For every fantastic poker movie of the past 25 years (Rounders, Mississippi Grind), there’s been another which missed the mark. But the poker world (for better and for worse) isn’t lacking in incredible storylines, interesting characters, and dramatic tension. From epic biopics and romantic melodramas to buddy comedies and political thrillers, the poker world should be a screenwriter’s goldmine.
Imagine cast sheets packed with poker’s biggest names (Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Stu Ungar) and the A-list Hollywood stars who would portray them.
Here are five of the best real-life poker plot lines that could be – and should be – made into movies.
Lights, camera, ACTION!
Director: Martin Scorcese
Russell Crowe (Doyle Brunson)
Christopher Plummer (older Doyle)
Armie Hammer (younger Doyle)
Tom Hanks (Johnny Moss)
Owen Wilson (Amarillo Slim)
David Koechner (Puggy Pearson)
Timothee Chalamet (Stu Ungar)
Matt Damon (Chip Reese)
Danny McBride (Todd Brunson)
In the early 1950s, a devastating leg injury crushes the NBA dreams of prodigious college athlete Doyle Brunson. He turns to illegal poker games to fuel his competitiveness and soon finds himself on the road with a motley crew of Texan card sharks. Over the next 60 years, Brunson writes the book on poker, wins 10 World Series bracelets, and navigates the online poker boom while becoming the greatest player of all time. At 87, Brunson decides to step away from the tables, but one final high stakes game brings the Godfather of poker out of retirement.
This is a no brainer. A three-hour biopic of the legendary Doyle Brunson directed by the equally legendary Martin Scorcese? Yes, please. In fact, why hasn’t this film been made already?
Texas Dolly would make such an awesome movie. Brunson has sixty-plus years worth of stories to cherry-pick from a lifetime of playing the highest stakes poker games in the world. Imagine the backroom poker scenes, gunpoint robberies, tender family moments, and busto-to-robusto drama that Scorcese could reimagine on the big screen. He’s made plenty of big, bold biopics before (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, to name just a few) so Brunson’s story will be in the safest of hands.
Instead of going down the digital de-aging route like Scorcese did in 2019’s The Irishman, cast different actors to play Brunson at the different stages of his life. Have Armie Hammer as the young NBA-ready Doyle for the first 45 minutes of the film, followed by Oscar winner Russell Crowe as Brunson for the next 90 minutes. Finally, Oscar winner Christopher Plummer bringing things home as Brunson today.
Then just look at that merry band of Texan road gamblers in the supporting cast. A bald Tom Hanks with thick-rimmed glasses and a cardigan would make for an amazing Johnny Moss (Brunson’s mentor) and seeing the late Amarillo Slim reimagined by his fellow-Texan Owen Wilson would be superb. Anchorman’s David Koechner taking on Puggy Pearson, young superstar Timothee Chalamet bringing Stu ‘the Kid’ Ungar to life, and poker-movie royalty Matt Damon becoming one of the game’s all-time greats in Chip Reese (Brunson’s best friend before Reese’s death at the young age of 56).
Oh, and let’s not forget Danny McBride bringing some light comedy to proceedings as Brunson’s son Todd, also a successful high-stakes poker player in his own right.
It’s actually ludicrous that the Godfather of Poker’s story hasn’t already been told on the silver screen, because the rounder lifestyle of poker’s pioneers is just so damn romantic. It feels like this film would resonate with a large audience, whether the majority are poker players or not. But then maybe the lack of biopic is Brunson’s doing. Perhaps he wants to keep his life story close to his chest, just as he has with cards throughout most of it.
But with his blessing, then please, someone please write the script (*cough* Brian Koppelman and David Levien *cough*) and make this movie happen.
Director: Adam McKay
Jeff Daniels (Howard Lederer)
David Krumholtz (Ray Bitar)
Billy Bob Thornton (Chris Ferguson)
Mandy Patinkin (Isai Scheinberg)
Michael B. Jordan (Phil Ivey)
Michael Fassbender (Gus Hansen)
Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush)
It’s 2011 and the poker boom comes to a crashing end when the United States Department of Justice issues an indictment against the three largest online poker websites in the country: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker. Popular PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg is among those indicted, but things are about to get even worse for the poker community when it’s revealed that Full Tilt Poker–run by Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and shady businessman Ray Bitar–has been defrauding poker players out of more than $300 million and doesn’t have the funds to reimburse them.
