A Chip and a Chair

Bay of Angels (1963), California Split (1974), & Mississippi Grind (2015)

illustration by Dani Manning

The Pre-Game

“I don’t care about winning. I just like to play. I really do.”

I am a gambler. Even when I go years without placing a bet or sitting down at a poker table, I remain a gambler. I’ve seen dozens of movies that include people gambling—movies in which characters gamble for fun or for money or to get themselves out of a sticky situation. But I’ve encountered very few movies that understand the gambler as athlete and addict.

Ocean’s 11 and Casino take place in the traditional houses of gamblers, and they occasionally pretend to be about gambling, but are ultimately about Las Vegas, and they succeed mostly because they know the difference. The city is not the setting in these movies, it is the character. It is the protagonist and the antagonist all at once.

21, the Casino Royales, and Diamonds Are Forever are movies that feature gambling—they focus on the mechanics and the sex appeal of blackjack, Texas hold ‘em, or baccarat—but the people aren’t gamblers. Just like some athletes step onto the field to have fun or to take home a trophy, these people gamble because it’s a good time or because they want to win money. 

But gamblers are that third type of sportsman: the athlete-addict. We’re the ones who step on the field because we can’t survive off it. The ones who risk injury by playing long after we should have hung up our jersey. The ones who win six or seven titles and try to retire, only to realize we can’t live without it, and that it was never about the rings or the money or even just the love of the game. Sometimes we play poker or roulette or blackjack, but our competition is not limited to the activities that typically indicate gambling. Our playing field is much bigger; we seek the rush wherever we can find it. 

And every so often, great movies about gamblers amble their way into existence. Like Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels, they understand that “a chip and a chair” isn’t a romantic statement about tournament poker so much as a credo on the two basic requirements for existence. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, they grasp that the prize is not a trophy or a championship, but instead that “special feeling,” the one that may never come. And like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, they don’t care about winning. They just want the action.

Gamblers are often solitary figures who crave company. If our orbits take us into the path of a kindred spirit, we may travel next to them for a stretch of time. These three movies focus on that stretch of time. They capture it like it’s a single season of basketball or football—teammates destined to go separate ways, but whose interests align for a brief moment. Jackie and Jean; Charlie and Bill; Gerry and Curtis.

In these three movies, I found gamblers I recognized. I watched again and again for the same reason they kept returning to the tables. They saw their story end the same way 99 times, but still held out hope for that 100th roll of the dice. And I thought that if I kept watching—just one more time—maybe their fates would change. That ounce of hope is all the gambler needs.

First Quarter: The Playing Field

“What I love about gambling is this idiotic life of luxury and poverty,” Jackie (Jeanne Moreau) tells Jean (Claude Mann) in Bay of Angels, by far the most luxurious of these three films. And yet Demy makes little effort to gussy up the trappings of their arenas. The casinos are clinical and utilitarian—far from the visual cacophony of the gaudy Vegas institutions that have become synonymous with gambling in the 21st century.

Mississippi Grind expands on this idea—Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) and Gerry’s (Ben Mendelsohn) playing fields are wherever they can find the action. And Fleck and Boden wisely opt for the most run-down version of every “stadium” along the way. The film opens on Gerry’s home field, the smoky poker room at his local Iowa casino, a place with 18 different shades of brown and the sort of harsh Klieg lights that can make even Ryan Reynolds look like a loser. When the action shifts to the tracks, this is not the Kentucky Derby; it’s a mostly empty stadium at 1:00 p.m. on a weekday. For gamblers, amenity is the antithesis of comfort. Give us faded felt soaked through with the sweat from nervous palms, hardened by thick cigar smoke, and reeking of desperation.

