The Cincinnati Kid: Iconic, Down To The Last Hand

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Poker is an amazingly complex and mathematical game, more intricate than matching up your hand to the river and pushing chips forward. So when your poker movie ends up still being discussed more than 50 years later simply because of the odds of a single winning hand, it probably can’t be denied that it’s an all-time classic, even if it isn’t for the right reasons. The well-reviewed The Cincinnati Kid from 1965, starring Steve McQueen, then falls under that classification because poker fans hold it in high regard, just for its final, climactic scene, a scene that launched a thousand debates.

The Cincinnati Kid follows the story of young Eric Stoner, the eponymous Kid played by McQueen, as he goes on a personal quest to become the best poker player in New Orleans, Louisana in the 1930s, the Depression era. (New Orleans is considered by many players as the place where poker was born.)

In order to do that, he must go on and defeat Lancey Howard, widely considered The Man in New Orleans poker. There are also a number of smaller games that the Kid must play with a cast of other characters, such as a game with William Jefferson Slade, a rich man that the Kid once beat really bad with only a pair of fours, in order to get to the level of Howard lead him to one final major game of five-card stud. It also turns out that the Kid also once played the Man and suffered a huge loss in the attempt.

cincinnati kid screenshot

In this final game, the Kid’s friend Shooter is hired by one of the Kid’s rivals to cheat for the Kid and undermine whatever victory he may have against the Man. This happens at the beginning of the game, but the Kid eventually figures out what’s been happening, and gets Shooter to stop. Despite the new impartial dealer at the table, the Kid still manages to take a strong lead in the game. However, at the peak of the Kid’s confidence against the Man, the Man gets him with a straight flush to his full house, in a lucky combination that no one at the table could have ever seen coming at all. At the end of the game, the Man tells the Kid that as long as he’s around in town, the Kid is always just going to be second best.

Technically, although the full house is usually the stronger hand, the cards the Man has on his straight flush (a Queen of Diamonds) cast him a higher hand than three Aces and two 10s. The Kid simply goes home empty-handed, without much drama surrounding his loss. He understands that sheer bad luck has beaten him this time around, and perhaps his performance in that climactic game leads him to believe that he is still the best, regardless of the Man’s victory. Perhaps he’s mature and aware enough to have made that realization. The movie ends right after that, however, so we won’t ever know how he processed his loss.

Before I go into the actual review of the movie, a cursory background on the game’s final hand must be explored. According to award-winning writer and huge poker player Anthony Holden, the Man’s Queen-high straight flush beating the Kid’s aces full of 10s had astronomical odds of happening in a single deal. Many players understand that this final set of hands isn’t something that happens every day, as well. The two men would have needed to play a lot of games in order to come into that exact particular scenario; it’s a work of fiction, after all, but in the real world, the Kid would have won that game handily. The high improbability (which probably makes it an impossibility for purposes of discussion) shatters the illusion and suspension of disbelief for some poker-savvy audience members, who have noted that the movie’s plot up to that point had been solid and realistic.

Related: Very Bad Things Is A Movie That Is Pretty Much What Its Title Says

Perhaps one should review the fact that despite the huge odds of such a scenario ever happening in the game, it’s still a movie (and a novel, before that); therefore, The Cincinnati Kid is merely a work of fiction, and anything can happen in fiction. The rules of real life are both discarded and amplified.

Probabilities sometimes don’t work and luck becomes stronger, and that should be all right because the final hands are at the mercy of the storyteller.

It seems as though it’s a highly unfair turn of events for The Kid because absent the concept of dumb luck, he really is that good and he could probably deserve to be called the best in town, better than the Man. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Poker, like all games, whether they’re card games or sports or video games, is still affected by the power of luck. After all, as was said in the movie, poker sometimes is “making the wrong moves at the right time.” As far as that’s concerned, The Cincinnati Kid is still true to life, despite astronomical odds. The ending also shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal of the Kid’s claim to greatness.

picture from cincinnati kid movie

As for the review of the movie itself, it’s a wonderfully-acted affair that works mostly because of Steve McQueen’s power and presence. Of course, he’s ahead of the cast when it comes to stealing the show. It’s not always the best-paced, sharply-edited cinematic experience, but the story itself gives it enough atmospheric fuel to be a thrill. Director Norman Jewison’s stylized, gritty execution of Depression-era New Orleans also lends a lot of strength to the movie’s setting, giving it an aura of coolness that must have inspired similar neo-noir projects popping up in modern times. And as with many good movies about poker, the key is that enough of the story’s telling and the characters’ motivations should clue you into the climactic events even if you know nothing about playing poker, especially for viewers who may only be aware of the modern Texas Hold’ Em format that’s usually shown in movies. It’s one hell of a nail-biter.

In fact, The Cincinnati Kid is so good and McQueen so slick in his role that it can be said that the movie would still pass as being fresh in this day and age, on anyone’s review.

And why shouldn’t it still be relevant, whether for poker or for any other pursuit in one’s life? After all, it’s still a tale with an important lesson, a lesson that could either be taken as a warning or as a consolation when things don’t go your way. The lesson that sometimes in life, things just won’t work out for you because random chance decides to go the other way, no matter how much you prepare and how hard you train yourself.

If you needed a piece of classic cinema to go and tell you that, then The Cincinnati Kid is a good choice to learn this lesson from. Steve McQueen’s 1965 self, together with the evergreen game of poker, is timeless in it.

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