Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Movie Review: A Big Hand for the Little Lady

Like most of you, I imagine, I'm watching a lot of movies lately on the ol' boob tube (I guess that's an outdated expression, but for some reason I rather like it).  Sure I have Netflix and Amazon Prime, but honestly, I really tend to like older films so I watch more things on Turner Classic Movies than those two combined.

So every morning I check the TCM listings to see what I can save to DVR for viewing at my convenience.  Recently I noticed a movie titled, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, from 1966. It kinda/sorta sounded familiar, but not really.  I was somehow thinking maybe it was a poker movie I wasn't familiar with,  I mean the title was sort of a hint, but you know, I did consider the possibility that the "big hand" was a reference to applause.  For all I knew, the little lady of the title had done something worthy of a standing ovation, perhaps she was an actress or a singer?  When I saw the cast, Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy and Burgess Meredith, among others, I knew I had to get more info on it.

Turns out it was a western set around the biggest poker game in the West, an annual event.  With that subject and that cast, it was a no brainer to record it.  Hungry for some poker action after all this time cooped up, I watched it as soon as I could.

Boy was I glad I did.  What a fun movie.  It is really a comedy western and it is just a hoot.  It's virtually impossible not to smile while watching this film. Not only is it funny, but the story really grabs your interest, and the acting is excellent, as you would expect from that great cast. 

First we see the degens gather for the annual game.  And if you think you're a degen or know any, you ain't seen anything like these characters. They all drop whatever they are doing when the driver comes around to pick them up for the game, which takes place in the back room of a hotel/salon in Laredo, TX, probably in the late 1800's.  Wait until you hear what Robards and McCarthy each were doing when they just took off for the game without a second thought—especially McCarthy! Yikes.

If you know movies you probably figured out that Henry Fonda wasn't one of the five regulars in this game.  No, he, his wife (Woodward) and young son just happened to be driving through Laredo when their wagon broke down on the way to San Antonio, where they intended to buy some land and do so farming.  They take a room in the hotel just as the game gets underway.  Fonda gets a whiff of the game and is surprisingly interested.  Against his wife's wishes, he begs to watch the game for a few minutes while she goes to get the wagon repaired.

We eventually learn that Fonda has a gambling problem. You might say he's addicted to poker.  But he had promised his wife that he would never play cards again.  Of course, if he had kept that promise, there wouldn't be a movie so you know what happens next.

Naturally, he ends up using the money they were going to use to buy the farm to buy into the game, just like you knew he would. And it is pretty obvious that Fonda is in way over his head with these sharks. Thus, we get to see this movie's take on a wild west poker game.

Whenever I see poker in a movie, I always notice how different it is from real life, at least as we play poker in 2020 in a brick and mortar casino (or did, before the world shut down).  One thing I noticed from the first poker book I ever read was that string raises, which are no-no's in our games, were no problem in the movies.  You always hear the players say things like, "I see your $50 and add another $100," which would just be a call in a live poker room.  I think it's why you see so many newbies attempt to make string raises in Vegas.

Then Fonda is told the game (which is clearly no-limit) is "table stakes."  But it wasn't table stakes as I know it. Correct me if I'm wrong but table stakes today means two things.  First, you can't add money to the table after the hand has started (or take money off the table at any time), and second, if you don't have enough money to call, you can call with what you have and if there are other players left, there'd be a side pot.

However, as soon as they tell Fonda it's table stakes, they further explain to him that they use "Western Rules."  That means if you don't have enough money to call a bet, you tap out.  You are out of the hand (and the game) and you are out all the money you've bet.  In other words, you can literally be "bet out of a hand" by someone who has more money than you do and there's nothing you can do about.  So there's no side pots….and if you are short and you're heads up, all the other player has to do is bet $1 more than you have and even if he just has 8-high, you lose and are busted.

Doesn't sound like table stakes to me.  Did the definition change over time or do movie writers like to use the term even though they don't know what it means?  I seem to recall they also used the term "table stakes" in the big game in The Cincinnati Kid (a great poker movie, btw) and I thought it was misapplied there too.

And if table stakes means you can only play with the money you have on the table—well forget that too, as you will see.  I don't want to say anything more, but you kind of knew that when they explain what Western Rules are, it would come into play later in the story.  I can't remember who said it, but someone said that when you see a gun on the table in Act 1, you know it's going to be fired in Act 3.  Same thing when you hear about Western Rules.

Now of course there are some big twists and turns along the way and I don't want to spoil it. Yes, it's an old movie but you may be like me and have never seen it and you should be totally unspoiled for it.  I've seen some reviews of the movie that give away what I consider way too much.  Fortunately I didn't read them until after I saw the movie, which I'm very happy about it.

I will say this:  The resolution of the "big hand" is unlike anything you've likely seen before, either in fiction or definitely in real life, and it's so much fun you won't mind that it could never possibly happen in a real game. 

I should mention that you won't see a whole lot of poker hands, almost none really.  This is not Rounders or even The Cincinnati Kid. The game by the way is five-card draw, although they do also mention five-card stud (it's presumably dealer's choice). It's more about the players, the personalities, and the relationships than the actual cards.  Except for that one "big hand" of course.

The other thing that is so good about the film is you get to see a bunch of terrific actors at the absolute top of their games. A real treat.

I highly recommend this film for poker players and non-poker players alike.  I'm sure it'll come on TCM again soon, but if you can rent it at Amazon, et al, for just a few bucks.

If you've seen it, leave a comment and let me know what you thought of it.