Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Action Cards: Casino Royale

Welcome to Action Cards, a brand new, recurring column here at Three Rivers Poker. In each installment, I'll pick a film (or TV show) that features poker in some capacity and then specifically review the poker scenes contained therein. I may occasionally tackle an honest-to-god poker movie, but for the most part, Action Cards will focus on films that aren't about poker per se but do feature the game as part of the plot. Those are the ones that usually dumb down poker for a mass audience and end up showing something that only vaguely resembles the real game. Breaking those down should be fun. And that's what this column is meant to be -- fun for me to write, fun for you to read. First out of the gate: a certain debonair super spy. Let's do this thing ...

THE MOVIE: Casino Royale (2006)

THE PLOT: Fresh off of earning his double-O status, British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) must enter a high-stakes poker tournament to prevent terrorist banker and all around asshat Le Chiffre from winning the $100 million he needs to settle debts with his evil clients.

HOW MUCH POKER IS INVOLVED?: A whole bunch. In Ian Fleming's original 1953 novel, it's a baccarat tournament that Bond has to crash. But with the poker boom going strong in the mid-aughts, the Bond brain trust decided to substitute in no-limit hold'em for baccarat. We see some of Bond and Le Chiffre's poker skills early in the movie, and then the big tournament consumes a large chunk of screen time later on. Hell, even the opening credits are a graphic designer/poker enthusiast's wet dream.


Scene one -- Le Chiffre's floating home game

Casino Royale's first poker scene features not Bond but Le Chiffre and is meant to set up how formidable an opponent the film's villain is at the table. The scene features Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) on his yacht, playing three-handed hold'em against some ill-defined General and an older Asian lady. (This is the first tipoff that the poker in this movie will be at least moderately believable. There's always an older Asian lady at the table when I play!)

It's here that we get our first look at Le Chiffre's creepy bleeding eye. He claims it's nothing but a "derangement of the tear duct," but it must be a real pain to have blood dripping down your cheek when you're trying to get a read on your opponents. Anyway, we join a hand midway through with Le Chiffre announcing all-in and telling the General, "I have two pair, and you have a 17.4 percent chance of making your straight." The General is annoyed by Le Chiffre's hand-reading ability and complete mastery of poker odds, so he quickly mucks.

We don't really see any of the cards here, so I actually tried to produce a hand on my poker calculator that would give a player holding a straight draw exactly a 17.4 percent chance against a player holding two pair. I couldn't do it. Closest I could get is 18.2 percent. Maybe Le Chiffre isn't as good with the math as he thinks he is. I also wonder about the General's fold here. If Le Chiffre was really getting it in that good here, wouldn't he want the General to call? Why scare the guy off by breaking down the hand? Any chance he's bluffing? Hmm ...

After winning his pot, Le Chiffre leaves the table for a bit of business and then orders his lackey to "give our guests five minutes to leave or throw them overboard." Damn, talk about a poor winner! Note to self: Never play in Le Chiffre's home game without a life vest.

Scene two -- Bond slow-plays like a motherfucker

We get our first look at Bond as poker player when he joins a cash game at a swanky Nassau club to get close to Dimitrios, one of Le Chiffre's shady associates. (Dimitrios needs more lessons from Le Chiffre, as he's obviously deep in the hole when Bond arrives at the scene.) Playing five-handed, Bond and Dimitrios are the only two holding live cards when Bond, who's first to act, checks on a 9-3-A♣-7 board. Dimitrios bets $5K; Bond calls. The river is the K♣. Bond checks again, and Dimitrios first announces all-in before pulling out his checkbook and trying to make it an additional $20K on top of the chips he has in play. Well, that's certainly not allowed in any game I've ever seen, and the dealer rightfully shuts him down. Then Dimitrios tries to add his car keys to the pot. The dealer again denies the bet, but Bond wants to "give him a chance to win his money back." Bond apparently has both Dimitrios' stack and the Blue Book value of his car covered and pushes all of his chips into the pot. Dimitrios proudly rolls over K-K for second set. Bond just smirks and flips A-A for top set. Dimitrios shits a brick and Bond gains a Aston Martin.