California Split brings this idea of the playing field to its fullest realization: it’s anywhere and everywhere in between. It’s the dirty bar where Bill (George Segal) bets his new pal Charlie (Elliott Gould) 20 bucks that he can’t name all seven dwarves. It’s the shapeless, nameless motel where you slip a few bills under a plastic protector just to have a bed for a few hours. It’s the bathroom at the racetrack where you push your luck further than you ever could just by betting on the ponies. We are athlete-addicts who seek the thrill that comes with risking it all wherever we can find it. Our game never stops because action is everywhere. And Altman’s directorial style matches this content. He prioritizes verisimilitude, and he understands that the identity of each place lies in the people who fill it. His eyes—and especially his ears—roam over each venue, pulling snippets of life from every corner of these places to bring them alive.

The ubiquity of the gambler’s arena also saps any meaning from these places. Demy—who would go on to shoot two of the most finely-wrought color movies in 1964 (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and 1967 (The Young Girls of Rochefort)—chose to photograph 1963’s Bay of Angels in black and white. This style reflects how Jackie speaks of her life apart from gambling. “Bars are all alike,” she tells Jean, and later, that men are “all the same to me.” Where to gamble, Paris or Nice? “What’s the difference…You have to be somewhere.” And when? “Now or tonight, it’s all the same.” Motel after motel; casino after casino; bar after bar. Everywhere is nowhere. Somewhere to find action or the purgatorial space in between.

The gambler has no particular arena. Our true home turf is the next place, the next spot, the next rush. “It’s Machu Picchu time,” Curtis repeats throughout Mississippi Grind, or, in layman’s terms, “Time to move on.” Grind is a road movie of sorts, with Curtis and Gerry moving from city to city finding new action. In Bay, Jackie and Jean go from Nice to Monte Carlo and back. And in Split, Charlie goes to Tijuana on a whim, and he and Bill later trek to Reno to find bigger game. “We’ll…get a driver, hit every track in the world,” Charlie tells Bill, once the two have run their course in the biggest little city in the world. Just keep moving. On to the next action.

“The journey is the destination,” Curtis repeats multiple times throughout Mississippi Grind. This puts a proverbial spin on the reality of the nomadic gambler, offering a rose-tinted view of such a lifestyle. The reality is closer to what he says to his mother late in the film, just before he repeats his motto for the final time: “Didn’t have time to stop.”

Second Quarter: The Game

“You follow pro basketball?”
“Anything, right?”
“Whatever’s going.”
“Yeah, me too. Action.”

If the playing field of the gambler is not restricted to the casino or the racetrack, then the Game is not limited to poker or blackjack or sports betting. The Game is simpler and more expansive than that. As Charlie and Bill put it in California Split: action. Whatever’s going.

Both Grind and Split trace the contours of the Game in the way they film poker scenes. Unlike Rounders, for example, we’re rarely privy to the hole cards of the Texas hold ‘em players. Instead, the camera obsesses over the faces. The bead of sweat that lingers over a forehead crease in anticipation of the turn card. The empty smile of a man bluffing his opponent and waiting to see if she’ll muck. The pungent despair of a man on tilt from a bad beat, and the visible recoil of those who can’t even look him in the eye. The Game does not take place on the table; it happens in our heads, our hearts, our guts. In California Split, Altman goes so far as to rarely bother even telling us the results of a given hand. Sometimes Bill and Charlie are up, sometimes they’re down. But they’re always looking for more action.

Demy does something similar in Bay of Angels. When Jean first encounters Jackie in Nice, he approaches her roulette table. She puts her money on three; he does the same. The ball rolls. We don’t see where it lands, but we know they’ve lost. The camera stays on Jean and Jackie, across the table from each other. He puts his money on 17; she does the same. The ball rolls. We don’t see where it lands, but we know they’ve won. He rotates toward her side of the table, and the camera turns completely away from the croupier and his wheel. It settles onto the table facing outward. The pair play 17 again. The ball rolls. The camera focuses on their faces.

“Why 17?” Jackie asks.
“Why not?”

This is the moment Jackie has found someone not just to partake in roulette, but to play the Game with her. To ignore the realities of odds and logic and to seek the rush of the action.

