Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Action Cards: Maverick

Action Cards is a recurring column here at Three Rivers Poker where I pick a film that features poker in some capacity and then specifically review the poker scenes contained therein. I occasionally tackle an honest-to-god poker movie but find it's more fun (for me and you) to discuss movies that only tangentially feature the game. Up today, one of the game's most legendary fictional players ...

THE MOVIE: Maverick (1994) 

THE PLOT: This movie version of the late 50s/early 60s TV series finds poker whiz Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) suffering one setback after another as he romps around the Old West trying to round up the $25,000 he needs to enter the All Rivers Draw Poker Championship. Constantly getting in his way are cute-as-a-button con artist Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster); strict lawman Zane Cooper (TV's original Maverick, James Garner); and evil Spaniard in an awful hat Angel (Alfred Molina).

HOW MUCH POKER IS INVOLVED?: A fair amount. Most of the movie concerns Maverick trying to secure the final $3,000 he needs for his entry fee, but we do see Maverick, Annabelle and Angel face off in a saloon game early on. Then the big tournament takes up a healthy bit of screen time near the film's end.


Maverick announces its poker-heavy intentions right from the get-go when the film's title graphic, which includes the four suits, is superimposed over the ace of spades. In an opening-scene voice-over, Maverick explains how the "poker game of the century" will go down in St. Louis in just four days time.

"There was no way in hell I was going to miss that game," he tells the audience. "Not just because there was a half-a-million pot to be won, although that kind of money certainly demands attention. But because I needed to know how good I really was, once and for all."

An early question: How does everyone seem to know for sure that the prize money will be $500K (or approximately $12 million in today's dollars)? Were they going to limit the poker tournament to 20 players? What if they didn't even get to 20? After all, Maverick and Annabelle end up registering at the very last minute. Would any of the players have been disappointed if the tourney fell short of 20 entrants and the prize money ended up at less than half a mil? These are the kinds of annoying things I think about when I watch a poker movie.

Scene one -- Maverick picks up some tells

After the opening scene of Maverick escaping a hanging (which is actually a flash-forward to the middle of the movie), we catch up with him riding into Crystal River, where he sits down for a saloon game of five-card draw with Annabelle, Angel and four other players.

There's an empty chair, but Angel would prefer to keep the game at six players. Until, that is, Maverick promises to lose for at least the first hour, while also assuring everyone that he hardly ever bluffs and never cheats.

Once he's dealt in, there's a little montage where Maverick loses money in ridiculous ways, like holding his cards backwards so everyone can see them, while at the same time observing all the monstrous tells that are being given off left and right by the rest of the table. Angel licks his lips and shuffles his cards around. Annabelle tugs at her hair. The other players make facial expressions when they look at their cards which would be considered excessive for a Looney Toons short. It's all quite dumb poker-wise, though from a film perspective, it's a fun little scene set to a jaunty Randy Newman score.

Finally, the first hour is up, and we see Maverick's first real hand. A punk-lookin' kid in a bowler hat calls whatever Maverick's bet was and raises $20 on top. "Slow down," Maverick remarks. "I'm running low on chips here." (SPEECH! Better watch out, kid.)

Maverick decides to just call. The kid flips flips over two strong pair, aces and queens. Maverick gives off a little sigh, and the kid moves to pull in his pot. But then Maverick says, "Lucky thing for me I had three sixes," and reveals his better hand.

The kid slumps back in his chair pissed. And why wouldn't he be? Maverick just slow-rolled the pants off of him with his fake little sigh! (Which you're going to hear again a little while later. Maverick is kind of a dick with the fake sigh.)

Stewing, the kid says he doesn't think the hand should count because his "mind wasn't on the game." Turns out he's a young gunfighter named Johnny Hardin. Maverick doesn't want to tangle with a killer and decides to return all the winnings. Angel calls him gutless. Then Maverick gives a little speech about the merits of cowardice before whipping out his gun at lightning-fast speed, pointing it dead at Johnny before the kid can even flinch. That gives everyone second thoughts about messing with Maverick, so he keeps his chips and the game goes on. (Question: Why didn't Maverick do the gun trick before offering to turn over his winnings and giving the speech? Guess he wanted to catch the kid offguard.)

A little later on in the night, Maverick is in a hand with Angel, who bets $75. Maverick raises $100 on top. Angel folds angrily and then breaks poker protocol by grabbing Maverick's cards and flipping them up. Maverick didn't have diddly-squat.

