Why ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ Was Fit For Hollywood

“By God, he’s got the jack!”

As the camera panned the room, with close-ups and dramatic music, the spectators gasped incredulously. Before them was a high-stakes game of poker between two rivals. The likes of which they had never seen. And the action was fierce. The pair had been trading shots all night in a war of raises and re-raises. And it all came down to this one final hand. A hand so thrilling it was made for Hollywood.

“He couldn’t have the jack,” replied one of the spectators, doubting such a possibility. “He’s trying to buy it,” blurted another. When the last round of betting commenced, a hush fell over the room.

The Cincinnati Kid

“The kid’s got him,” someone whispered in cameo.

Can you sense the tension escalating? The hand in question comes to us from Norman Jewison’s 1965 classic The Cincinnati Kid. And it really is one for the ages. It’s also highly improbable.

It pitted Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner, a young up and coming poker player looking to make a name for himself, against Lancey ‘The Man’ Howard, a wily veteran gambler, part shark, part hustler. He was widely regarded to be the best. Written by Ring Lardner and Terry Southern, and directed by Jewison, The Cincinnati Kid stars Steve McQueen (The Kid) and Edward G. Robinson (The Man). It’s chalk-full of cards, cheating and con jobs, and it ends on a super suspenseful cooler.

What’s a Cooler?

In poker parlance, a ‘cooler’ is when you are dealt a very strong hand only to be one-upped by an even better hand. They happen all the time. In fact, a Canadian is at the centre of one of the most talked about coolers of all-time.

There is perhaps none bigger than the beat Jonathan Duhamel of Boucherville, Quebec, put on American foe Matt Affleck at the 2010 World Series of Poker. It’s unforgettable. With 15 people left in the world championship main event, and all the money in the middle with one card to come, the Canadian somehow found a miracle eight on the river to complete his straight. What ensued immediately afterwards was heartbreaking. Affleck, who was holding pocket aces, and brimming with excitement over the prospect of becoming the overwhelming chip leader, had his hopes dashed in devastating fashion. In an instant, the smile faded from his face, and he was sent to the exits in tears, but not before a bottle of water was tossed to the floor in disgust.

It was a spectacle. It was tough to watch, too. Even for some devoted Duhamel fans who had just seen their man rake in a massive pot, one that would help propel him on to the world title and the $9 million prize that went with it. The last images of Affleck, on the ESPN broadcast that year, are of him leaning up against a wall in the empty hallways of the Rio, his forehead pressed into his forearm, displaying all the sure-fire signs of being put through the ringer. It was 100 per cent the agony of defeat.

Bad Beats & Big Screens

Incidentally, Duhamel was holding pocket jacks in that showdown and was a 4-to-1 underdog to the win the hand before the flop was even dealt. And, on the river, needing a king or an eight to fill his up and down straight draw, he still had a 21% chance of winning. That’s real life. Bad beats and coolers on the big screen have to be taken up a notch.

In The Cincinnati Kid, they were playing one of the oldest variants for poker: five-card stud. With one down card and four exposed for all to see. With ’Lady Fingers’ dealing, ‘The Kid’ is showing A, A, 10, 10. ‘The Man’ is showing the 8, 9, 10 and Q of diamonds. A series of bets occur, then raises and re-raises, and then finally ‘The Kid’ goes all-in for his last $3,500. ’The Man’, reminding us that we are in fact watching a movie, then reaches into his wallet and pulls out $5,000 more. (Please note: You’ll never see this in casinos today because it is against the rules).

After a few seconds of serious contemplation, ‘The Kid’ agrees to take a marker, or an ‘I owe you’, and they reveal their fifth and final cards. Their lone down cards. ‘The Kid’ reveals the ace of diamonds, a full house, aces full of tens. But ‘The Man’ rolls over the jack of diamonds for the incredible queen-high straight flush. It was the only card in the deck that could save him. It was the miracle card.

Probability & Perspective

You don’t see hands like the the Eric Stoner versus Lancey Howard every day. The truth is, you may not see it, ever. The odds of that particular hand happening are out of this world. They’re astronomical. Anthony Holden, in his legendary book Big Deal, delves into the nature of the hand in great detail. And calculates “the odds against any full house losing to a straight flush, in a two-handed game of five-card stud, to be 45,102,781-to-1.” With respect to the movie, he suggests the odds are even longer, because both hands included a ten. Are you ready for this? He has pegged them at more like 332,000,000,000-to-1. Don’t count the zeros, that’s 332 billion, with a ‘B’, to one. Yikes.

“If these two played fifty hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, the situation would arise about once every 443 years,” Holden writes in the book.

Let’s ponder that for a second, shall we? The chances of getting struck and killed by lightning are less than one in a million in Canada. Researchers at Environment Canada and the University of Waterloo estimate 120 to 190 people are killed or injured each year by lightening. In 2016, Americans spent more than $80 billion on lottery tickets. More than they spent on books, movie tickets, music, video games, and sports tickets combined. Their chances winning the Powerball or Mega Millions? Slim, but still not as long as The Cincinnati Kid hand. They’re about 1 in 292,201,338 and 1 in 302,575,350, respectively. And, the odds you’ll get killed by a shark are only 1 in 3,748,067, according to the International Shark Attack File.

That Jack of diamonds was some special card.

Memorable Movie Quotes

“You’re raising tens on a three flush?”

‘Lady Fingers’ glared at ‘The Man’ with a look of disdain as she posed the question. The dealer, like everybody else in the room, and especially ‘The Kid’, acted as though they had just been struck by lightning. Zapped by an impossible one-outer. The reply she got, could only have been given by an experienced gambler like ‘The Man’ portrayed.

“It gets down to what it’s all about doesn’t it,” he said, as he was lighting a cigar in victory. “Making the wrong move at the right time.”

Fittingly, as ‘The Kid’ exits the building dejectedly, and as the film is ending, having already lost a monster pot, not to mention the $5,000 marker he still owes, he was challenged to a penny toss by the shoe shine boy outside, and lost.

Cincinnati Kid

Great movie. Horrific beat.

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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