A brutally honest telling of online poker’s darkest day could make for the most important poker movie ever made.
The pros of a Black Friday film? It’s a story that has everything. Rags-to-riches tales from online poker greats; government dealings and courtroom drama; the shock of the day itself; and both likable and downright unsavory characters for us to root for and against.
The cons? It wouldn’t exactly paint online poker in the finest light.
If there’s one filmmaker who could get across the importance of Black Friday and explain the difficult concepts involved in an entertaining, educational way, it’s Adam McKay. While he cut his teeth making some of the best comedies of the past two decades alongside Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Other Guys) it’s McKay’s 2015 film The Big Short–about the investors who made a fortune by taking full advantage of the impending economic collapse in America in 2008–where he knocked it out of the park and booked the Black Friday writer/director gig.
As for the cast, Jeff Daniels would make an excellent Howard Lederer. Daniels has carved a niche for himself lately playing powerful, unlikeable characters, and when it comes to Lederer…well, you can make of that what you will. Joining him at Full Tilt Poker would be the great Billy Bob Thornton as Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson–an ambiguous character whose involvement in the disgracefulness remains unclear–and David Krumholtz as Ray Bitar.
The film would also feature top actors portraying some of poker’s biggest names for the first time on screen. Michael B. Jordan would provide the coolness Phil Ivey deserves, while Michael Fassbender as Gus Hansen would just be a joy to see. As for PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg, give Mandy Patinkin from Homeland the role, while Sam Rockwell who played President George W. Bush in McKay’s 2018 film Vice, could revive the role here for a few government scenes.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Anna Kendrick (Kristen Bicknell)
Channing Tatum (Alex Foxen)
Cameron Diaz (Jennifer Harman)
Will Poulter (Kahle Burns)
Inspired by her poker-playing hero Jennifer Harman, Kristen Bicknell works her way to the top of a male-dominated game and becomes one of the best poker players around. When she falls in love with another top player, Alex Foxen, it feels like a match made in heaven. But complications arise when the two fierce competitors both wind up at the same final table of a major poker tournament and then get three-handed with Kahle Burns.
In just about every poker movie, female characters are simply used as props to either annoy or inspire the leading man.
It’s about time there was a poker film with a woman crushing the game instead of just organizing it (Molly’s Game), and while there still aren’t enough women playing poker, there are plenty of world-class players who are as feared at the tables as any dude. As the No.1 ranked GPI female player in the world for the past three years running, Kristen Bicknell is undisputedly one of them.
Like many other poker couples, Bicknell and Alex Foxen’s relationship was once just a lovely inconsequence to the poker community. But in 2018 it was suggested that they had gone easy on each other during the final table of the $5,000 MSPT Venetian, particularly when they got three-handed against Kahle Burns. The question is: can two competitive players really put their loving feelings aside and play coldblooded versus one another when deep down they both want to see each other succeed? It’s just a tricky situation and one ripe for some melodrama.
Unlike other “road to the final table” poker films (looking at you, Lucky You), the conflict in this romantic dramedy doesn’t come from characters hating each other but rather characters loving each other, to the point where their game integrity is called into question. It’s also about what happens after the game is over.
Greta Gerwig would be an incredible choice to direct Suited Connectors, a story largely based on a successful woman striving for greatness, who falls in love with someone completely different and yet perfectly similar to her. Gerwig’s two films so far (2017’s Ladybird and 2019’s Little Women) are both female-led stories, and she writes and directs with honesty and style.
Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick has been brilliant in films like Up in the Air and The Voices and could pull off Bicknell’s dauntless determination, while Channing Tatum (aside from the fact he’s big and athletic like Foxen) has proven himself a fine (and funny) actor in films like Magic Mike, 21 Jump Street, and The Hateful Eight. As for Jennifer Harman–the player who inspired the real-life Bicknell–coaxingh the great Cameron Diaz out of retirement for the role seems like a win.