Okay, so here we need to talk about this hand because it's pretty crazy. First of all, pocket kings versus pocket aces? How in the world did they not get it all in preflop? My guess is that the other three players quickly got out pre, and Bond, being a sneaky son of a bitch and sensing that Dimitrios is a maniac, just smooth-called Dimitrios' three-bet, intending to trap. The flop came A-9-3 rainbow. We don't know the action here, but since we never see Bond lead out at any point, we must assume that he checked here as well. Dimitrios would have either checked or bet. Betting seems likely being that Bond checked in front and the movie is trying to tell us that Dimitrios is fairly aggressive, but that would also mean Dimitrios fired on both the flop and turn with an ace on the board, which is either incredibly ballsy or insanely stupid. Meanwhile, the board is super-dry, so if Dimitrios did bet, you can't blame Bond for slow-playing the balls off his monster.

The turn likely helped no one, and Dimitrios bet here for sure. Bond feared no back-door flush draw because he's James Fucking Bond (and also because he had a nice blocker card in the A), so he just smooth-called again. The river king was a classic example of "the one card that gets you," especially if "you" in this case is Dimitrios. No matter how badly he had played the hand to this point, he now assumed the poker gods had rewarded him. Any other card but a king, even an idiot like Dimitrios would probably cut his losses and throw in the towel. But once the king fell, it was full speed ahead, especially since it would be really tough for anyone to put him on pocket kings and Bond was likely to pay him off with a lot of different holdings (especially A-K).

Too bad for Dimitrios that Bond slow-plays with the best of them. Also too bad for Dimitrios that Bond later murders him by stabbing him in the gut.

Scene three -- The big tournament, part one

So, Le Chiffre's big tournament is held at Casino Royale in Montenegro. It's a 10-player, winner-take-all, $10-million-buy-in hold'em tournament with one $5-million rebuy allowed -- a potential $150-million prize to the winner.

Among the players are Bond, Le Chiffre, CIA agent Felix Leiter, some Triad-looking Asian guy, a scary-huge black dude, and -- of course -- an older Asian lady. (I seriously did not just make that last part up.)

In the first hand we see, Le Chiffre bets a 9-8-5 flop, and Bond calls after noticing that Le Chiffre has a bit of a twich in his bloody eye. Turn is the 9♣. Le Chiffre bets; Bond calls again. River comes the 2. Le Chiffre bets, Bond calls, and Le Chiffre flips up pocket deuces for a rivered full house. Bond casually mucks without breaking a sweat. The viewer never sees Bond's cards here, but my best guess is he was holding K-9♠. I could see him flat-calling three times with that hand, and it almost lines up with Bond saying a moment later that the odds of Le Chiffre winning the hand were 23-to-1. K-9♠ would actually make Bond only a 21-to-1 favorite after the turn, but like Le Chiffre, Bond apparently gets a little fuzzy with his math sometimes. Still, I wish I could shrug off two-outers being hit on me so well.

After stopping the game to order up some drinks -- which Le Chiffre bitches about; man, that guy is a dick! -- Bond swings by the bar to chat with Vesper Lynd (played by the lovely Eva Green), the treasury agent who's responsible for Bond's buy-in. Lynd gives Bond an earful for losing the hand, but he tells her it was "worth it." You see, Bond saw that Le Chiffre bet the flop and turn holding basically nothing and has deduced that the eye twitch is Le Chiffre's tell: It means he's bluffing!

Yes, it's kind of stupid. But showing a character pick up on an obvious physical tell is the most common method movies use to point out that the character is good at poker, even if such tells are somewhat uncommon in real-life situations. I expect I'll be writing a lot about physical tells in this series of columns, as nearly every poker movie -- including Rounders, the Holy Grail of poker movies -- uses them to some extent.

Anyway, the tournament hits its first break, during which Bond kills two guys in a stairwell. (I usually just go take a piss during my breaks. It's less exciting but often necessary.) After a change of shirt, Bond returns to the game and has fun mocking Le Chiffre's bleeding eye, but that's the last the viewer sees of day-one action.

Scene four -- The big tournament, part two

We pick up the next day with Leiter betting $300K and Bond and Le Chiffre both calling with a J-K♠-A♣-J board. Talk about an action board! River comes the K, upping the intensity. Felix checks, and Bond bets $500K holding a monster -- A-K. Le Chiffre appears to Hollywood it for a minute, although his eye does start twitching again.

