“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 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 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.”