Poker in TV Crime dramas

WHEN is it appropriate to reference a high-stakes poker game in a TV series? When the stakes are high, of course. While there are certainly alternative effective methods to employ when trying to convey a serious sense of having it all on the line, none bring to the felt a more sexy and glamorous lifestyle inherent to the subject matter than poker. Frame by frame, draw by draw, and flop by flop, each part of a high stakes poker scene keeps the audience engaged in the goings-on and potentially up to speed with character interactions that are more complex than meets the eye in traditionally filmed dialogue scenes.
Here are some shows that have dedicated episodes to the lifestyle and common hardships of gambling with personal problems at stake, which use the above tactics in various ways to garner audience attention. How do they keep in step with the lifestyle and feel of a poker game? Let’s take a look.

Hustle: Old Acquaintance

This episode of Hustle has Stacie’s (Jaime Murray) estranged husband Jake (Max Beesley) making an appearance in the casino. It follows that he is to be the gang’s next mark. As the competition dwindles down, Jake beats the gang and walks out with Stacie in tow. As far as the poker and ensuing bets are concerned, if you have trouble figuring out how the hands are working here, PartyPoker offers a hand ranking that’s easy to follow. The episode leaves off with the gang having lost more in their bet than originally thought, it seems, as Stacie leaves with Jake… But does Stacie really dump the gang for love, or is there a further twist on the last deal?

CSI: Las Vegas: Revenge is Best Served Cold

In this episode of the widely acclaimed CSI, a poker player falls dead during a high stakes game. This episode creatively twists in a revenge plot for a cheating mistake at a WSOP event-like tournament. Funnily enough, one of the bigs makes an appearance in this episode, with Tom Schneider making a silent cameo as a dealer and also served as the technical director for the poker scenes. Using a playing card as a poker weapon was a draw for the episode, bringing in Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson’s card-throwing techniques to serve as the MO of the murderer.

Luck: Both Hands on the Wheel

Character Jerry (Jason Gedrick) has a lot to lose in this episode of the series Luck. Having yet to totally lose out on the felt, Jerry has a little money tucked away for this situation. Playing against recurring nemesis Leo (Dennis Dun) proves to be unwise in this go-round, as Leo has Jerry seemingly by the neck, leading him to fold with a winning hand and to play aggressively when he should have been on the defence, more or less. Jerry soon agrees to move this high-stakes game to a secluded room in Leo’s restaurant, which proves to be an unwell end for Jerry, even if dealer Naomi does have a bit of a thing for the self-destructive gambler. Luck in this episode raises the stakes in the rivalry between Jerry and Leo through the game of poker, and the show uses the game to build a down-and-out Jerry, whose expertise is constantly shown as better left to the horse track. But he has a dream, right?
Using the tenets of poker to deepen characters and thicken plot lines proves profitable for TV series, regardless of genre. Getting familiar with hand rankings and rules can be useful to ensure your understanding of the underlying themes made apparent by card hands, betting, and winning. Keep yourself poker-informed to catch the references and deeper meanings behind poker-related plot points.

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Luck – Dustin Hoffman PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★★½

Sky Atlantic, starts Saturday, 18 February, 9pm

It’s HBO, written by Deadwood creator David Milch, directed by Michael Mann and stars Dustin Hoffman. This tale of the racetrack and revenge is as close to a dead cert as you can get.

So, is Luck as good as the formbook suggests? While the opener is sprawling and low on action from Hoffman’s story as Ace Bernstein, the mover and shaker just released from prison, it is a great-looking episode full of dodgy characters and rich storylines.

It’s also superbly cast with characterful actors rather than the buffed human mannequins that fill shows such as CSI and Desperate Housewives. Hoffman and Dennis Farina as his driver/partner Gus  have obviously lived a little, while a quartet of desperate gamblers look the part too, led by oxygen-chugging wheelchair-bound Marcus, played by Kevin Dunn.

Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon
There’s a stammering agent nicknamed Porky Pig (Richard Kind) and Nick Nolte’s white-whiskered Walter, who has got hold of a horse he thinks will be great.

It also looks terrific, filmed at beautiful Santa Anita Park in California, all palm trees and hazy mountain backdrop, which Michael Mann fills with terrific action, pitching the viewer into the middle of races so that the jockeys’ butts are right in our face at times.

We meet Ace as he is being picked up by Gus from three years inside, apparently having the rap for some other people. The thread going through episode one is that Gus has been set up with a horse owner’s licence as a front to distance Ace from a prized horse, which is part of some kind of revenge Ace is plotting.

Romance, betrayal and power
But there is much else going on as the starting pistol sets multiple plotlines in motion, involving romance, betrayal and power. The broken-down quartet of gamblers have a huge win, but will there be a fallout? Porky Pig, or Joey Rathburn as the character is really called, seems to suspect that Walter has a secret winner. And jockey Goose is distrusted by Ace’s trainer Escalante for having a big mouth.

And this is before menacing Michael Gambon even turns up as an adversary of Ace’s in later episodes.

Just as The Wire could take a while before viewers got into its groove, Luck is all about half-baked conversations, snippets of chat that bear fruit later on. Audiences will need to stick with it.

People will say Luck is doing for horse racing what Mad Men did for advertising men blah blah, but what is more interesting is that the racing fraternity has given writer-producer David Milch an edgy world to delve into. And it’s one he knows about, having been a horse player and thoroughbred owner.

Another drama as well made as this, in which people’s lives turn on the result of a horse race, has to be worth a punt.

Cast: Dustin Hoffman Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, Dennis Farina Gus, Nick Nolte Walter Smith, John Ortiz Turo Escalante, Kevin Dunn Marcus, Richard Kind Joey Rathburn

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Luck starring Dustin Hoffman

Coming to Sky Atlantic in February is this terrific-looking new HBO series. Luck stars Dustin Hoffman as Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a gambler just released from a stretch inside who wants revenge against the guys who put him there. It’s directed by Michael Mann and also stars Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and Dennis Farina (who also appeared in Mann’s 80s series Crime Show). To top it off, it’s written by David Milch, a horse-racing obsessive who also wrote on Hill Street Blues and Deadwood. Sounds a dead cert.

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