Three Common Mistakes Hollywood and Authors Make When Writing Poker Scenes

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Gambling is one of those things we expect the heroes of our stories to succeed at just like they succeed at everything else. This has led to it being included in and even the focus of numerous books and movies from classics like Cool Hand Luke, where the title comes from a poker hand, to modern remakes like Casino Royale, a movie with Texas Hold’em at its core but based on a book that used Baccarat instead. Unfortunately, either due to lazy writing or the real thing not being dramatic in the right way, poker is often misrepresented. No one likes a favorite hobby of theirs treated in such a way, so with that in mind here are the three things I see media get wrong most frequently.

Bet vs Raise vs Re-raise

These are three terms that mean different things and shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The first time during a betting round that money is put into the pot, that’s a bet. If someone wants to increase the amount of money being played for after the initial bet, that’s a raise, and if someone wants to increase it beyond that it’s a re-raise. This graphic should help.

It doesn’t have to be different people though. If no money had been put in yet, player 1 would bet, player 2 could raise, player 1 could then re-raise, and then they could go back and forth re-raising for almost however long they wanted, which brings us to the second thing.

Table Stakes

Since I brought up Casino Royale earlier, I’m going to use this scene to highlight an important poker rule this scene actually tries to get right.

So what are table stakes? It means you can’t win or lose more than you have on the table at the start of a hand. The villain in the above clip can’t pull out his checkbook to bet more with the hand almost done. He also can’t bet the car, but it’s a Bond movie, and I do appreciate the dealer trying to stop them. Sometimes you’ll see this in really old westerns where our hero has to suddenly put their farm on the line in order to call a bet. In reality you just call and if the villain has bet more than you have, then the villain’s bet is reduced to match the amount of money you have left.

The other side of this is that you can’t win more than you have in front of you either. If you have $100 at the start of a hand and you’re playing someone who has $500, the most you can win from them is an additional $100. If there are more people than just the one other player in the hand you can win $100 from each other person. This should come up at the very end of Casino Royale when we see Bond rebuy after getting knocked out. For Bond to win on the final hand of the movie he would have had to quadruple his stack sometime off camera in order for him to have the villain covered and win all the chips in that final all in.

String Bet

“I see your wager, and I,” nope stop you’re done. Once you say call or push chips into the middle equaling the bet then that’s the end of your action. This is to prevent someone from trying to get an extra read on an opponent by dragging out a call, looking for weakness, and then deciding they want to raise to put additional pressure on. It should also be noted that verbal commitments are binding at the table, so as soon as the word call leaves your lips, that’s all you can do. Now if you say raise, then you can push out the chips that would be a call by themselves because you’ve committed to the raise. The important part is that a bet must be made all at one time. You can’t say “I see your wager and I’ll raise you X,” you can’t push out a stack to call and then push out a stack to raise. Either say exactly what you want to do, or do exactly what you want to do. If you try to string bet in a casino, any dealer should declare your action a call and return any chips you tried to raise with back to you.

Poker has enough dramatic happenings without needing to embellish any. This list certainly doesn’t cover all the minor things that frequently get characterized incorrectly about the game, but they’re certainly the most frequent offenders and now you should be able to pick them out when you see them and know how the hand would play out if it was in a casino instead of on a sound stage.


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