Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Last Hand of The Cincinnati Kid: Differences Between the Novel and Film

In the film, the Kid plays the last hand much more solidly than he does in the novel(Warning: If you’ve not seen or read The Cincinnati Kid and plan to, you might skip this here post as it gives away the ending.)

“In poker terms, the hand is a joke. But even in movie terms, there is no evident moral in the way things turn out.”

That’s what Anthony Holden says about the final hand of The Cincinnati Kid (the film) in his excellent autobiographical work Big Deal: Confessions of a Professional Poker Player. Holden refers both to the astronomical odds against such a hand being dealt (“The odds against any full house beating any straight flush, in a two-handed game, are 45,102,784 to 1” says Holden) as well as to the unlikelihood that skillful players would in real life have actually played the hand the way they do in the film (Holden believes the Man would’ve necessarily folded to The Kid’s third street bet).

Others have analyzed the hand more successfully than I ever could, so I’m not really going to try that here. Holden’s discussion is enlightening. Michael Wiesenberg has also written about the hand on several occasions, most recently in a CardPlayer column last summer. A few weeks after Wiesenberg’s column appeared, Roy Cooke also weighed in with an analysis. Wiesenberg and Cooke agree the hand (as it occurs in the film) is improbable, but both ultimately defend the players’ betting as at least within the realm of possibility (if unorthodox). Read their columns to see what they say about the hand (and other issues of interest, e.g., the string bets, the fact that they don’t seem to be playing table stakes, etc.).

Rather than try to match wits with these pros, I just wanted to make one small observation about the way the filmmakers changed the hand from what happens in Richard Jessup’s novel. The changes are minor, but significant (in my view), and perhaps help explain what the filmmakers are up to as far as conveying an overall message or theme is concerned. Here’s a quick run down of the action (first the film version, then the novel version), distilled into hand histories:

(I hope my math is correct and I’m being accurate here. If anyone sees any mistakes or obvious misrepresentations, please let me know.)

It appears to me that the film version deliberately changes the hand so as to make the Kid’s play appear more acceptable and the Man’s play less so. In Jessup’s novel, the Kid makes a much smaller bet on fourth street than he does in the film. In the novel, the Kid bets only $1,000 into a $5,820 pot, giving the Man almost 7-to-1 to call. In the film, the Kid at this point bets $3,000 into a $5,000 pot, making the Man’s call quite a bit more sketchy. Additionally, the narrator in Jessup’s novel tells us how the Kid suspects as early as third street that Lancey is going for a straight flush. So when the Man does end up with that scary 7h8hTh9h board, we see the Kid essentially talking himself out of his original read and betting (and taking the Man’s marker and calling the Man’s raise) anyway. Jessup portrays the Kid here as not only outchipped, but outmanned (as it were). The Man got lucky, to be sure, but it is clear that in the novel we are to understand the Kid is in over his head. The Man outplayed him.

In the film, the Kid seems to have played the hand much more solidly, and certainly better than Lancey does. The Man’s reckless call on fourth street makes it look like he’s no longer trying to outplay the Kid, but has decided to gamble. In the film, when we get to the river there is only one possible down card the Man could have that beats the Kid (not two), making it seem even more likely to the Kid that he’s correct to think he’s “got the Man!” In my view, the Kid’s play in the film -- especially on fourth and fifth streets -- is clearly better than in the novel.

All of which makes it seem even more unfair when the Man spikes that Jd and beats the Kid. Holden is right -- there is no “evident moral” here. A lot of poker players have a problem with that, but I think they’re missing the point. I believe the filmmakers’ altered that last hand from Jessup’s version so as to make it seem even more improbable. And unfair. In other words, the very criticism poker players make of the hand -- that it is a “joke” that is too unlikely to be believed -- ignores the possibility that the improbability and/or unfairness of the hand particularly suits the overall theme or “message” of the film.

I think changes in the hand show the filmmakers wanted explicitly to challenge the notion that in life (and/or in poker) there is no such thing as an “evident moral.”

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Blogger Milton Lewin said...

I just saw this film, and my belief - after mulling it all over - is that Lady Fingers was cheating in her dealing, the way that Shooter was, but for Lancey.

That would address many things - the improbability of what is basically a perfect hand for Lancey (a straight flush against a full house), and show that the Man is basically teaching the Kid a lesson that to play at the level that the Man has obviously been for so long it takes something more than just skill. (Like in "Breaking Away" when the Italian pro racer sticks the pole in Dave Stoller's wheel during a race).