"You said you never bluff!" Angel barks. "I had me a pair of aces!"

"No, I said I never cheated, and I also said I hardly ever bluff," Maverick replies. "This was one of the 'hardlys.'"

When Angel accuses him of cheating, Maverick explains that he's been winning because he spent the first hour learning everyone's tells, like the fact that when Angel has a strong hand he gets fidgety and shuffles his cards around. Angel is just about to pummel him when a group of thugs comes in and drags Maverick outside to fight. Maverick, however, fends them off, clobbering the lot of them. Seeing what a badass Maverick is, Angel backs off, and the game resumes without further incident.

We learn later on in the film that, although Maverick is fast on the draw, he really can't aim all that well and that the thugs he chased off were paid to drag him out of the saloon and then take a fall. Long story short: Maverick must be so fucking good at poker that he's always in danger of getting shot, stabbed or beaten by sore losers. So he apparently needs all these fancy gun tricks and rigged fistfights just to make it out of most card games alive. I don't know ... sounds to me like the guy really ought to find a safer line of work.

Scene two -- The All Rivers Draw Poker Championship, part one

Before the big tournament, we learn that, ever since he was a kid, Maverick believed that if he thought hard enough about a particular card, he'd be able to cut straight to it. It never seems to work, but ... hmm ... I wonder if that will play a part later in the film. Seems like a good bet, no?

Anyway, the All Rivers gets underway on a fancy riverboat. It's run by a gambler named the Commodore (James Coburn), who has hired Cooper to make sure no one cheats during the tournament. Sure enough, there are 20 players in the field, including such surprising entrants as Clint Black and Dan Hedaya and Uncle Jesse! Now, that's what I call a poker tournament! Although fuck this movie for not giving the great Hedaya any lines. It's a play-till-you-drop, winner-take-all affair. Rather than combining tables as they go, four tables of five play down until there is only one player left at each, and then those four "first-round winners" face-off at the final table, or "final game" as they call it in the movie.

The tournament opens with a montage, where we see Maverick picking up tells while all manner of cheating goes on. Clint Black takes down a pot with four kings but gets busted with an ace up his sleeve. Uncle Jesse wins a hand with two pair, but Cooper finds cards in his vest. Sweet lord, you'd think the most prestigious poker tournament in the Old West would draw a more reputable group of players, but, apparently, everyone thinks they can pull one over on Cooper. All the cheaters get tossed overboard, and their chips are divided evenly amongst the remaining players. (Seems fair.)

Finally, our four main poker-playing characters succeed in making the final table. ("What are the odds?!" I yell sarcastically.) Annabelle tips the dealer in chips after she finishes off the last guy at her table, which makes no sense as this is a tournament and those chips are essentially worthless. Angel breaks a guy holding a full house with four queens, a seemingly brutal cooler. The Commodore slow-rolls some poor schmuck by saying, "Ooh, that's a good hand. That beats one, two, three sevens ... but not four." You'd think people would start to suspect something fishy was going on as it seems quads are being shown down every other hand.

Maverick calls some old guy's all-in and does this super-classy thing where he just slides his cards over to him face-down for the poor fella to take a look at. It's a sweet-ass move I hope to pull off at a home game some day. The old guy glances at the obviously super-strong cards, shakes Maverick's hand and wishes him well. The players then break for an hour before reforming for the final table.

Scene three -- The All Rivers Draw Poker Championship, part two

Play resumes at five in the morning, but somebody tries to screw Maverick by chaining his room's door and locking it tight. A big deal is made about him possibly being late. They do not tolerate lateness at all in the All Rivers Draw Poker Championship. If you're one minute behind schedule, they rule you eliminated and divide up your chips. Phil Helmuth would be fucked.

Maverick escapes out a window, though, and makes it to the table in the nick of time. The first hand we witness has Maverick min-raising Annabelle's $1,000 bet. Annabelle sees the raise and asks if she can "just bet everything I have left?" Here's a tip: You should probably know the betting rules before you enter some super-expensive riverboat tournament. The Commodore and Angel fold. Maverick calls with a pair of sixes, saying, "Oh, what the hell. I feel like being silly." (SPEECH!)

Of course, Maverick had her dead to rights because she gave off a significant tell -- she held her breath. (He knows she breathes heavily when excited, something he picked up while they were rolling around naked during the break. Who knew sex tells could translate directly to poker?!) Annabelle has no hand at all, probably a busted draw. The best part of her going broke is the funny little nod Angel gives when she asks him if she did indeed hold her breath. God bless you, Alfred Molina. You truly are doing the lord's work.

