If you love to gamble, the odds are good that you are also a big fan of movies. Those two passions, it turns out, can combine in a highly cinematic way. The inherent drama of gambling movies lies in the fundamental risk of the activity—by its very definition, gambling isn’t fun to watch. Watching someone be cautious and level-headed is boring; it’s only when we see people consistently putting their livelihood on the line in a desperate bid for that One Big Score has us on the edge of our seats.
It’s the reckless hope that makes us love gambling movies. That and the loud suits! Here are some of the best gambling movies ever made that no one who associates themselves with gambling would dare miss.
1. Casino (1995):
Martin Scorsese reunites with members of his Goodfellas gang for a three-hour epic charting the rise and fall of mob impresario Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), his loose-cannon childhood pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) and Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a streetwise chip hustler he marries. Set in the backdrop of Las Vegas during the ’60s and ’70s, it’s the depiction of Sin City during the final years of its gangster control. Robert De Niro’s performance as Ace is perfectly cast. As the stylish, smooth-talking mob-connected casino operator and a family man, he’s charismatic and charming while also being mysterious and temperamental. Although Casino is in essence The Godfather on the Vegas strip, it’s also an ode to what might happen if The Hangover were stranded in the 70s. There’s little doubt that Martin Scorsese’s Casino is a minor masterpiece of its genre, which must be seen to be believed. The movie is also part of the best gambling movies on Netflix, so that gives you an idea of its popularity.
2. Rounders (1998):
Mike McDermott (Matt Demon) loses his entire life savings to a Russian club owner and visits his friend Worm (Edward Norton), who is supposed to be serving a jail sentence after getting caught cheating in poker. In order to continue helping Worm, Mike gets back into the game. Meanwhile, he has fallen for a fellow law student, Jo Kaminsky, who disapproves of his risky lifestyle; she’s already lost one man to gambling. Can he keep his head in the game and stay out of trouble? Welcome to New York City’s underground world of high-stakes poker, where the magic is in the cards and the fate of those who play is in the hands of the gods! Hailed as Citizen Kane for gambling addicts, the movie Rounders is all the bravado, trash talk and poker chips you might imagine, and the plot—well that’s just a bunch of Aces! This is one of the few gambling movies that you’d recommend to your favorite dunderhead.
3. Croupier (1998):
Croupier offers a slice of the seedy, soul-crushing world of casino gambling, where desperate individuals are driven by addictions to squander their money and lifestyles. The movie follows Jack, an aspiring novelist who takes a job at a casino to pay the bills; soon he’s living and breathing the murky world of gambling addicts, where every roll of the dice means another roll of the eyes. Released in 1998, Croupier was Clive Owen’s big-screen debut, and he is fairly convincing as the dedicated gambler, who is not afraid to push all his chips into the middle in pursuit of more success and power. Like a typical neo-noir movie with its long monologues, Croupier brilliantly delves into the psyche of a man torn between his role as an observer and a participant in the morally corrupt casino experience. The movie will both thrill you with its exciting storyline and leave you feeling slightly disoriented, just like a casino does.
4. California Split (1974):
Got a hankering to get lucky? Try your hand at California Split, a comedy/drama about a gambler and his compulsive buddy. The pick of the litter. What makes these guys so funny? Who knows. Is it their razor-sharp timing? Maybe. Or is it their easy camaraderie? Probably. Or maybe it’s just because they’re all such complete wieners. Directed by Robert Altman, this quintessential 1970s comedy is a funny and moving immersion into the world of gambling and friendship. With an array of outstanding performances from George Segal and Elliott Gould, the film perfectly captures the highs, lows, and absurdities of this all-consuming pursuit. It is one of the great American bromances, not to mention a tragicomedy of the average man at play, and Altman’s unshowy direction—not overstating the dramatic or comic turns—makes for a movie you could watch on mute.
5. The Gambler (1974):
Based on his own gambling addiction, James Toback’s script for The Gambler (the 1974 version with James Caan, not the 2014 one with Mark Wahlberg) followed a writer whose love for danger was greater than his love for money. Even as Axel (the protagonist) made bets, he was looking for the next rush—an adrenaline-inducing high that made him more and more reckless. Though he would lose over and over again at the end of each day, he couldn’t turn his back to the seductive edge danger has, like playing a game of Russian Roulette. Although it’s based on Toback’s own gambling addiction, The Gambler is much more about the dangers of adrenaline addiction or even just the compulsive thrill-seeking behavior of someone who doesn’t want to admit he’s got a problem. Caan is convincing as a gambling addict who loses interest in betting once he realizes that the best part of it all is that one moment when he could have lost his shirt and instead walked away with a pocket full of cash.
Experience the thrills, chills, and spills in the main character’s shoes as you marvel at insights into the high-paced world of casino operations and get a taste of what happens when the mob comes to town.
In case you’re looking for an experience that last longer, we would recommend our list of the best gambling TV shows, there we recommend some of the best pieces of TV flicks worth the popcorn.