Hollywood’s love affair with gamblers has produced a glut of iconic characters: the sharks, the high-rollers, the card maestros, the casino studs…all have left their mark on cinema history, but some stand apart from the rest.
From evil geniuses to poker whiz-kids, the characters listed below are the ten greatest gamblers ever to grace the silver screen.
10) Axel Freed – The Gambler (1974)
Apparently, lead actor James Caan was struggling with a cocaine habit during the filming of this neo-noir gem. A tough time for him no doubt, but it might explain the air of authenticity he brings to his performance as Axel Freed: a lifetime gambler in deep with the wrong people.
Axel stands as a cautionary tale to gamblers everywhere; he is a victim of the seedier side of our beloved pastime. Landed in more debt than the Lehman brothers and with the loan sharks circling, Axel’s disintegration is as painful as it compelling.
The desperate humanity with which Axel struggles vainly against his addiction makes for a highly sympathetic antihero. Which, sadly, only makes his ultimate fate even nastier…
9) Micky Rosa – 21 (2008)
To be honest, pretty much anything Kevin Spacey touches turns to gold, and crooked MIT Professor Micky Rosa is no exception.
He’s a callous, amoral, greedy old creep who exploits the genius of his star pupil Ben Campbell (Jim Strugess) whom he convinces to take on the blackjack tables in Vegas as a card counter. No sooner than Ben begins enjoying the fruits of his labour, Rosa tries to cheat him out of his winnings.
He gets his in the end, but while his scam plays out, Spacey’s cocky self-assurance and utter lack of scruples are a filthy pleasure to behold.
8) Dr. Mabuse – Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
One for the film geeks. The titular antihero of silent-era classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is a diabolical genius with more qualifications to his name than the entire population of Oxbridge University combined and less moral character than the board of directors at Starbucks.
Dr. Mabuse is a master in the fields of psychology, disguise, hypnosis and mind control. But does he commit these considerable skills to the betterment of mankind? Hell no! He exploits his gifts to fleece unsuspecting victims for all they’re worth at card tables across the world.
The impact of Dr. Mabuse’s sheer villainy is every bit as potent today as it was in the 20s. He’s the dark side of every gambler: convinced of his own genius and utterly without empathy for his destitute victims.
7) Eric ‘Kid’ Stoner – The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
A classic specimen of sharkish 60s suave, Eric “Kid” Stoner is the poker prodigy whose strategic genius allows him to take his opponents to pieces with an ease verging on contempt.
Fearless in the face of more experienced rivals, the Kid is the kind of gambler to whom we all aspire: methodical, ruthless and so, so cool.
The movie is most notable for its “last hand scene:” never had a bunch of blokes sitting around a poker table and munching on cigars made for such engaging viewing, but the Kid remains the centrepiece.
6) Sky Masterson – Guys and Dolls (1955)
“Guys and dooooooooooooolls! We’re just a buncha crazy…” actually that song isn’t even in the movie (it was made up for the Simpsons). However, the musical film does feature one of the most iconic movie gamblers of all time: the suave and dashing Sky Masterson.
Aside from being played by Marlon Brando, Masterson’s easy charm and penchant for absurd bets make him a firm favourite of film buffs and veteran gamblers alike.
Some of his wackier wagers include taking ‘4 Gs’ ($4000) on how far he could kick a piece of cheesecake, laying a grand on the colour of Frank Sinatra’s necktie and betting that a fever would push his temperature above 104 degrees. And you know what? Sky was so lucky it hit 106. Legend.
5) Teddy KGB – Rounders (1998)
Once again we’ve plumped for the baddie. We don’t know what it is about bad guys in gambling movies, but something about John Malkovich’s turn as Russian mobster Teddy ‘KGB’ is just so much cooler than Matt Damon’s performance as foppish twerp Mike McDermott. Rounders helped make poker mainstream,
After wiping McDermott out at Texas Hold’em (to the tune of $30,000), Teddy mercilessly pursues Mike’s friend “Worm” for a $15,000 debt. Fair play we say.
And okay, Damon’s character trashes him in the end (this is a movie after all), but Malkovich’s barely contained menace manages to make eating an Oreo seem like the most terrifying act imaginable (see below). For that alone, Teddy makes the cut.
4) Le Chiffre – Casino Royale (2006)
First up, he’s the cold-hearted terrorist banker whose mathematical genius (and poisoned cocktails) nearly toppled the indomitable Mr. Bond at the poker tables of Montenegro in Casino Royale.
To be honest, in spite of his oblivious poker talent, the guy has some pretty massive tells: from a little temple twitch right up to weeping blood.
All the same, he’s scary as hell, crunches numbers like Deep Blue on speed and nearly single-handedly bankrupted MI6, so we reckon he’s earned a place on this list. He’s sure to be more threatening than Princeton student Richie Furst – played by Justin Timberlake – in upcoming poker movie Runner Runner.
3) Jack Manfred – Croupier (1998)
It’s funny, but there’s just something about this story of a struggling writer who gets sucked into the glamour of casino life that strikes a chord with me…go figure.
Anyway, Clive Owen owns this role, oozing cool confidence as he juggles chips with superhuman dexterity while simultaneously carrying off an eloquent interior monologue.
In fact, Jack is exactly the kind of guy you want onside if you’re out to make a killing on the card table: efficient, reliable and meticulous…he is, quite simply, the perfect croupier.
While he isn’t strictly a gambler, Jack Manfred inhabits an archetype every bit as essential to the movie history of gambling culture as the card shark. Just as Yin has Yang and heads has tails, every gambler needs a croupier.
2) Nicky Santoro – Casino (1995)
Classic movie, classic character. Joe Persci’s performance as Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro packs several metric tons of sleaze, wit and simmering rage into a five foot three bundle of sarky Italian sass.
As with Jack Manfeld fact Nicky isn’t really a gambler, he makes his living as an enforcer for a mafia outfit who specialise in skimming profits from Chicago’s casinos. However, he is undoubtedly the most memorable part of the movie, if only for those ingenious insults.
Our personal favourite? “You call yourself a man? You know you’re a lying, low-life motherfucking gambling degenerate prick. You know that’s what you are?”
Whether he’s waxing lyrical on the virtues of milk-fed veal whilst receiving oral sex or reducing casino bosses to gibbering wrecks with a good tongue-lashing, nasty little Nicky never fails to entertain.
- Raymond – Rain Man (1988)
Probably the most famous cinematic gambler of them all. Raymond Babbit’s autism may have robbed him of his social skills but his condition has also turned him into a human calculator, with perfect recall and a superhuman head for calculations.
And what does Raymond do with his gifts? Why, make an absolute killing in Vegas as a blackjack shark of course! You know what they say: when life gives you lemons…
Raymond is the ideal movie underdog: socially incapable, a natural recluse and utterly overshadowed by his flamboyant brother Charlie (Tom Cruise). However, Raymond’s gift and gentle spirit make him both a force to be reckoned with and a hero to root for.
These qualities have raised ‘Rain Man’ to the summit of the movie gambler pantheon, while Dustin Hoffman’s performance is etched into our hearts and movie memories. Raymond Babbit is, quite simply, a classic character and well deserving of our top spot.