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September 19, 2014

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Giving poker a chance on HBO’s “Luck’

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Gusmano Cesaretti

Hollywood producers might not be aware of this, but when they opt to include poker scenes in their movies or TV shows, it’s like a zookeeper throwing fresh, raw beef heart into the tigers’ habitat. Members of the poker subculture (“community” sounds way too nice) are all too eager to rip to shreds any portrayal of the game that fails to live up to their lofty standards regarding authenticity.

You can’t blame them. Critics are probably on permanent tilt from seeing too many celluloid poker players pulling extra cash from their pocket during a hand, leaving the saloon with their cards to use their hand as collateral for a bank loan before putting in a final raise and so forth.

And so it goes with Luck, the new HBO drama created by David Milch and produced by Michael Mann, which is based in the world of horse racing but has featured some extended poker scenes. Poker purists were howling, for example, when our hero Jerry Boyle (Jason Gedrick) was permitted to leave the casino to retrieve $25,000 from his car in the midst of a hand.

Allowing for some dramatic license, however—and I’ll have to turn in my membership card to the cynical poker players’ club—I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate the poker sequences in Luck. I’m referring to two aspects of the show’s poker action specifically:

First, I can’t get enough of the one-sided psychological battle between the hapless Jerry and his nemesis, Lester “Leo” Chan (Dennis Dun). The exchanges between the two are profane, darkly funny and eerily on target. It’s clear that Leo, a businessman and high-stakes poker player, has mastered the dark art of “needling,” or verbally tormenting his adversary with the goal of causing Jerry to make costly mistakes.

Second, I loved the scene in which Jerry was attempting to match wits with Leo in a tension-filled hand with thousands of dollars at stake … and all the while a vacuum cleaner was loudly and incessantly buzzing around the table. Even the most jaded poker player can relate to this Dantean diorama: Jerry is a long way from 007, tuxedoes and the palatial Monte Carlo gaming parlors of the silver screen. He had probably planned to leave the night before, but now the sun is rising, he’s still stuck in this seedy card room and the damn vacuum won’t shut up.

That’s real poker.

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