When it comes to creating tension, developing characters or moving a plot forward, poker is a great vehicle for a writer.
We’ve seen poker used in everything from literature to films, and TV series are no exception. It’s often easy to recall our favorite scenes from movies, be it Ocean’s XI or Casino, but a series is a little different. The plot needs to move quickly in a film, as a director has three hours or less to get the whole story out. In a series, scenes can be treated with a little more care; a character’s development can burn slowly, over not just an episode or three hours, but a season or even ten.
That’s why some of the best uses of poker on screen have come in television series rather than films. Some you might not be familiar with, but there are some great examples of a poker game being used in some of the best series of the last 20 or 30 years. We’ve picked three of the best that fit wonderfully into the shows they were used in.
The Wire ran for five seasons between 2002 and 2008 and focused on law enforcement in Baltimore. It was widely regarded as a success, cited as one of the most original shows of a decade, and dealt with gritty, real-life scenarios that other shows often avoided. With such realism, there’s little surprise poker makes an appearance as a precursor to a rather more interesting scene. In a barroom game, drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield is beaten at a game. It’s a typical depiction of backroom poker; a smokey bar, tense atmosphere and coarse language. What happens next drives the plot; the character heads out of the game, fuming and commits a murder.
The nineties sitcom Friends is still ranked as an all-time classic, even if some of the themes and storylines haven’t aged well. With ten series and more than 200 episodes, it was inevitable they would eventually have a game of poker. Their game dominates one episode and starts with the girls pretending not to understand the game; bluffing might be one of the best ways to win at poker, but when Joey does it, Phoebe calls him out as a liar. As the episode goes on, the girls improve, and the game culminates in Ross allowing Rachel to win her hand to make her feel better after she doesn’t get a job. It was very much a vehicle to build context around their on/off relationship, which took ten seasons to come to fruition.
Star Trek: The Next Generation:
You’d have to have lived in a cave for fifty years not to understand the cultural importance of Star Trek, and they used poker in season seven’s finale as a rather moving vehicle for showing the unity between the crew of the Enterprise. Usually, poker creates tension, develops characters, or moves along a plot, but this was a different take altogether. This brought characters we already knew together and just presented them as friends enjoying a game, as millions do worldwide. It showed poker as a sociable hobby, a fun game to just kick back and enjoy, which is markedly different from many other scenes from television series.
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