Why Netflix Should Produce A Poker Drama

Post by: Sue DeSousa 15 February, 2021

Almost anyone who pays attention to the entertainment industry is used to seeing a new poker or gambling drama released every few years. It’s a genre that has always attracted star actors, and which seems to have a permanent hold over screenwriters. Undoubtedly, there are more such dramas on the way in the years and decades ahead.

And yet, when we think about what could bring about the next big poker movie, it becomes easy to stray instead toward TV. That is to say, one can begin to imagine a poker drama series being more effective than yet another film.

To expand on that idea a little bit, here are a few reasons we believe this is a project Netflix ought to consider.

SUCCESS OF ‘THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT’

Back in November, we highlighted Netflix’s touting of the viewing numbers for The Queen’s Gambit. While views on Netflix are not the most transparent rating system in the entertainment industry, the claim at the time was that more than 62 million people had watched the show, making it the “biggest limited scripted series ever.” Even if this is exaggerated, it’s clear that this show was a massive hit. And it revolved to some extent around chess.

Now, The Queen’s Gambit was more than just a thrown-together chess drama. It was part period piece, part history, and part gaming drama, with a rich and compelling central character and some excellent social commentary built in. Nevertheless, a game was one of the primary subjects, and it drew an audience that is perhaps unrivaled for a series of its kind. This alone is a fairly strong argument in favor of the idea that the right poker series could be an enormous draw.

A STAR VEHICLE

For quite some time now, we’ve seen the era of so-called “prestige TV” taking established movie stars and catapulting them to new heights. From Matthew McConaughey in True Detective to Reese Witherspoon in The Morning Show, there have been numerous examples at this point. Even Kevin Spacey, before his despicable fall from grace, unquestionably reached a higher level of stardom in House Of Cards.

This all indicates that the right drama, and the right script, can lure a big star to a project like a Netflix series. The first who comes to mind is Matt Damon, who has yet to seriously dip his toe into prestige TV, and who seems to be irreversibly tied to poker due to the cult following that surrounds his film Rounders. As many as seven years ago, a piece on We Got This Covered was spreading rumors of a Rounders sequel, and the same rumors are still swirling around today. Damon himself has shot them down, but it’s likely that fans would respond to his appearance in a fresh poker drama — be it a loose continuation of Rounders or something altogether new.

Then again, by no means would it have to be Damon. The point is that established stars have something to gain by headlining drama series these days. Indeed, The Queen’s Gambit demonstrated this as well, taking a rising star in Anya Taylor-Joy and catapulting her to new heights.

UNDERSTANDING THE GAME

One of the drawbacks of watching gambling movies in theaters in particular is that for people who aren’t accustomed to the games, some of the best scenes can be confusing. Something like a bluffing “tell” (crucial to the plot of Rounders) is easy enough to convey. But the fundamentals of the games, or what gives one player an edge over the table in a key scene, can be more challenging.

The beauty of a series for this kind of subject matter specifically is that viewers would have the opportunity to pause their binges and figure out the details of gaming-specific scenes. For poker specifically, there are downloadable hand ranking charts on Poker.org that are about as easy and convenient as study notecards in conveying why different hands beat others. These alone could explain most poker scenes in cinematic history. But if and when it became necessary, viewers could also stop and look up things like gaming terms (such as “big blind” or “all in”), or how betting works in a certain kind of poker.

This is not to suggest that it’s ideal for a drama to be beyond the comprehension of an average viewer. For a subject like poker though, there are certain fundamentals that people who are completely unfamiliar need a bit of help with. That would be a lot easier to come by while watching a streaming series, which basically makes the poker genre more accessible in this format.

A HISTORY OF (RELATIVE) SUCCESS

A final important note is that poker has found some success on television before. Of course, in the early 2000s the televised World Series of Poker tournaments were something of a sensation But even on the drama front, we’ve actually seen a critically successful poker show as well.

In 2005, Brian Koppelman and David Levien — who co-wrote 1998’s Rounders — crated a scripted drama series for ESPN called Tilt. And as an early review at NextTV.com put it, the series showed “a strong opening hand,” with a compelling beginning promising an engaging and well-made series. Unfortunately, the fun didn’t last and despite their considerable talents Koppelman and Levien were unable to sustain a drama people wanted to stick with. Nevertheless, the initial interest was there, and certainly could be again with the right lead actor and the right marketing campaign.

Odds are (no pun intended) that some streaming service will try a prestige poker drama at some point. For the reasons listed here, we think it’s a success waiting to happen, and we’d love to see some real investment in the idea from Netflix or a similar competitor.

Last modified on Monday, 15 February 2021 15:40