California Split movie 1974 – a great introduction to playing poker in California

Posted on 9 April 2015
By Carlton Whitfield
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Dedicated poker players will find that talk over the table often turns to the dearth of good films depicting the classic card game.

Widely regarded ‘best poker films’ like The Cincinnati Kid or Rounders are often criticised by poker players for not showing the realism of the game.

An underrated film that crops up during these between-the-hands discussions is the 1974 feature California Split, directed by Robert Altman and starring George Segal and Elliott Gould.

Quite the creative cast wouldn’t you say? The movie boasts an unorthodox narrative style such as one often finds in other Altman-directed films like M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), and The Player (1992), with a great plot and a busy, often chaotic mise en scène.

Altman’s distinctive directing style proves particularly well suited for scenes shot inside casinos and poker rooms, helping make California Split a film that for many poker players seems more “realistic” than most when it comes to portraying the way the game is actually played.

There is a great ten-minute sequence which the opening credits roll over – which impressively recreates a California poker club from the early 1970s.

The set was sculpted from an old dance hall, although watching the scene one could be easily tricked into thinking it was shot on location at an actual poker club.

On the DVD commentary, screenwriter Joseph Walsh notes that the scene did fool most of the gamblers he knew who insisted it to him it must have been shot at the Gardena or the Commerce, when in fact the set was built from scratch.

The film opens on a shot of a big sectioned-off chalkboard on which names of players waiting for seats are being recorded by the board man, atop which one reads “stud,” “draw,” “jacks to open,” and different stakes designating the available games.

The announcer’s voice can be heard calling players to a game of “five-and-ten draw.” The scene functions as the occasion for the initial meeting of Bill Denny (played by Segal) and Charlie Waters (Gould), who as it happens will draw seats at the same table.

While they are separately waiting for their seats, Gould’s character chomps on a toothpick while he watches a programmed slide show explaining “How to Play Poker.”

The slide show’s narrator welcomes the viewer to the California Club “where your pleasure is our business.”

The presentation begins by explaining the game sometimes known as California lowball, a draw game the object of which is to make the best possible ace-to-five low which Bill and Charlie will be playing momentarily.

Eventually both men take their seats. As the DVD commentary points out, the room is filled with extras from Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program located in Santa Monica which operated as a kind of self-sustaining community back in the 70s and 80s.

Walsh notes how these ex-addicts help give the scene an extra “life” and “energy,” and “because of what these people had been through… the screen is always alive.”

Other extras, including those seated at Bill and Charlie’s table, are actual poker players who were veterans of the California poker club scene, thus adding further to the veracity of the presentation.

According to the commentary, the scene was mostly unscripted, with much of the table banter being improvised (another typical feature of an Altman film). The players are seated around a round table with circles printed on the green felt indicating where they are to place their antes and blinds.

As Altman says on the commentary, the “general public doesn’t think of gambling or doesn’t see gambling done in this way… in other words, they see it more dramatically set up,” not in this sort of documentary-like, unembellished style.

Bill and Charlie discover themselves to be kindred spirits, and embark on a series of gambling-related escapades that eventually land them in Reno in hopes of making that one big score.

While there Bill gets involved in another poker game, this one for much higher stakes. This second poker scene is less involved than the earlier one, coming as part of the film’s final sequence of ever-escalating gambles. The latter scene is nevertheless memorable for at least a couple of reasons.

One is Charlie’s priceless pregame commentary in which he characterizes to Bill each player’s style and skill level according to his appearance.

Poker players should enjoy this scene immensely, with Gould riotously pegging a bald man with glasses as “a percentage player” against whom Bill should only play the nuts, the younger player as someone who “has seen Cincinnati Kid too many times,” an older player as a doctor who “would rather lose a patient than a hand,” among other reads.

California may soon legalize online poker. You can find more information about online poker in California here: http://www.onlinepokercalifornia.org