstory, and already know the winning hand will provide a definitive climax. But, you can bet your bottom dollar we’re invested every step of the way. We sit in suspense for hours not knowing if the next hand would steal the show. The Cincinnati Kid helped set the tone for card game movies from that moment forward.

So, next time you catch one in the cinema, ask how the director used cards to capture and create pivotal plot points. Catalysts and showdowns are two of the most widely used points spun by a big reveal. Yet, you’ll find backstories, midpoints, and big events all linked back to classic card games too. Genius writers and directors spin great tales out of the simplest things.

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