12/24/2012 6:46 PM  
Blogger Rob Spatz said...

Never looked at the Lady Fingers angle but definitely can see it. Also, most poker pros (meself included, as I am far from a pro) would have folded on thr last raise....

12/31/2012 2:41 PM  
OpenID consentient said...

I completely disagree with your reading of the film.

What I've always thought about the last hand of the film is that The Man plays as good a hand of stud as it's possible to play.

He has been deliberately hamming up some of his beats, and may even have played some of them uncharacteristically badly, so as to create a lead in that accentuates in the Kid's mind how much on tilt he thinks the Man is, and therefore how desperate he is to steal the pot. Clearly it was a semi-bluff/double bluff by the Man and he, as he says, makes the wrong move at the right time, in other words he continues to play knowing it will be the last hand, but knowing that if he lands the straight flush, then noone will believe that he's played to it.

For sure, the film dramatises the play to a greater extent because it has to...narrative is only developed with a great script and clever photography, whereas a prose author can deploy many more devices. Hence the Man's face when he turns over the Jack is like a Tarot card image, the embodiment of the Kid's demise, and the Man wants him to think that its's inevitable. He follows up the incredible victory wish not only trash talk designed to reinforce the inevitability, but also the honest confession that it was an incredibly brave play, yet one that was virtually guaranteed to pay off if he drew the right cards.

My play is not at all like the Man's, but I've played people like that before and they always win in the long run because they play a long game.

The best poker players, in my view, are those that recognise that in no limit games, spotting when you can manufacture an INCREDIBLE (in the literal sense of the word) victory is the best quality of all to have.

Hero-calling, and uber-bluffing and great reads are all also great tools, but if you can sense your opportunity and maximise it, especially in slow motion, as The Man had to, is so great as to appear magical.

The closest I have come to this (and its nothing like The Man) is calling a pre-flop raise in NL Holdem with low suited connectors and hitting a straight flush to the 6 on the turn while my opponent hit a set of Aces on the flop and quads on the river. Of course, in his mind noone is going to call the preflop raise with 3,4 suited, much as The Kid just couldnt believe that anyone would play the way The Man did.

But it's not just about risk, because really, if you only play the odds, you will always lose against the superior psychological player. That player will maximise his winnings when he has the best of it, and will sense your own self-doubt when you're going through a decision-making process over those hands where you have the nuts but are worried, etc...

Bottom line: besides uberbluffs, great reads, great folds and hero calls, seizing those mythical opportunities to carve out simply INCREDIBLE hands is a much-underrated quality in poker.

3/27/2013 8:45 AM  
Blogger cincinnatus said...

What is the 'evident moral' of the film? I think it is 'honor is more important than life' because of the earlier chat between the kid and his girlfriend, who narrated a french movie where the characters cared more for life than honor, and in the card game. Though the kid said he agreed with the characters ("What's the point of honor if you are dead?"), that's not what he does when he himself gets in that situation. The kid wanted to win without cheating and refused shooter's "help"m that would have delivered him a sure victory, but got gutted in the end by the man. It doesn't matter since at least he can hold his head high. Had he won by cheating it would have only been an empty victory.

I wish they had kept the director's cut which implied the kid was finished by the gut-wrenching loss, where he did almost everything right but still lost, but the studio heads tacked on a 'there is always another day' closing shots to appease the audience, which does not underline the main point of the story.

2/23/2014 9:01 AM  
Blogger cincinnatus said...

Not to mention the likely threat of physical death as well at the hands of Slade (or his underling) since the kid defied him to play honestly.

In fact, that might have been a better end to the movie, where the kid gets shot by someone and let the audience figure out who did it. His girlfriend who he cheated on, Shooter, since the kid slept with his wife and whose reputation is at risk if the Kid tells on him or Slade.

2/23/2014 2:00 PM  
Blogger cincinnatus said...

It is also interesting that the Kid gave so much importance to not cheating in the card game (professional life) but didn't give the same consideration to cheating his girlfriend (personal life). The Kid always valued his profession and professional relationships (e.g. friendship with Shooter) more than his personal relationship, so this is not entirely surprising and also reflects human nature - we all value honesty in some areas our lives more than others. (And, come on, who in their right mind could resist the sizzling hot Ann-Margret if she offered herself in your bed ;-)

And the loss in the game, in spite of him playing better than the Man, could be sort of karmic retribution.

2/25/2014 11:34 AM  

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