"Look, it's the tell. He is bluffing. My God, James was right," says Bond crony Rene Mathis to Lynd, just to make sure every moron in the theater understands what's going on.

Le Chiffre raises to $1M, Leiter folds, and Bond raises to $2M. (What's with all the min-raises?) Le Chiffre, who's the table chip leader, goes all in, and Bond calls, flipping over his full house. Le Chiffre, ever the asshole, slow-rolls the pants off 007 by showing one jack, pretending to be sad, then showing the second jack which makes quads, and then saying "oops." In the annuls of fictional slow-rolling, this may just be the worst. I don't know how Bond didn't jump over the table and strangle him right there.

Regardless, Le Chiffre's "fake reverse eye-twitch tell" is treated like a cunning masterstroke. Bond is now out, and Lynd doesn't want to give him the $5 million to buy back in because she thinks he's terrible at cards.

"Look, I made a mistake," Bond tells her. "I was impatient. Maybe I was arrogant. But I can beat him."

Now, let's stop for a moment and consider how asinine this all is. Bond is acting like he got outplayed on the hand because Le Chiffre faked the eye twitch -- like the twitch is the only reason he called. But the thing is Bond was holding a goddamn full house! The second-best full house on the board and third nuts behind quad jacks (unlikely) and aces full of kings (also unlikely since pocket aces would probably have been fairly easy to sniff out earlier in the hand). Of course he calls with that hand! Everyone calls with that hand! The fake eye twitch really had nothing to do with anything. The hand was just one big cooler.

By the way, food for thought: Did Le Chiffre fake both of his eye twitches, doing it the first time in an attempt to set Bond up later in the tournament? Or did he realize (or was told) somewhere in between the two that Bond had gotten wise to the tell and then decide to use it to his advantage?

Scene five -- the big tournament, part three

Lynd doesn't cave, but Leiter, sensing Bond is a better player than him and knowing that they're both trying to bring down Le Chiffre, decides to stake Bond the $5 mil. (Where's Leiter when I need him?)

We see Bond pick up one small pot from Le Chiffre, which apparently unnerves ol' bloody-teardrop so badly that he has Bond poisoned for it. A bad martini's not going to keep Bond down, though, and before long he's back in the game. Poor Felix gets eliminated, leaving four players left. So begins the final phase of the tournament, meaning no more rebuys. And then this bit of improbable insanity goes down ...

We pick it up on the turn with all four players still in the hand. The board is A-8♠-6♠-4♠. All four players check. ("Hmm," the smart poker viewer wonders. "This hand doesn't seem interesting enough to be part of the movie.") Things pick up on the river, which comes the A♠. Bond checks. Triad guy, who is short-stacked, shoves for $6M. Scary-huge dude, who has even less left, gets all his money in, too. ("Wait a minute," the smart poker viewer says. "Weren't all these guys checking a minute before?") Le Chiffre then raises to $12M, which is actually a little weird since even a call means Bond is likely folding anything short of the absolute nuts. Then Bond goes all-in for his whole stack -- $40.5M.

"How the fuck can all this action be happening after all four players checked the turn?!?!"

Le Chiffre calls, putting him all in. (Bond is apparently now the chip leader even though he gave all of his chips to Le Chiffre earlier and we've only see him win one hand since the rebuy. Just go with it.) It's time for everyone to show their cards, which they do in the order that is most dramatically pleasing.

Triad guy shows K♠-Q♠, meaning he checked third nuts in a four-way pot on the turn. So he's a total idiot.

Scary-huge dude shows 8-8 for a full house, meaning he checked second set in a four-way pot on the turn with three spades on the board. So he's a total idiot. (He was almost certainly in the lead and, if not, should have at least went about finding that out, right? Plus, he did not want to gift somebody a river spade.)

Le Chiffre rolls over A-6 for a better full house, meaning he checked aces-up in a four-way pot that no one else really seemed interested in on the turn. Not very bright, although maybe the bastard's so good that he could smell multiple traps being laid.

Finally, Bond, our hero, shows 5♠-7♠ for the straight flush, meaning he made the mortal nuts in a four-way pot on the turn and checked it. I guess he wanted the other guys to catch a piece, never dreaming that they all had great hands and were afraid to bet them.

