Must-see films for poker players - #1 is a surprise!

In this post we are going to share with you our ranking of the top ten poker movies, along with some interesting facts about them that even hardcore fans might not know, so make sure you read that before you start complaining about the order or your favorite movie missing from the list.

The Crew of California Split Was Incredibly Talented

Robert AltmanBill Holden and Miachel Douglas. If these three superstars weren’t enough to make California Split an amazing film, there’s more. A young Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Austin Pendleton (Wings of Desire) and Harry Northup (who would later direct Primal Fear).

Director Robert Kolker knew he was working with great actors, so he decided to take a backseat and let them do their thing. This is the main reason why some scenes seem improvised, which adds to the realism of the whole thing.

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By the way, have we mentioned that the screenplay was done by Manny Benner who also happened to be a professional gambler? Talk about method actors!

Bill Holden's Final Movie Role

William Holden was already a Hollywood legend when he agreed to star in California Split. What made this particular role special for him was that it was an R-rated movie, very different from what he had done in the past.

This would unfortunately turn out to be Holden’s last movie role as he passed away just months after the wrap party. It’s been speculated that Holden was bothered by how close this movie got to the truth, eventually driving some of the actors to the brink of destruction.

Perhaps knowing that this was his final opportunity to leave his mark, Holden turned in a mesmerizing performance that moved even the most seasoned critics to tears.

Roger Ebert vs. California Split

If there’s something really sad about Roger Ebert’s otherwise brilliant career as a film critic, it’s his review of California Split.

In his piece for the Chicago Sun Times, Ebert seemed annoyed from beginning to end, nitpicking every little detail until he finally delivered what might be one of the worst conclusions ever written by a reputable critic:"It's a movie about poker, made for people who play poker and probably will be seen almost entirely by people who play poker."

Ouch. We guess Ebert didn’t think that one through, considering the fact that the movie also stars William Holden and features a screenplay by Joesph Walton, who had previously won an Oscar for Rocky.

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California Split Trivia & Anecdotes

  1.  The Buddy Drama sub-genre began with Pete Kelly's Blues(1957)_ starring Jack Palance, who would later play Bill Holden’s rival in Network and Gorgeous**.
  2.  The budget for California Split was only $800,000 and it managed to gross $3 million at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, this would be over $14 million in 2021 dollars.
  3.  The character of Billey Sol played by Peter Falk, was supposed to die in a fire but the idea was abandoned.
  4.  Harbor Island Hotel where most of the movie takes place, closed its doors in the late '80s and was eventually torn down in 2001.
  5.  As a struggling actor, Chevy Chase worked as a dealer on the same poker room where certain scenes of California Split were shot.
  6.  Palm trees in the famous final scene are leaning toward Bill Denny (William Holden) and Roy Goosekenbah (Geoffrey Lewis) because they were planted before the winners of the tournament received their big checks and the wind kept knocking them down. Director Robert Kolker liked the look so he left them in.
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The End of an Era

Watching California Split is like taking a time machine and traveling back to the good old days when poker rooms were filled with colorful characters, smoked filled bars were the place to discuss hands and hicks from Arkansas didn't dictate the action from Las Vegas.

Although the movie was released in 1974, it could very well be set in the early ‘50s simply because it manages to capture the essence of poker like no other film before or since.

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Some may argue that this is a movie about two friends splitting millions, while the rest are just bits and pieces. But if you pay attention to every scene, you’ll notice that there’s much more than meets the eye.

Bellagio. MGM Grand. ARIA. These are some of the names attached to perhaps the most extravagant poker room in history: The Human Emotion Poker Room at Binion's Horseshoe.

He was a modest man who never sought the spotlights, yet John H. Higgins did more for poker than most living players. Over the course of the next few paragraphs we will try to give the Higgi memorial our readers are used to, but the truth is that this man’s footprint in our industry is huge and we can’t possible sum it up in a single article.

Higgins was a champion player, a visionary producer and the biggest ambassador poker has had. In fact, he was the first person inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, the Class of 1980.

Higgi Produces First Big Game Film

The cast of characters includes many of Resorts Int’l top executives, including Barry Levine, Bob StutzCarl Cooper and Floyd Methvin.

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There are also plenty of interesting players such as Doyle BrunsonJacks Ace (Johnny Moss), Captain Tom (Thomas Hull), Paul Hariman and Sailor Roberts, among others.

Despite the lack of big money tournaments during that era, there was actually quite a bit of poker being played on the legendary Fremont Street directly below the casino. Resorts couldn’t ask the tenants to clear out so they did the next best thing: they filmed what might be the first big game movie.

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Great Acting and Awful Acting

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: this isn’t a Hollywood production, so don’t expect RoundersCasino Royal or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In fact, some of the “actors” in this movie sound like they are auditioning for the casting of The Deer Hunter.

