The game is five-card stud poker. No limit. No excuses.
Influenced only slightly by luck, money, and skill, this game of endurance and resilience strips human nature to its barest elements. It pits gambler against gambler in a staring match of sorts where the loser is the man who succumbs first to bravado, temptation, or false confidence.
An early incarnation of the very personal and perilous dotcom market, the showdown of wills in “Cincinnati Kid” enumerates universal truths about winning, losing, and forsaking ideals in return for a piece of the action. If Steve McQueen were alive today, he’d no doubt make a cameo in “Cupertino Kid” – The story of a crackerjack startup entrepreneur who duels a veteran CEO for the respect and reverence of Silicon Valley.
The Cincinnati Kid himself, Eric Stoner (McQueen) is hell-bent on domination. A rookie with a mean winning streak and a sense of righteous self-confidence, Stoner forecasts the culmination of his gambling career across a sooty, sordid poker table from “The Man,” Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson). It’s not the money that he craves. Or the satisfaction of defeating a legend. Quite simply, it’s the notoriety.
“After the game, I’ll be The Man,” Stoner tells his farm-born girlfriend, Christian (Tuesday Weld). “I’ll be the best there is. People will come and sit down at the table with you, just so they can say they played with The Man. That’s what I’m gonna be.”
As the Kid prepares to square off against the best, his mentor and best friend, Shooter (Karl Malden), is haggling with his own demons. A man who “just plays the percentages, don’t win much, don’t lose much,” Shooter is trying desperately to keep a hold of his stunning, risque, gold-digging wife, Melba (Ann-Margaret). No longer the prize thoroughbred of poker, Shooter wrestles with temptation when underhanded insider Slade (Rip Torn) offers him money to fix the poker match against The Man, an old foe.
“Hey, why are you doing this?” Shooter asks. “It can’t be for money.”
“Yeah, it’s for my kind of money, guts money,” Slade responds. “I want to see that smug old bastard gutted. Gutted!”
A man of principles but little income, Shooter ultimately buckles but never has the opportunity to deal the Kid the requisite number of winning hands. Early in the game, which includes a cast of local gamblers who slowly drop out of the all-night match, Stoner catches on to Shooter’s shady tactics and insists on playing fair and square. “I’m going to win this game and I’m going to win my way,” he says.
The suspenseful poker game stretches into the night and through the next day, but ultimately the Kid’s fate and fortune hinge on one unforgettable face off between a full house and a straight flush. The Man’s parting lesson, delivered after that momentous hand, is perhaps the most telling and true of the film: “Gets down to what it’s all about, doesn’t it? Making the wrong move at the right time.”
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