As a researcher in the gambling studies field and an avid watcher of films, it comes as little surprise that I love watching films where gambling is key to the plot. Occasionally, I write academic papers about gambling portrayals in film (most notably an in-depth look at my favourite gambling film, The Gambler – the original 1974 film starring James Caan in the title role and not the more recent 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg – which I published in a 2004 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). I wrote about this paper in a previous blog and I have also written a few blogs where gambling films are central to the articles such as my blog on Philip Seymour Hoffman and his film Owning Mahowny, my blog on the psychology of Columbo (where I argued that gambling and gamblers are central to many of the plot lines), and my blog on the psychopathology of Star Wars (where problem gambling is one of the many disorders that features in the film’s franchise).
The world of gambling and gamblers has been portrayed in many films and in many different ways throughout the years (e.g., The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino, Owning Mahoney, Rain Man). However, I argued (way back) in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior that many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portray gamblers, largely male, as hero figures. I made this observation without doing any systematic review of films containing gambling and my thoughts were purely impressionistic.
A decade ago, Dr. Nigel Turner and his colleagues published a lovely study in the Journal of Gambling Issues examining ‘images of gambling’ in films. They built on Jeffrey Dement’s 1999 book Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. They noted that:
“Dement’s (1999) book, Going for Broke is a thorough examination of movies that depict pathological gambling. He examined a number of films in terms of the extent to which the portrayals delivered accurate and appropriate messages about problem gambling. Although some movies accurately portray the nature of pathological gambling at least during some segments, Dement found that many movies about pathological gambling had irresponsibly happy endings. Film images in some cases reflected societal views on gambling. However, images in films may also alter societal views of gambling (Dement, 1999)…Dement focused only on movies that were about problem and pathological gambling. Many films that depict gambling or have images of gambling that are not about pathological gambling per se. In [our] article we will extend Dement’s work by looking more broadly at films about gambling”.
In their study, Turner and colleagues content analysed 65 films (from an initial list of “several hundred films”) mainly from the two decades prior to the publication of the study. The authors recounted that:
“Many of the films we discuss are personal favourites that we have watched several times (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler, Vegas Vacation, The Godfather). Some of the films reviewed in this article have been also discussed by [other scholars]. Some films were included because they were found listed as gambling films in film catalogues or by Web searches for ‘gambling movies’ (e.g., Get Shorty). Other films were suggested to us by recovering pathological gamblers, counsellors specializing in problem gambling, recreational gamblers, video rental store employees, and postings to the bulletin board of Gambling Issues International (a listserve for gambling treatment professionals). Our examination of movies was restricted to movies released in cinemas (i.e., not television), and filmed in English (with one exception, Pig’s Law)…In all cases, either the first or second author viewed each film. In some cases both authors viewed the same film separately. The authors then discussed the themes that they thought were depicted in the film. The authors then collected the descriptions of movies and organized them into general themes”.
After viewing (and re-viewing) the films, the authors found eight themes (often overlapping) represented in the movies watched. More specifically these were the themes of: (1) pathological gambling (films such as Fever Pitch, The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, Pig’s Law, etc.), (2) the magical skill of the professional gambler (Rain Man, Two For The Money, The Cincinatti Kid, Maverick, etc.), (3) miraculous wins as happy endings (The Cooler, The Good Thief, Two For The Money, etc.), (4) gamblers are suckers (Casino, Croupier, Two For The Money, etc., (5) gamblers cheat (Rounders, The Sting, House of Games, The Grifters, etc.), (6) gambling is run by organized crime (The Godfather, Casino, Get Shorty, etc.), (7) the casino heist (Ocean’s Eleven, The Good Thief, Croupier, etc.), and (8) gambling as a symbolic backdrop to the story (Leaving Las Vegas, Pay It Forward, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.).
After this initial content analysis, Dr. Turner and his colleagues organized these eight themes into a general taxonomy of films. They reported that:
“First these films can be divided into two categories: films in which gambling is a central focus of the film, and others where gambling is a relatively minor topic but serves a symbolic role in the film. The films that are about gambling can be further divided into those that present generally negative views of gambling (e.g., pathology, crime, cheating) and those that present a generally positive image of gambling (e.g., magical skills and miraculous wins). The positive image is mainly related to the ability of the player to win (by skill or by miracle), but some of these films also add additional positive images by hinting at a glamorous and exciting lifestyle (The Good Thief, James Bond films, Rounders). Negative images of gambling are more common than positive images of gambling. Negative images were further divided into pathological gambling, suckers, cheaters, organized crime, and robbing casinos”.
They also go on to note that: very few films show ordinary people gambling non-problematically:
“Throughout the history of movies, gambling-related stories have been present. Movies about gambling are most often inhabited by problem gamblers (e.g., The Gambler), cheats (e.g., Shade), criminals (e.g., The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven), spies (e.g., Diamonds are Forever), people with incredible luck (e.g., Stealing Harvard), and professional gamblers (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler). With the exception of The Odd Couple (1968), we have come across few movies that show ordinary people gambling in a non-problematic manner”.
With regards to problem and pathological gambling they conclude that:
“Some movies provide important insights into the nature of pathological gambling (e.g., The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, The Hustler). However, others make light of the disorder or indulge in the wishful thinking common with pathological gamblers (e.g., Let It Ride, The Cooler, Fever Pitch, The Good Thief). In some movies people develop a problem too quickly (Viva Rock Vegas, Lost in America). Some films take the view that all gamblers are addicted (Croupier, Two for the Money)…Most films about pathological gambling depict a narrow segment of the problem gambling population focusing on the male “action” gambler (see also Griffiths, 2004). Most pathological gamblers simply do not embezzle millions of dollars as in Owning Mahowny or take stupid risks just for the thrill of it as in The Gambler. Films rarely show gamblers hooked on slot machines or other electronic gambling machines even though such machines, where they are available, now account for a majority of problem gamblers in treatment”.
Obviously the sample of films chosen was selective and there were over a hundred films that weren’t analysed. However, even though the study was published ten years ago I don’t think the results (if repeated on more contemporary films) would be particularly different.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Dement, J.W. (1999) Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.
Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.
Gluss, H.M. & Smith, S.E., (2002). Reel people: Finding ourselves in the movies. Keylight: Los Angeles.
Turner, N. E., Fritz, B., & Zangeneh, M. (2007). Images of gambling in film. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 117-143.