Although they’re great for killing time, most people don’t think of games as being especially dramatic. Sure they may be exciting to play and they may occasionally expose long simmering family resentments, but mostly they’re just a bit of fun when there’s nothing else to do. Nobody wants to watch other people playing them, right?
But in the right hands, scenes of people playing games can be among the funniest, most interesting, or exciting in films or TV. It may seem counter-intuitive to bet your film or TV show’s climax or centerpiece on a bunch of people sitting around a table, but do it right, and you have as much tension and suspense as the greatest shoot out or car chase. Scenes with games can also be great for character development, laughs, or just about any thing else in life. Here are ten great scenes of people playing games that make the movie or TV show they’re in.
10. The Executive Game – Sopranos Season 2
NOTE – VIDEO IS NSFW to the Nth!
For most of Season Two of the much loved mob drama The Sopranos, Tony Soprano is undeniably in charge. The struggle for control that marked the first season has resided, his position is assured, and besides the normal family hassles, things are finally going his way. Nowhere is this better conveyed than in his staging of the “Executive Game” in the episode “The Happy Wanderer.” A high stakes poker game originally run by his father and uncle junior, the Executive Game marks for Tony and his crew their place at the top of the gangster heap. Besides what it means for the characters, it’s also an amazing piece of writing and character development.
Not only is there crackling dialogue and deft little character moments throughout, but almost every major thread of the season makes an appearance. We have Tony’s half-hearted attempts to protect his friend Davy from his gambling addiction, as well as his full-hearted attempts to take advantage of the same, Tony’s rival Richie Aprile shows up to tweak his authority, and the two dimwitted junior mobsters Matt and Sean continue to act like idiots and be ignored in their quest to be taken seriously. In one perfect sequence, three major plotlines are advanced, another layer of detail and history is added to the fictional world, and major characters are strengthened and further defined. All this, and it makes Frank Sinatra Jr. look like a badass. If that isn’t something special, nothing is.
9. R2D2 and Chewbacca Play a Little Hologramatic Space Monster Chess
Although it’s a throwaway scene with little bearing on the larger plot, everyone loves and remembers when Chewbacca beats R2D2 in a rousing game of Hologramatic Space Monster Chess?On their way to a pre-blown-up Alderann in the Millennium Falcon, R2D2 and Chewie decide to kill some time playing the game. With his whiny girlfriend C3P0 cheering him on, R2D2 takes a commanding lead as one of his monsters wastes one of Chewbacca’s. Unfortunately, the only thing Chewie hates more than wearing pants is losing to smug little robots.
Registering his displeasure with a menacing roar, he makes it clear that he isn’t going to take second place lying down, no matter how snarky C3P0 gets. Han Solo warns the two robots of the Wookie’s ability to tear limbs from sockets when things don’t go their way and the two robots respectfully withdraw from competition. It’s a great little scene that tells us all we need to know about Chewbacca. Even more amazingly, he actually comes off as lovable, despite the fact he’s willing to hideously maim anyone who fairly beats him in a board game.
8. Steve McQueen Faces “The Man” in The Cincinnati Kid
Texas Hold ‘Em may be the money game these days, but back when poker was something only shady guys named “Doc” played, Five Card Stud was what the real gamblers bet their lives on. In the 1965 flick The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen plays a young card sharp itching for his place at the big table. His big break arrives when he sits down across from the grizzled veteran player Lancey “The Man” Howard played by Edward G. Robinson.
In the final scene, they face off against each other for one last high stakes hand. McQueen brims with skill and brash youthful confidence while Robinson sits like a card playing Buddha, calm and serene in his skills and his hole card. Despite the ludicrously remote odds of the eventual hand happening the way it does (Wikipedia says it’s about a 3 billion to one shot), both actors play it just right. The Cincinnati Kid proves that if you put an actor with the raw talent and charisma of Steve McQueen up against arguably the greatest character actor of his generation Robinson, the odds are always going to be in your favour.
7. Dungeons and Dragons in Freaks and Geeks
Before he became the undisputed king of making movie comedies, Judd Apatow was the undisputed king of making amazing TV shows that no one watched. His first series was the hilarious and poignant Freaks and Geeks, a comedy about a group of students who didn’t fit in either because they were stoners (the Freaks) or they were incredible nerds (the Geeks). The two groups rarely interacted with each other, except for one memorable scene involving soda, a lot of dice, and a dwarf called Carlos. James Franco, the leader of the Freaks and the coolest kid in school, is caught cheating and is forced to join the Audi-Visual Club, which of course, is staffed entirely by the Geeks.
Slowly but surely, the Geeks introduce Franco to the pleasures of being a nerd, culminating in a session of Dungeons and Dragons where he insists on playing as a dwarf named “Carlos.” Like many of the scenes in Freaks and Geeks, there’s almost nothing at stake during the game. It’s just a bunch of kids hanging out, being kids. But the characters are so well drawn, the surroundings are so familiar, and the dialogue is so pitch perfect that it doesn’t matter that nothing happens. It’s just a great scene of likable characters having fun playing a game. And that’s all it needs to be.
6. Record-Breaking Donkey Kong Game Almost Stopped By a Little Boy’s Poop in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
The cult hit documentary King of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters lets viewers into the hermetic, arcane world of a bunch of dudes who take their classic video games very, very seriously. The story revolves around a guy from Washington State called Steve Wiebe who buys his own Donkey Kong arcade game and decides to try to break the world record set years ago by video game expert and world-class jerk Billy Mitchell. Since it doesn’t mean anything if he breaks the record and no one is watching, Wiebe films himself playing with a VHS camera, hoping to capture a record-breaking game. One day, he seems well on his way to smashing Mitchell’s record, when his young son has a very pressing request. He needs to be wiped. Yes, that kind of wiped.
