Do Movies Present a Realistic Version of Casinos?
For many, Casino Royale is the pinnacle of the 24 James Bond movies released to date. It rebooted and reimagined the franchise, introducing us to a grittier, edgier version of the spy thriller. The poker game scenes in the movie are a testament to the skill of director Martin Campbell and to the watchability of Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen, with the former arguably stealing the scene as the nefarious, but tortured, Le Chiffre.
The gaming scenes in Casino Royale are wonderful examples of the art of tension-building in movies, leaving the viewer almost holding their breath in anticipation. However, are the scenes realistic? We are not talking about the high-stakes poker game for tens of millions, complete with super villains in a casino in Montenegro. Rather, we mean the actual turn of the cards in the game.
Bond's hand is unlikely
The answer, as you might expect, is a resounding "no". Le Chiffre's hand in the final game is a full house, common enough in 7-card poker games. In terms of probability, 2.6%, or odds of 37/1. Bond, meanwhile, comes out with a straight flush to win the game. The odds for that happening over 3,500/1, or a probability of 0.031%.
Obviously, we are supposed to suspend belief in movies. After all, Bond wins the game after recovering from a poisoning a few minutes earlier. Yet, time and time again in movies we see poker games portrayed with players wining with royal flushes and four aces and so on. Some of us will go through their whole lives without getting those hands in a poker game. The reality, any poker player will tell you, is very different.
The card games in The Sting, which have similarly improbable hands, should probably be given a bit of leeway, as everyone is cheating. The poker scenes in Rounders, starring Matt Damon and John Malkovich, are more in tune with what happens in the real world, with low-ranking hands winning the games, although belief has to be suspended for Malkovich's "incredible" Russian accent.
Card counting overrated in Rain Man
With blackjack it is all about counting cards, of course. The genius of Dustin Hoffman's character, "Raymond" in Rain Man has probably given rise to the notion that it is difficult to count cards. In reality, it's quite easy. Can you count cards at an online blackjack website? Probably not, although live dealer games mean it is possible in theory. Can you count cards at a land-based casino? Sure, and it is strictly illegal, although the casinos will bring in plenty of tricks to stop you. However, what was probably overexaggerated in Rain Man was that card counting gives you an advantage, but it by no means guarantees a winning hand.
In single deck blackjack, counting cards is quite easy. The simple theory is that (when the deck hasn't been shuffled) you should raise your bet if lots of low cards have already been dealt, as there is a higher possibility of getting blackjack. "Raymond" obviously took it to the next level by working out the exact strategy to get ahead, even when using multiple decks. The problem comes when the decks are shuffled, or the 'eye in the sky' brings some beefy bouncers down to remove you.
Does it matter that movies portray casino games somewhat sensationally? Not really, one would argue. Walking into a casino, you are more likely to meet a bunch of drunken louts than a supervillain. You are also more likely to "crap out" than walk away with a suitcase full of cash. In the end, you can see why director's do it: It is sexier for Bond to win the game with a straight flush than two pair, and it is more impactful for Barry Levinson to portray card counting as something more magical than basic probability theory. The reality of it all is a bit less dramatic, but it's intriguing that these movies a created a pseudo-reality of what casinos are like in our minds.