A Royal Flush at the Box Office: Maverick

The bet was called, and the action was on Commodore. The crowd watching on went silent in anticipation as he leaned forward to reveal his holdings.

“I have two small pairs,” he stated calmly, slowly revealing each card one at a time for dramatic effect. “Eights and eights.”

Four of a kind? Commodore was confident, and had good reason to be. On the poker hand rankings chart, that’s a top tier possession. You would have to travel far and wide, visiting poker rooms the world over, to find anyone who’s ever lost with such an absolute monster. The crowd gasped, then applauded the effort. With all the grace and poise of an experienced gambler, and with the instilled air of confidence the four eights before him brought, Commodore grabbed his cigar, turned to the spectators, thanked them, and then calmly leaned back into his chair as if he was the victor.

Scene from Maverick

As one of the most famous gambling songs of all-time warns, “you never count your money before the dealing’s done.” There were still two other players to act, Angel and Maverick. After hours of intense action, involving twenty of the greatest poker players the Old West has ever seen, this $500,000 winner-take-all tournament was down to just three-handed play.

“You’re not going to look at your card,” Angel queried, with his eyes locked in on his opponent. It wasn’t so much a poker face, as it was a death stare.

Five-Card Draw

They were playing five-card draw. One of the oldest, simplest and rawest forms of poker, and a favourite of cowboys and gunslingers of that time. Players are dealt five cards, all of them face down, before any bets are made. After the first round of betting, players can then replace up to three unwanted cards from their hand with three new ones from the deck, and a second round of betting occurs. Then it’s time for the players to reveal the strength of their hand. Just as gunfighters would draw their weapons, so too would gamblers. In both cases, the real drama happens at showdown.

“Well, how are you going to know if you can beat my straight flush?”

Angel, an ill-tempered gambler, proceeded to reveal one of the prettiest hands a poker player could ever unveil, the 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of hearts. He wasn’t smiling or laughing, or celebrating the fact he had Commodore crushed, none of that. With a look of consternation, he continued to focus on the player to his left, Bret Maverick, who to this point hadn’t uttered a word. Commodore couldn’t believe what was happening. The cigar, still unlit in his mouth, went from erect and standing at attention to limp and dangling from his lips. He was incredulous. Not Maverick, he was stone-faced.

Standard Odds

His stomach must have been churning though. What are the odds of four of kind in five-card draw, never mind a straight flush? Remember, it’s hard to make a pair in this game, and at least 50% of the time you’ll be forced to claim your highest card as your best hand.

With that in mind, here are the pre-draw odds of Angel and Commodore’s holdings:

  • Straight flush (not including royal flush) <0.002%
  • Four of a kind 0.02%

Blockbuster Movie

An American western comedy, Maverick stars Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner. Gibson played the role of Bret Maverick, a con man and grifter looking to raise enough money to play in the big game. James Coburn was cast as Commodore and Alfred Molina as Angel. Written by William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976). And directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, 1976, Superman, 1978, and The Goonies, 1985), the 1994 film grossed more than $183 million worldwide and was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design.

Fittingly, the soundtrack featured the up-tempo song A Good Run of Bad Luck by country star Clint Black. Which talks about falling in love using gambling metaphors. One line in the first verse reads, “a high roller even when the chips are down,” and another in the second goes, “I’ve been to the table, and I’ve lost it all before, I’m willin’ and able, always comin’ back for more.”

When the Chips are Down

In most instances, Maverick wouldn’t be coming back for more. With a straight flush staring him in the face, and after the initial shock wore off, he’d have to eventually work up the courage and fortitude to say, “nice hand,” like the majority of players do today. And then exit the room with his head down and his tail between his legs. It’s one of the loneliest walks in the world, the trot to the exits.

This is Hollywood, though, where not even four-of-a-kind wins, and Maverick wasn’t phased in the slightest. Without looking down, he turned over the ten, jack, queen and king of spades. Before pausing deliberately to increase the tension. With his last card, his drawing card, yet to be exposed, and with the room silent now in full anticipation of how this scene would play out, both Angel and Commodore leaned forward for a closer look at what had just been spread out across the table.

As soft dramatic music began to play, not inside the poker room, but as part of the movie’s ambiance, Maverick brought the fifth card close to his vest, slowly peeked at it, sighed and took a deep breath, and then nonchalantly tossed it high into the air. As it landed open-faced on the huge pile of chips in the middle of the table, the entire place erupted in amazement once they realized what it was.

You guessed it, the ace of spades for a royal flush.

The Royal Flush

It’s a hand perfectly suited for the big screen, isn’t it? Five perfect cards. And rare, too. Some will play poker their entire life and never get one.

Consider this; In Texas Hold’em, where you get seven cards in total, there are 2,598,960 possible five card poker hands. Including the four royal flushes (Diamonds, Spades, Clubs and Hearts). So, the odds of hitting a royal flush are astronomical, 1-in-649,740. This means you should hit one once every 650,000 hands you play.

Royal Flush

When you receive five cards, the royal flush is even more of a rarity. And only happens 0.001% of the time in five-card draw.

For both Bret Maverick, and producers of the film, that ace of spades was the ideal gin card. He won the pot, and they won the box office.

Editor’s Note: Derrick plays a lot of poker, and has only ever had one royal flush. It happened at the Wynn in Las Vegas. He was holding the ace and ten of diamonds, and the flopped came out perfect, with the jack, queen and kind of diamonds.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio and has interviewed a number of the world's top poker players and gamblers. A former radio and television broadcaster, Derrick was brand manager for Poker Pro Canada magazine and has written for a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star & Windsor Life.

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