Since arcade video games don’t have a pause button, Wiebe is forced to make a crucial decision, does he give up the record breaking game (which has taken hours to complete) or does he let his darling child sit around with a poopy behind while he keeps jumping barrels? Anyone who’s ever had their video game life rudely interrupted by the real world can instantly relate. There are a lot of other scenes of people playing Donkey Kong in the film, but none are as funny and sweet as this one.
5. Marge Gets Enslaved by Slot Machines (The Simpsons)
In almost every episode of The Simpsons, Marge is the only voice of reason. With her saint’s patience, small town common sense, and enabler’s ability to forgive, she’s the one that holds the anarchic family together, especially the raging lunatic she married. With her holding the reins, Homer is a lovable misfit who occasionally gets into hilarious trouble. Without her, he’s little more than a wild animal who’s one crazy scheme away from a lifetime prison sentence at best and a gruesome death at worst. These established roles are what make their reversal in the Season 5 episode $pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling work so well. Marge it seems, has a dirty secret under that angelic, blue haired exterior.
Once she gets in front of a slot machine, she turns from a gentle housewife to the worst kind of degenerate gambler. She spends almost the entire episode in front of various machines, pumping in quarters and generally making a mess of her family’s life. The only thing that’s able to stop her descent into nickel purgatory? That irresponsible slob she married. It’s a great game scene, and it’s a poignant, funny ending of the kind the Simpsons used to excel at.
4. Chess with Death (The Seventh Seal)
At the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s cinema classic The Seventh Seal, a knight played by Max von Sydow returns to his native Sweden after many years fighting the crusades only to find it ravaged by the plague. To make matters worse, Death comes along and says his time is up. What do you want? It’s a depressing movie. Anyway, for reasons that won’t become clear until later, The knight challenges Death to one final game of chess with the stipulation that as long as he keeps playing, he’ll stay alive. Death agrees, and in on of the most iconic shots in cinema history, they begin their game.
Their game continues through the film as von Sydow wanders through Sweden encountering devastation and despair. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the knight has no intention of winning, he just wants to stay alive long enough to do one good deed before Death takes him. It sounds pretty bleak, and it is. Relentlessly bleak. But it’s also beautiful, moving, and creates one of the most indelible images in cinema history.
3. Battleships and Various Others with Death (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey)
An indelible image that makes for a perfect send up years later in a very silly movie about two stoners who save the universe. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey finds the titular heroes dead before the first reel is over. Sent to the afterlife, they are forced to play a game for their lives with a very Bergmanesque Death played by William Sadler. But, since they aren’t Medieval knights, Bill and Ted opt for a game more suited to their particular skill set, Battleship. They defeat Death, but it turns out he’s a bit of a sore loser and demands they play more. Bill and Ted are forced to defeat him at Clue, Electric Football, and Twister before they realize the only way out for them is to give Death a wedgie and make a break for it.
It’s a sublimely ridiculous scene with a hilarious performance by Sadler as the strangely accented sore loser Death. But even he can’t stay mad at the two moronic heroes. By the end of the film, all is forgiven and Death is playing bass in Bill and Ted’s band. Sadler’s performance was so memorable that it earned Death a major role in the marketing of the movie and remains a fan favourite to this day. Let’s just hope they bring him back for the much rumoured Part 3.
2. Paul Newman Wins at a Price in The Hustler
In the 1961 masterpiece the Hustler, Paul Newman plays the cocky new kid of all cocky new kids, “Fast” Eddie Felson. A genius with a pool cue, he begins the movie by giving Minnesota Fats (played by a never better Jackie Gleason) a serious run for his money, winning over $10,000 off him over a marathon session at the table. Unfortunately for Felson, he’s an arrogant punk who doesn’t know when to walk away, and he ends up losing everything to the much cooler Fats. Chastened, he goes back to small time hustling and schemes for a way back to the big boy’s table.
When he finally makes it, he’s been beat up, bruised, and crapped out by life. Well aware that losers like him don’t get many second chances, he plays like a demon, browbeating the older Fats until he just can’t take it anymore. Felson triumphs, but at a terrible cost. He refuses to pay off the gambler who staked him, and he gets warned never to play for money again. Felson’s career may be over and his future uncertain, but man does he go out like a champ.
1. Matt Damon and John Malkovich Go Heads Up in Rounders
33 years after McQueen faced off against Robinson in The Cincinnati Kid, Matt Damon played a very similar character in the 1998 poker film Rounders. Set in the modern day, this film features the much more popular Texas Hold ‘Em. In fact, several professional poker players have cited the film as not only a favourite, but the reason they got into the game. Like The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders ends with the talented newcomer Damon going toe to toe with the seasoned veteran- played by Malkovich- for all the marbles.
What’s different is that while he’s just as talented, Damon’s character lacks the brashness and impulsivity of McQueen, he may be young, but he plays with poise and control. Malkovich, on the other hand, plays the rival (an illegal casino owner called “The Russian”) like a shabby, low-rent devil from the darkest corner of Moscow. With his red tracksuit, bizarre accent, and penchant for dramatics, it’s no wonder that the cool, calculated Damon takes him for all he’s worth. It’s a tense, satisfying finish to a tense, satisfying film.
List by Geoff Shakespeare