With Annabelle gone, we arrive at the final hand. The first thing we notice is that the dealer is a big fat cheat. There's a very obvious insert shot where he takes the shuffled deck and swaps it for another, presumably prearranged, deck. From the rigged deck, the Commodore is dealt K-8-8-J-8♣. Angel is dealt 4-5-6-2♠-7♣. Maverick gets 10♠-J♠-Q♠-K♠-2. The Commodore bets $5K, and Angel raises another $5K on top. Maverick calls. The Commodore calls. On to the draw.

The Commodore takes two and makes his quad eights. Angel also asks for two, which would be stupid if this was a fair game. Why toss away an open-ended straight draw to go for the far more unlikely runner-runner? But, remember, we know there's serious cheatin' afoot, especially once we see that his two draw cards are dealt from the bottom of the deck. Of course, he hits his straight flush -- the three through seven of hearts -- which Angel arranges in their proper order so the audience understands (and also I guess because that was one of his tells earlier in the movie).

Maverick, who has picked up on all the dealer shenanigans, then says, "I'll take one card but not from you," eye-balling the dealer. "I'd like a new deck, a new cut and a new shuffle."

Cooper tells him that's against the rules, though he can request a new dealer if he'd like. Maverick chooses Angel and informs him that "one from the top would be sufficient." Angel pushes him the card, which Maverick leaves face down on the table. In the background Cooper is telling Annabelle what the Commodore and Angel are holding. Hey, Coop, it's the middle of hand. A hand with all kinds of cheating going on, sure, but still ... uncool, man, uncool.

Emboldened by his quad eights, the Commodore says, "Well, since it looks like I'm sucking hind tit here, I think I'll just bet my whole tray." (SPEEEEEEECH!) Angel sees the $25K the Commodore had left and pushes all-in, making sure to point out that he and Maverick have nearly even chip stacks. After all, it would suck all the drama out of the proceedings if there were hands past this one.

Maverick calls in an attempt to win the whole thing, still not looking at the card he drew, which upsets Angel something fierce. "What kind of poker are you playing?" he snarls. "Look at the goddamn card!"

Maverick declines, and it's showdown time. The Commodore announces he has two small pair: "Eights ... and eights." Holy crap, does this guy get off on slow-rolling.

Angel again asks Maverick if he's going to look at his card. When Maverick doesn't budge, Angel says, "Well, how you gonna know if you can beat my straight flush?" He still looks nervous though.

Maverick methodically reveals his 10 through king of spades, one at at time. He puts his hand over top of the face-down card, calling on all that voodoo magic shit he was talking about believing in earlier. (Except I thought that involved cutting to a specific card? He didn't cut this deck. The card was dealt off the top. Do Maverick's imaginary powers still work if he's not cutting?!) He looks at his card, gives his little "oh, crap, that's not the card I needed" fake-out sigh and then throws the ace of spades into the middle of the pot, super-slow-mo-style, for the completed royal flush. Boo-ya.

Angel goes nuclear and pops a Travis Bickle-style handgun out of his sleeve. Cooper blows him away before he can do any damage, while Maverick grabs Cooper's second holstered pistol and blasts Angel's henchmen. You'd think that would be the end of the drama, but then when it comes time to award the prize money, Cooper double-crosses everyone and flees with the $500K. It was at this point I decided that this was likely the final year of the All Rivers Draw Poker Championship. WORST POKER TOURNAMENT EVER.

Back on land, the twists keep on coming. It turns out the Commodore and Cooper were both in on the con. If the Commodore won, Cooper was to do nothing. If anyone else won, the two were to meet up afterward to divvy the stolen loot. Although Cooper was unaware of it, Angel was in on the scheme too. He was the one who had been trying to stop Maverick from making the game throughout the whole movie, under the Commodore's orders.

During their rendezvous, however, Maverick gets the drop on them and reclaims his prize. He tosses his gun up in the air as he makes his escape. The Commodore secures the pistol. "Click." It's empty. Cooper beats the Commodore's ass but won't kill him. THEN it's finally revealed that Cooper is actually Maverick's father, and that the two had been in cahoots the whole time, staging an elaborate plan to take down one of the Old West's filthiest poker cheats. Presumably, the Commodore ends up disgraced and imprisoned. Everybody got that?

