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Poker, The Old West and Movies

Much of the lore and mythology of poker comes from the Old West. This area of American history gave rise to a number of iconic stereotypes and characters, particularly the gunfight and the professional gambler.

Movies set in the Old West – both those made in Hollywood and those filmed in other parts of the world – frequently used poker as a means of moving the plot and developing characters. In particular, the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” were partial to using poker as a plot device.

Poker in the Old West was limited to Five-card draw, a game that remained popular until the late 1900s. It is estimated that thousands of professional gamblers made their living traveling from town to town and on the numerous riverboats playing poker.

The Old West gave rise to one of today’s most used poker terms, “the nuts.” The term came from players betting the nuts that held the wheels on their wagons, which is the equivalent of James Bond’s opponent betting his car keys in Casino Royal. The player with the best possible hand had “the nuts.”

The prospect of risking your life along with your money is a constant theme in Western films’ poker games. While this is obviously exaggerated in the movies, there is some historical precedence. Famous Western figures like Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, and the Earps were known to play with weapons on the table. Holliday, who was a professional gambler, once killed a man at the table for looking at the discards (which was strictly forbidden in the Old West) after warning the player on a previous hand. Hickok, who was famously killed at the poker table holding aces and eights, once told a player he had a full house of aces and sixes. The player, who held three jacks, saw only two aces and a six in Hickok’s hand. Hickok placed his Bowie knife on the table saying that was his ace and pulled his gun saying “here’s my other six.” The player left the game and the substantial pot went to Hickok.

We’ve compiled some of the best poker clips from Westerns to illustrate how the game was portrayed. What they sometimes lack in accuracy, they more than make up for in terms of entertainment.

Trinity is Still My Name

This Spaghetti Western features one of the best poker hands captured on film.

A Big Hand for a the Little Lady

This is a Western comedy, so a great deal of what happens probably would never happen in real life. Still the movie is considered “a classic among poker classics.” Our hero, Henry Fonda, gets into a game way over his head and has a heart attack at the table with a monster hand. Rather than see their entire life savings disappear, his wife, played by Joanne Woodward, says she will play the hand even though she has never played poker.

The Gambler

This made-for-TV movie took its cue from the Kenny Rogers’ song and helped instill the “know when to hold’em and know when to fold‘em” mantra in poker players’ minds. The game at the end of the movie captures the essence of high stakes poker, and the film received two Emmy Award nominations.

The Man With No Name

The most iconic Western character of all time is arguably portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. He was always willing to take on anyone at any contest, including poker.

Poker has come a long way since the Old West. In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp arrests a woman for playing poker. Handguns, rigged games and rules that change at whim are long gone as part of the game, yet the poker scenes in Westerns never get old among poker players of all levels.

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