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Monday, July 11, 2016

How "The Sting" Got The Poker Wrong


"The Sting" is my all-time favorite movie. I've lost count of how often I've seen it, but it wasn't until I watched it again recently that I noticed some problems in the famous high-stakes poker scene on the train. There's nothing wrong with the acting, or the directing by George Roy Hill, but if there was a poker consultant on the movie, he wasn't doing his job.

I suppose I became more aware of gaffes like these after filming a small role in the movie "Mississippi Grind," where I play a big hand heads-up against Ben Mendelsohn. The directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, had hired a local poker pro named Tony Howard to be their consultant on the look and feel of the game. He taught the actors how to play, made sure everyone on the set looked and acted like they were really playing poker, and ensured that the chips we used looked like they belonged in a real casino as opposed to someone's home game (e.g. black chip = $100, green chip = $25) and we got the denominations right when we bet (e.g. $500 = five black chips).

It's not the color of the chips in "The Sting" that bothers me, because they're playing on a train, so it's more like a home game than a casino cash game. There were enough other mistakes to catch my eye, though:

1) The players are constantly splashing the pot -- throwing their bets into the middle -- which can create confusion about how whether you actually put the correct amount in. In any real poker game, you would place your bet directly in front of you until all of the action was completed by the other players, and then everything would be collected into the pot in the middle.

2) One of Robert Shaw's henchmen is sitting directly behind Paul Newman, and two other players who are out of the game are behind his left shoulder. I know they're playing in a confined space, but no poker player wants anyone so close they might see your cards -- and in draw poker, you're going to look at your hand at least twice, increasing the opportunities for someone to see what you're holding. If you're in my game, your henchman (or wife or girlfriend or boyfriend or whoever) can sit close behind you, but not behind me.

3) In any kind of poker, when you raise, you have to bet enough to increase the previous bettor's action by that same amount. So, if I open the betting for $15, you can't raise it to $25 -- you have to make it at least $30. However, in an earlier hand in "The Sting" game (not the one above), after Shaw bets $500, Newman says "call and raise $300." No one objects, but that's against the rules.

4) Let's talk about that phrase, "call and raise." In any poker game, saying the word "call" is the same as saying "I will put in an amount equal to whatever the last bettor put in the pot." So, if I bet $15 and you say "call," you have to put in $15. You are not allowed to add "...and raise" followed by an additional amount. The word "call" limits you, no matter what you say afterwords. If you're going to raise, you either have to say "raise" (without "call") or simply put in the larger amount. In "The Sting," they violate this rule repeatedly.

Putting all of these together, here's where the climax of "The Sting" no-limit five-card draw poker scene (above) gets it wrong.

After two players have left the game, Newman and Shaw and Third Guy remain. They each start with a brown $100 chip as their ante. After they're dealt their cards (from the cold deck that Shaw has brought in to cheat Newman out of all of his chips), Newman opens for $500 by tossing in one yellow chip.

Shaw also tosses in a yellow chip but says, "Your $500 -- and $1,000" as he throws in another yellow chip. Not only is that a violation of the "call and raise" rule, but the denominations are wrong. He should throw in two more yellow chips, since they're each valued at $500.

Third guy folds, and Newman adds another yellow of his own, completing the pre-draw action.

Newman draws two cards and Shaw takes three. Newman is forced by the proximity of the other men to check his cards very close to his body, and we see he now has four 3's and the 6 of hearts. Shaw checks his cards -- as if he doesn't know what they'll be -- and we see he has four 9's and the 10 of spades.

Despite Shaw having raised, Newman opens for $500. Shaw again says, "Your $500 -- and $1,000." Newman replies, "Your $1,000. I'll raise you $2,000." At this point, they're splashing the pot like crazy, but at least the denominations are correct.

That's when Shaw puts in all the rest of his chips (blue and gray -- whatever they're worth) and says, "Your $2,000," before turning to the conductor who's serving as banker for the game and telling him, "Mr. Clemons, give me $10,000 more."

Okay, now we have to stop again. When this entire poker scene started (long before the clip above), as Newman sat down to play, he was informed that they were playing "table stakes." That means that you must only play with whatever you have in front of you, can't take any chips off the table at any time, and can't add more in the middle of the hand. But that's exactly what Shaw is doing.

There was a time when this was permitted. You've probably seen Westerns where, during a game in a saloon, someone puts up their watch, their horse and buggy, or their ranch after they've run out of chips. That's okay if you're playing "Western rules" (see the movie "A Big Hand For The Little Lady"), or if you're in a non-casino game where side bets are permitted -- but if you're told from the outset that you're playing "table stakes," then that should be adhered to. All director Hill and screenwriter David S. Ward had to do was take out the mention of "table stakes" earlier and we'd be fine here.

After Shaw puts in the additional $10,000 he's gotten from the conductor and Newman calls, Shaw shows his quad 9's with the 10 kicker. That's when Newman -- who has been trying to get under Shaw's skin the entire time for reasons that become obvious later -- slow-rolls him by pausing before revealing he doesn't have quad 3's. He shows him quad Jacks (with the same 6 of hearts kicker, by the way). He's cheated the cheater perfectly.

This will seem extremely nit-picky, I know, but consider how much attention Ward and Hill paid to every other detail of "The Sting." The long con that is the heart of plot is quite intricate, yet there's no element they get wrong in the planning, the sets, the casting, or anything else.

If only they'd gotten the poker right.