If the physical tells are Hollywood's favorite poker plot point, then monster hands getting beat by even bigger monsters is the second favorite. At the movies, you'll hardly ever seen a poker player with a marginal hand beat another player holding an even worse hand thanks to good play and a solid understanding of the game. That's just not dramatic enough. It's always a straight flush vs. four of a kind and other similarly unlikely scenarios that hardly ever occur in real life.

Bond is supposedly MI6's best poker player, but through the whole of Casino Royale, all we really see is a guy who loves to slow-play and keeps running face first into monster hands that demand he put all his money in the pot. They didn't need their best player to do that. Q could have done that.

But, hey, at least Bond tips his dealer like a good boy after his big win.


The big problems here are that the hands are preposterous and most of the players are terrible. Still, Casino Royale does mostly get the mood of poker right, with the contestants constantly trying to one-up each other and prove they've got the better game. Leiter looks absolutely destroyed when he gets knocked out of the tournament, even though it wasn't his money he lost -- it was the U.S. government's. Being card dead is never fun. The featured players all have their little quirks, like the way they bet their chips. Le Chiffre lays his out smoothly and methodically, while Bond tends to throw or push his into the pot. Bond and Le Chiffre both calculate poker odds during the movie much as real players do. There's also some poker terminology thrown around that sounds authentic. Leiter says he's "bleeding chips" at one point, and you hear dealers make announcements such as blinds going up. Plus, all the old Asian ladies! 

WOULD I WANT TO PLAY IN THIS GAME?: Le Chiffre's home game? No, thanks -- too dangerous. At the Nassau club? Hells yes. That place looks swank! And there are morons there giving away Aston Martins. The big tournament? Well, so long as Eva Green promised to come cheer me on ...


matt tag said...

the main thing that bugs me in this movie is the emphasis on Bond learning the eye-twitch "tell", and in the final scene he's got the stone cold immortal nuts, at which point knowing someone's tell is no longer that valuable. Why not construct a scene where he has to make a hero call with queen high or something because he accurately reads the tell?

Bob Taylor said...

You are not wrong in wondering, Matt.

The obvious answer: It would confuse too much of the audience. Plus, it can be hard to illustrate on film exactly what is going through a good poker player's mind that would cause him to make a hero call.

matt tag said...

it would have been hard, but they could have done it. They could have put Eva Green (god she's hot) and the other agent dude behind Bond, getting a peek at his cards, and then while he's thinking, the other agent dude could whisper to Eva (still hot) "what's he spending so much time thinking about? He's got Queen high! He can only beat a bluff!".

You know, Basil Exposition-it.

Bob Taylor said...

Wait ... what was that, Matt? Sorry, you got me thinking about Eva Green again. (always eternally forever amazingly hot)

Bob Taylor said...

Seriously though, Matt, I do agree with you. It would probably make more structural sense for Bond to gain info when he wins the first hand, gain more info when he loses the second hand, and then use the combined info for the big win at the final hand, perhaps by, as you say, making a hero call.

Instead the info with the tell ends up being a narrative dead end after the second hand, and the final hand ends up just being OMG I HAS MONSTER GET CHIPS IN!

Grange95 said...

Re the dealer tip: Bond throws the dealer a plaque that was used in the tourney. So either they played a tourney with real money chips (doubtful, given the stakes), or Bond tipped the dealer a worthless plaque. Freakin' cheapskate.

Wonder what the house tourney rake was? What % went to the dealers? Inquiring minds demand answers!

Bob Taylor said...

Damn it, Grange -- all good questions! I should have went another 3,000 words!

My guess: La Chiffre was an investor in the casino, and dealers were forced to work the tournament for free or else feel the smack of a knotted rope against their testicles.

Also, those plaques are supremely cool and every time someone lays one out to bet in the movie, I feel pangs of jealousy.

Grange95 said...

And isn't there an easier way for LeChiffre to get the money? Maybe host the game on his yacht and kill off his opponents?

Bob Taylor said...

There is NO WAY the players in that tournament (especially Triad guy) were going to agree to show up at Le Chiffre's boat with $10 million in cash. You need a secure casino complete with the on-site banker and such for that kind of action to go down. Nobody trusts Le Chiffre. His eye bleeds, damn it!