Movies Don’t Get the Picture When It Comes to Gambling
The Hartford Courant
The addict is trying to explain to his girlfriend why poker isn’t gambling.
“Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every year?” he says. “What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?”
These are the lines of Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, in “Rounders,” a feel-good movie about a guy who drops out of law school and splits with his smart, charming and easy-on-the-eyes girlfriend to pursue a career playing poker.
McDermott is either mistaken or lying.
During the past 20 years, including the 10 before the release of the movie, only two people made it to the final table at the World Series of Poker in consecutive years.
Most addicts need an enabler. McDermott’s is Hollywood.
The recently released “21,” the mostly true story of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who took the casinos for millions, joins a short stack of movies such as “Rounders” that turn games of chance into games of skill and focus their cameras exclusively on the winners.
Put another way: You don’t see movies about a guy spending his kids’ meal money on scratch tickets.
Hollywood used to sell alcohol this way.
Foster Brooks made a career of acting drunk, and Dudley Moore played the title character in “Arthur” with boozy enthusiasm.
But somewhere in the mid-1980s, people stopped thinking of alcoholism as a funny little character quirk, and those kinds of movies died.
The contrast with gambling is marked. Casino gambling reaches into 31 states and pulls in an estimated $6.7 billion.
Commercials create an image of sexy, glamorous fun despite the increased divorce, suicide and crime rates among problem gamblers.
Somewhere in our brains we know that all those spectacular towers would not exist if the casinos were losing money, but Hollywood encourages us to miss this point.
The few movies that bother to focus on those who lose money are usually comedies.
We are given Julie Haggerty, as Linda Howard, screaming “Twenty-two, twenty-two, come on back to me!” in “Lost in America,” or Jon Favreau as Mike Peters doubling down with $100 in “Swingers.”
Much more often, we are given the gambler as a sort of mythic creature who removes risk from these games of chance through special ability and force of will.
James Bond plays Texas Hold ‘Em in “Casino Royale” as if it’s a contest of morality.
This is actually an improvement from the old days, when he played baccarat as if it were a game of skill.
McDermott has a superhuman ability when it comes to poker. He can read hands in a matter of seconds. He can read people faster than Sherlock Holmes.
If only we had the same ability, the movie argues, we would be able to take money off the pigeons who flock to casinos to play poker.
The movie ignores the stubborn truth that three-of-a-kind beats two pair no matter who has the cards, which is why no one has won the World Series of Poker twice in the last 20 years.
Meanwhile, in a real game of skill, Tiger Woods has won 12 major championships.
The idea of superhuman gambling prowess is taken to extremes in “Rain Man,” where Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman, is able to read through a six-deck shoe in a matter of seconds.
Not only does this misrepresent how one goes about counting cards, it also makes card counting seem more difficult than it is.
Card-counting is a real ability that takes practice and discipline, but done perfectly, it gives the player about a 1 percent advantage over the house.
There are more complex systems that offer bigger advantages, but they are harder to execute. In order to make this advantage pay off, one needs a disciplined mind and a bankroll fat enough to withstand the inevitable moments when chance is against you.
Few people have both.
This is why the casinos allowed the producers to shoot “21” in their casinos.
The MIT students were bankrolled and used elaborate schemes, such as fake identities and disguises, to avoid the suspicion of pit bosses and casino detectives. When the casinos finally did catch on, the students were banned.
This is legal because the casinos are privately owned, and “card counter” is not a protected class, such as blacks or women.
Most of us did not go to MIT, and yet gambling movies call to us to say all that is standing between us and riches is our ability and our nerve.
“Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” Fast Eddie Felson says in “The Color of Money.”
We nod our heads and overlook the mathematics. If Felson is winning money, someone else is losing it.