Card games have played a big role in countless movies over the years. From old-time casino classics, to back room gambling flicks, to biopics and other true stories, there has always been a certain dramatic pull luring filmmakers to card tables. And more often than not, the focus ends up being on poker.
For many, in fact, the idea of cards in movies is basically synonymous with poker. Just last year, Screen Rant looked back at some of the best poker films of all time and showed just how long this particular game has been dominating the screen. From The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 to Molly’s Game in 2017, there really have been a lot of excellent poker films. At the same time though, there’s an argument to be made that Hollywood’s particular focus on poker is a little bit outsized — and that if we’re going to keep seeing casinos and card games in movies, we could be seeing more blackjack instead.
There are a few reasons behind this argument.
Understanding – The most important factor is that the rules of blackjack are easy to explain and easy to grasp. According to a Gala Casino guide to the game, it can really be summed up in one sentence: “The aim of the game is to get closer to 21 than the dealer without going bust.” Of course there are some intricacies to it, and a newcomer won’t necessarily grasp the strategy. But the simplicity of the core concept makes it much more accessible game to a much broader audience, whereas poker can sometimes be somewhat niche.
Card counting – Let’s face it, card scenes in movies are all the more fun if someone’s trying to game the system. And the simple fact is, this is more feasible in blackjack. Even in the game’s relatively limited cinematic history, in fact, the most noteworthy examples involve attempts to get a leg up. Dustin Hoffman, known for films ranging from The Graduate to Straw Dogs, may ultimately be most beloved for his part in Rain Man. And the card counting blackjack scene in that film is so famous that, according to Hackaday, it is the namesake for an AI that can count cards. Beyond Rain Man, we also have a scene in The Hangover that is based on the same card-counting scheme; a whole saga in 21 revolving around manipulation of blackjack games; and even a goofy scene in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery in which a villain uses an x-ray eyepatch to glimpse cards about to be dealt. All in all, blackjack just seems to invite more dramatic scenes because of the possibility of counting cards.
Flexibility – There is also a bit more flexibility in blackjack scenes, because there are fewer associations with the game. When it comes to poker, people typically imagine one of three atmospheres: a classic casino with dressed-up players, a tense back room, or a modern casino where millionaire amateurs play in hoodies and headphones. Poker is defined by these atmospheres. Blackjack, beyond a vague association with casinos, is not understood in such rigid confines. There isn’t really a culture around it, which leaves filmmakers free to be a little more inventive, and have a little more fun.
So why don’t we see more focus on blackjack than poker? Part of it might be due to the fact that the movies we have that explicitly involve blackjack have problematic reputations. The 1998 John Woo film Blackjack is a disaster (even if it mostly just uses the name and isn’t a card movie). And 2008’s 21 is tainted by the fact that Kevin Spacey is one of the leads. Despite having some fairly modern headline roles, such as his part in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver or his prestige TV vehicle House Of Cards, Spacey has been so thoroughly disgraced that it already seems odd to feel attachment to his work. As a result, arguably the most prominent blackjack film in modern history has basically been sidelined.
These issues have kept blackjack-related projects from developing much of a reputation for themselves outside of Rain Man, which is by no means about blackjack. Poker, on the other hand, has developed a robust reputation as a cinematic theme, and one that has proven capable of supporting one film after another.
It make sense, but if Hollywood is going to keep making card movies it would do well to balance things out and pay more attention to blackjack. It’s simpler, more accessible, and in some ways more fun.