Poker is great territory for conflict, the engine of all drama. Serious stakes for everyone involved are, quite literally, baked into the very fabric of the game. Plus, for all the high rolling casino games out there, a lot of poker is played amongst people who already know each other and the game can become a proxy for whatever else is going on in a group dynamic. Add those two factors together and it’s no wonder that some great TV has been made with poker at its core.
Here are some of the best poker scenes that have graced the small screen. If you’re new to the game, give yourself a quick lesson on how to play poker and then read on…
“Friends”: “The One With All the Poker” (Episode 18, season one)
The year 1995 is a long way to go back, but the cast of “Friends” are so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that it could have been yesterday.
Episode 18 of season one starts with Ross (David Schwimmer), Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) planning their game. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) demands to know whether the fact it’s all guys is some kind of sexist thing. They just don’t happen to know any women who know how to play poker, Joey replies. Lame! comes the reply. But do the girls know how to play? Nope. Will the guys teach them how to play? Nope. Except that they do, and what follows is an archetypal episode of the show that does a brilliant job of laying a lot of the groundwork that will define Ross and Rachel’s dynamic. We won’t spoil it (even though it’s nearly 25 years old!) but it’s well worth revisiting.
A “Friends” classic.
The West Wing: ‘Evidence of Things Not Seen’ (Episode 20, season four)
Toby (Richard Schiff) and CJ (Allison Janney) play a game of poker, but while they play they talk. Or, rather, debate. They each have different points of view on the same story. Where CJ spins the events in a positive light and sees hope, Toby sees them as an illustration of humanity’s failings.
It isn’t exactly the poker that’s most interesting here so much as it is the way the poker is used, formally, in conjunction with the discussion. It works, in a lot of ways, in the same manner that a lot of fight scenes do in anime, to illustrate and dramatize a moral or intellectual disagreement between two characters. The back and forth of the cards mirrors and the back and forth of the argument. When CJ ultimately lays down her full house, it’s the final nail in the argument, even though there’s no logical link between the two. It offers a kind of story sense, and both the poker game and the discussion become bigger as a result.
“Seinfeld”: “The Scofflaw” (Episode 13, season six)
This episode of one of the great sitcoms of all time uses poker as a sort of meta device for a plot element and gets extra credit for featuring one of the most notable celebrity poker players, Jason Alexander as George Costanza.
Early in the episode Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) admits to George that he didn’t tell him a mutual friend has cancer. The reason? George has no poker face. Events take a brilliant turn, however, when George meets up with the friend later in the episode and is told that in fact he’s been living a lie and the cancer is fake.
His poker face is put to the test when he’s made to swear he won’t tell Jerry. It turns out that Jerry was right when George crumbles, but then it’s Jerry who must show a strong poker face. The twists, of course, just keep on coming.
“The Sopranos” – “The Happy Wanderer” (Episode 6, season two)
We’ve all known a Silvio. Heck, at some point or other we’ve all been a Silvio. Fortunately for us and those around us, we’re (probably) not dangerous gangsters who might actually do someone real physical harm. In this scene, a game of poker is going badly for the character (played by Steven Van Zandt) and he’s not taking it well at all.
When someone attempts to sweep up some cheese near him his response is so deeply, irrationally unreasonable that you can’t help believe it. Part of you is feeling truly sorry for the sweeper, part of you is smirking along with Tony Soprano in the corner. This is a scene that does a spot on job of capturing some of the emotions that can roll around in any game of poker. A classic.
Fortunately, there are other shows out there that capture the warmer side of the game.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation”: “All Good Things…” (Episode 26, season seven)
We challenge any “Star Trek” fan to watch this without it tugging good and hard on their heartstrings. T”he Next Generation” made frequent use of poker to illustrate the human condition throughout its 178 episode run, but few of the scenes packed the punch of this, the final scene in the final episode of the show.
It comes at the end of a two-parter in which the Enterprise encounters Q. The entity creates an anomaly that goes against the rules of causality and causes Captain Jean-Luc Picard to jump through time, seeing future permutations of the Enterprise crew. Through it, Picard is able to show Q the best of humanity and restore the space time continuum.
It ends with the crew gathered round, playing a hand of cards. Just before they start Picard, who has never joined them for a game, enters and says that he should have done this a long time ago.
“You were always welcome,” Troi tells him, and the series ends on a note of hope and friendship. At the risk of getting a little mushy, it shows how for all its drama and excitement, poker is a game about people coming together around a table.