Okay, now that we know whose side everyone is really on, let's go back and look at the tournament again. Angel's run of great cards was clearly a result of deck-stacking. The crooked final-table dealer was also the dealer at his first-round table. Maverick and Annabelle obviously relied on skill and luck. It's not clear whether the Commodore had first-round help. He could have had a second dealer on the payroll, or he could have just trusted that his considerable poker know-how would take him to the end of the game. And, if not, he had a great back-up plan in Angel.

In the final hand, we know for sure Angel's hand was rigged because we see the dealer pulling Angel's draw cards from the bottom of the deck. At first thought, it seems likely that the Commodore's hand was rigged too, but there are some hints that his four eights were totally random. First of all, there was no need for both players' hands to be so strong. After all, it would only take one top-shelf hand at the right moment to eliminate Maverick. And it's logical that the Commodore would plan it so that Angel is the one to benefit from all the cheating going on. That way, if things turned sour, the Commodore would be able to to shift blame away from himself. There's also a shot of the Commodore letting loose a little muffled chuckle when we sees that he hit his fourth eight, a clear sign of surprise. It's possible the crooked dealer was ordered to help Angel eliminate Maverick at the final table while the Commodore continued playing a straight-up game. The fact that he ended up with quads on the same hand the dealer set it up so Angel would take down Maverick would then be merely a coincidence.

Speaking of Maverick, we have to assume that his hand was likely fixed as well because what would be the point in setting up a monster hand for Angel if Maverick was just going to get garbage and immediately fold it? It makes sense that Maverick was purposely dealt a monster drawing hand -- four suited straightening cards -- to make sure he would put all of his chips into the pot against Angel's guaranteed-to-be-made hand. But if that's the case, why give Maverick the monster of all monsters, a hand that could still win if he somehow hit his final card? Why not give him quad sixes or something instead? I'm sure he'd have been happy getting all his money in with that. The easy answer is because the plan was for the dealer to give him a blank on the river. But we see how that turned out. The crooked dealer never should have risked putting a potentially bigger hand in play, even one that wasn't supposed to get there.

Now consider this: Maverick decided to go ahead and play the hand even though he knew he had to be going up against at least one prearranged monster. He had to know making just a regular straight or flush wasn't going to be good enough. By ordering one card off the top of the deck after he saw the dealer pull from the bottom, he must have assumed he was getting a random shot at one of only two cards that would make him the winner. (Don't forget, like the movie does, that the 9♠ also would have given Maverick the best hand.) But, even still, those are awfully long odds. He could have just folded and picked a better spot with a new dealer who wasn't on the Commodore's payroll. And he really did need to win the tournament so that Cooper would steal the money and meet up with the Commodore, allowing the pair to fully expose the Commodore for the cheat and thief he is. If the Commodore or Angel just won outright, it seems like proving malfeasance would be much tougher. Plus, Maverick and Cooper had to know it would be easier to apprehend the Commodore by getting him off the boat, out of his comfort zone and away from whatever men he had in his employ.

So Maverick put a lot on the line when he decided to go for his two outs. At the end of the movie, Cooper asks him, "How did you come up with that ace of spades?"

"Magic," Maverick replies.


I mean, not that the movie is striving for poker realism, but this is what we do here at Action Cards. We can at least give Maverick this: Five-card draw was the predominate poker game played during this period of American history. Legend says it was the game being dealt when Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead in 1876. Past that, there's nothing but pure silliness going on here -- from Maverick's unorthodox methods like promising to lose for the first hour to everyone's super-obvious tells to the ridiculous overabundance of cheating going on in the All Rivers tournament. It makes for a solid comic-adventure, but the poker is crap.

There is also a slightly bizarre contradiction going on with Maverick. He's shown to be a smart, clinical player who's obviously an expert at reading poker tells. But, at the same time, he obsesses over lucky shirts and magical abilities he thinks he can harness. It's not like there aren't poker players who are good at the game and superstitious. Of course there are. But it's a little odd that the movie portrays Maverick as existing so fully in both extremes.


Heck no. Too much cheating. Too much shooting. And five-card draw is about a century past its prime.


Fred said...

This was a movie I loved watching when I was younger, but I've not saught it out recently since the "poker boom" because I didn't want to have it ruined in my memory :-)

Bob Taylor said...

If you can put aside all the silly poker, as well as how shitty of a human being Mel Gibson turned out to be, the movie actually holds up pretty well! It's extremely episodic but fun.