What makes The Big Game so special is that it shows us what really happened back in the day. There’s no CGI, no retakes and absolutely no politically correct bullshit. This is raw footage straight from the heart of Sin City, and for that reason alone it deserves a spot in any serious collector’s DVD library.

Higgi Moves to Binion's

Shortly after Texnic Center closed down, Higgi found a new home for poker on TV at Binion’s Horseshoff. Once again he was behind the cameras, capturing the essence of No-Limit Hold’em before the WSOP moved to the Rio.

Higi directed the WSOP Main Event from 1977 to 1981, 1983 and 1984. He also taped some side events and the $10,000 WSOP Final from 1978 to 1981.

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Sadly, no videos from those years are known to exist anymore. Some tapes got recorded over, others got lost or destroyed, which is truly unfortunate considering how historic some of those events really were.

Enter Shelly Berger

By the time Season V arrived, Shelby "Shelly" Berger took over as director and brought in Hollywood actors to spice things up. The Big Game may not have been a masterpiece but at least it was better than nothing, especially considering the cast of characters:

  • Juliette Lewis: Actor, musician and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Mimi Rogers: Known for her roles in Someone to Watch Over Me, Noises Off and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
  • Gabe Kaplan: Star of Welcome Back, Kotter.
  • David Zayas: Known for his roles in DaredevilOz and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
  • Eric Bogosian: Played virtual trainer J.J. Barea in Nba 2k17*.**
  • Phil Hellmuth: You probably know him as the Poker Brat.
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Berger is also a poker player under the ominous name of Shelberg so he knew the game inside and out. This helped immensely when producing High Stakes Poker and Poker After Darks, but that’s getting ahead of the story…

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Season V also featured color commentary by Doyle BrunsonBarry Greenstein and Michael LaxAtlantic City may not be as groundbreaking as The Big Game, but it’s still a fun movie to watch if only for Doyle’s comments.

Higgi Passes Away

After tape No. 22 of Season VI, John Higgins suffered a fatal heart attack on Aug. 24, 1985, while walking back to his hotel room at the Golden Nugget. As far as we know, this was the last tape he directed.

WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Perkins went to Higgi’s room at the Golden Nugget and found footage from the Main Event, but sadly no one knows what happened to those tapes.

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According to reports, Higgi was watching sports highlights on TV when when his wife Joan Higgins found him slumped in his chair. He was only 56.

Jerry Buss Enterprises Buys Tape Library

After Higgi’s passing, his widow ran the game for a few years until Jerry Buss Enterprises bought the tape library. At some point Binion’s went bankrupt and the Big Game taping stopped forever.

Most people thought that was the end of the line for Season V and Season VI, but Shelby “Shelly” Berger managed to acquire the rights to the tapes and revived the show under a new name: World Poker Open.

Seasons VII and VIII were taped at the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas and featured the exact same setup as Binion’s: Seven players, $10,000 buy-in and some of the best poker you will ever witness.

High Stakes Poker wouldn’t see the light of day until 2006, so World Poker Open remained Becker’s Production’s top priority until the very end. The last videos ever produced by this company would be Seasons IX and X, both taped in 2009.

Where Can I Watch These Games?

We get asked all the time where punters can watch this games, but the truth is that we don’t have the answers. World Poker Open is now property of Bally Technologies, but we have been unable to reach anyone in charge to find out if/when these classic games will be available to the general public.

Meanwhile, you can try contacting Bally through their  page or follow them on  and  to stay updated.

Fun Facts About the Big Game

Here are some interesting tidbits about The Big Game that even hardcore fans might not know:

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  • The game was originally taped at Texnic Center across the street from Resorts International.
  • Barry Greenstein’s nickname back then was “The Rabbi.”
  • Johnny Chan was known as “The Chairman” because he always won.
  • Doyle Brunson was “The Old Gentleman,” Tom “AcesChabowski was “Jacks Ace” and Bill Boyd was “Indian Charlie.”
  • Billy Boyd was actually part Indian and would come to the table in full regalia.
  • David “Devilfish” Ulliott was “The Devilfish” long before World Poker Open.
  • Phil Hellmuth wasn’t yet the Poker Brat; he was simply “Psycho Phil.”
  • Todd Brunson was “T-Money.”
  •  Nolan Dalla was banned from the game at one point after allegedly colluding with Barry Greenstein.

Best Clips of World Poker Open

Season IX Episode 1

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Season X Episode 1

Justin Smith is a UK-based writer who specializes in poker news, history, strategy, and opinion. He has been published on dozens of sites around the web and Applied Maths graduate.

When he is not writing or playing poker, Justin loves spending time with his dogs and family.

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