Poker is going through a real surge in popularity. For the last couple of years, more and more people have been getting out the cards and going all-in once again. Between real casinos being temporarily closed, and so many people stuck in pandemic-related isolation, there was an inevitable uptick in people playing the game online.
There has also been a greater focus on poker on TV recently given that the World Series of Poker has been on. But the beloved WSOP is not the only occasion on which we enjoy poker on television! The game has also been deployed by numerous films and TV shows over the years –– often to great effect.
Granted, as a viewer, a poker scene is most enjoyable if you understand what is going on; often, the director will rely on you understanding poker hand rankings and the variant being played (most commonly Texas Hold’em). If you also happen to have a little bit of an understanding of how bluffs work, all the better. This knowledge might not be utterly essential, but the scenes often make more sense if you do understand poker. And if that happens to be the case, you’ll often find poker scenes to be very effective.
Here we’ll take a look at some of those effective scenes –– our favorites from years’ worth of television.
This worldwide hit show of the 90s, which has recently become trendy again after returning to streaming, gave us a perfect example of how poker can bring people together. The aptly named season one episode “The One With All The Poker” (ranked 48th out of 236 for those keeping score) allowed the writers the opportunity to demonstrate the game’s poker with regard to social bonding among “friends.” The episode also brought poker to an audience that might not have had too much experience with the game beforehand (particularly given that season one of Friends was pre-Poker Boom.
The West Wing
In season four, episode 20, beloved characters Toby and CJ discuss an old story over a poker game. Thee characters have different angles on how the previous incident went down. CJ is positive, while Toby is talking (as always) of humanity’s flaws. But the game ultimately helps to define the scene. When CJ wins with a full house, it hammers home both her win in the game and in the argument. Toby, as you know if you’re a fan of the show, is not one to enjoy losing –– so naturally the tensions rise a bit.
Not only is poker the star of a Seinfeld scene, but one of the great celebrity poker players –– Jason Alexander –– is involved (as George Costanza, of course). While the scene doesn’t involve the game itself, it’s the reference that counts. It just works as a package as the ongoing joke throughout the episode is keeping a straight face, or “poker face.” Granted it’s a little bit of a dark secret to keep, concealing that a friend has cancer, but it isn’t possible if you don’t have the ability to hide your tells. It’s just one more twist of plot in the ever-amusing sitcom.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The much-loved sci-fi hit isn’t a show in which you’d usually think poker was prevalent, but in the finale of season seven, there it is. After a typically dramatic episode befitting the ending of another season, the crew sits down to take part in a game. And just as the cards are to be dealt onto the table, in walks Jean-Luc Picard. Aghast at this, the crew members just look in his direction before Picard is asked if there’s a problem. Picard simply announces he wants to join if there’s room. Of course, he welcomed with open arms and admits he should have joined in a long time ago. It’s a touching moment that gives a sense of the strength of the bond amongst the group.
In season two of the show, Silvio, one of the more level-headed of Tony Soprano’s associates, shows his true colors as something of a sore loser when he lashes out at others around the poker table. It’s another excellent example of how directors can use the game to convey an elevated sense of atmosphere, and in this case, it’s quite a chilling one.
Poker can be used in all kinds of way in television. It can heighten tension, strengthen bonds, and facilitate comic relief. And in every instance it seems to make for a memorable scene.