THE WEIGHTING GAME
Director: Paul Feig
Kevin Hart (Bill Perkins)
Jaime Staples (himself)
Matt Staples (himself)
Mike Vacanti (Zac Efron)
Two professional poker playing brothers find themselves in a high stakes game on the yacht of an eccentric billionaire, with who they make a large bet: Brothers Jaime (304lbs) and Matt (134lbs) have to weigh within 1lb of each other in exactly a year’s time. If they can do it, they’ll win big. With the help of a strict personal trainer, they’re going all in. But life on the road makes losing and gaining both weight and money harder than they thought.
Let’s lighten the mood a little with a road-trip buddy movie. The Staples brothers (Jaime and Matt) had the entire poker community rooting for them in 2017/2018 when they bet Bill Perkins that they couldn’t weigh within one pound of each other in 12 months’ time, all the while streaming poker online and traveling to live events. They did it, of course, in a great story of perseverance and hard work paying off.
For the sake of the film, however, instead of the brothers streaming online poker, have them playing poker on the road. And make the Perkins character wilder and more erratic than Perkins is in real life, just to spice things up.
In the director’s chair would be Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), one of the reigning kings of comedy movies. The whole thing could be like the section of Rounders where Mike and Worm go on the road to run up a stake, only instead of trying not to get caught base dealing, the brothers are trying not to eat the wrong things.
THE BLIND STEAL
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Emma Stone (Veronica Brill)
Ben Foster (Mike Postle)
Jonah Hill (Justin Kuraitis)
Pete Davidson (Joe Ingram)
Poker player and commentator Veronica Brill grows suspicious that a successful player in her game, Mike Postle, has been cheating for months on a live-streamed Sacramento cash game with the help of cardroom manager Justin Kuraitis. They deny the allegations and will do anything to discredit Brill, so she turns to someone she hopes can help expose the suspected charlatans: popular YouTuber Joe Ingram.
There have been some incredible films with ambiguous endings over the years. You don’t get to know whether the robbers’ gold-laden bus teeters over the cliff edge in The Italian Job; you don’t get to know who the Zodiac killer is in Zodiac; and by the end of The Blind Steal–this telling of the Mike Postle cheating scandal which took place at Stones Casino, Sacramento from July 2018 through September 2019–you won’t know with absolute certainty whether Mike Postle was cheating or not.
The viewers will have enough information to make an informed decision though, and that’s all thanks to writer and director Aaron Sorkin. In his screenplays for The Social Network, Moneyball, and his 2017 directorial debut Molly’s Game, Sorkin has been able to enlighten audiences on some dense subject matter (from computer algorithms and data analysis to how a game poker works) in just a few pages of the script.
And thanks to Molly’s Game, it’s clear he understands poker and the severity of the Postle allegations against many players, not just Veronica Brill (who brought the allegations to light).
So, with Sorkin at the helm, who would he cast? For Brill, possibly Emma Stone. In films such as Zombieland, The Favourite, and Battle of the Sexes, she’s shown herself to be tough and determined with no sign of intimidation.
As for Joey Ingram, Pete Davidson could sling on a tank top and blazer and showcase Ingram’s dogged resolve.
Ben Foster would be perfect for Postle. Anyone who saw Foster as Lance Armstrong knows he’s a master of playing manipulative, conniving schemers looking to get ahead at any means necessary, even at the expense of others. He could handle Postle too.
Justin Kuraitis is harder to cast as, frankly, there isn’t all that much to go on aside from some post-settlement tweets. But based on those tweets, the character in the film is going to be stubborn, goofy, and a bit corrupt. Jonah Hill is a great actor who has been nominated for an Oscar twice (The Wolf of Wall Street and Moneyball). He’s got that down.
The ambiguous ending of The Blind Steal mentioned earlier? It will be a bit like the ending of The Social Network, Sorkin’s Facebook origin story. Just like Facebook is an ongoing thing, so too is the Postle lawsuits and investigation. But maybe a film like this will inspire more people to seek the truth of what went on during those live streams.