But the Game doesn’t stop at the tables. Both Grind and Split move outdoors to the track, where our gamblers can find both official and unsanctioned action. Take the first of several racetrack sequences in Mississippi Grind. Despite Gerry laying down $200 on a horse with 48-to-one odds, the moment with the highest stakes has nothing to do with the four-legged animals running around the track. Upset that he didn’t win more, Gerry roils in anguish when Curtis wants to leave. Action is oxygen; leaving the track is like drowning. Thrashing about, Gerry reaches desperately for a life raft—he bets Curtis that the next guy out of the bathroom will wear glasses. The stakes? If he’s right, they will stay at the track. The action will continue. This scene offers a simple mission statement for the Game: the most important bet to win is the one that will keep the action coming.

And gamblers will go anywhere to find that action. In Grind, Curtis seeks it on a basketball court, where he takes on a can’t-win challenge and plays broke just to indulge in the rush of rock bottom. In Split, Charlie and Bill discover it in their dalliance with play-acting, impersonating police officers to get Charlie’s roommates out of an awkward situation. Traditional sports games build toward a championship match; in these movies, our gamblers push themselves further and further just to feel the same level of satisfaction. This is the curse of an addict. The dollar amounts go up, but for the gamblers the stakes stay the same: more action. As Gerry throws the dice in a climactic six-figure bet late in Grind, Fleck and Boden’s camera stays trained on his face, ignoring two cubes that will decide the fate of half a million dollars. We don’t even know what he needs to roll for success. It doesn’t matter—craps isn’t the real Game here.

Early in Mississippi Grind, Gerry tells Curtis, “I got a plan.” This makes sense. We expect plans in sports. Coach Yost called the “fake 23 blast with a backside George reverse” in Remember the Titans. The Looney Tunes drew up Michael Jordan’s dunk in Space Jam. Everyone got out of the way for Russ Tyler’s knuckle-puck in The Mighty Ducks. But here, Gerry isn’t outlining his plan for the poker table or the racetrack.

“We go down the Mississippi, like Huck fucking Finn and Jim on a raft…We hit up all the action, everything along the way. ‘Cause I know some weekly home games…casinos…then we got the gambling towns…” In theory, it’s a way for the pair to raise enough money for a $25,000 buy-in game in New Orleans. In Gerry’s Twain-inspired delusion, they are adventurers rather than degenerates, standing up to the Man and hitting the felt when they need a little extra cash. But the reality is even simpler. They can’t live without gambling—theirs is nothing more than a game plan to keep the action going for as long as possible.

Third Quarter: The Players

“We’re partners in a game. Let’s leave it at that.”

The Game is set. But who are the players?

There are two types of gamblers in these movies—the fast-talking hustler and the desperate wannabe; the center of attention and the down-and-out schmuck lurking on the fringes. These two gamblers feed off each other so long as their interests align, but they both know how the relationship will end. 

Player 1: “My partner here is the player, and, uh, I guess I’m the drinker.”

The first voice we hear in Mississippi Grind is the narrator of Gerry’s audiobook, giving tips for amateur poker players. The voice describes Player 1:

“Some players increase their chatter when nervous or anxious. This usually happens with extroverts, who find great comfort in babbling.”

Player 1 is Curtis, Charlie, and Jackie. Player 1 is a black hole for attention because attention drowns out the silence. She lives her entire life in pursuit of the sound and the noise and the action that brings with it the rush of vivacity. And when it’s not there, she fills it with her own voice. She tells her partner to smile or she’ll go to a different table. 

Player 1 doesn’t gamble to make money; he makes money to gamble. As Charlie says, “Money can’t do me nothin’ cause I ain’t got none,” and he’s right on both counts. Player 1 isn’t on vacation from his life or his job—being a gambler is both for him. He lives near the action. He drives to Tijuana on a limb, or provokes conflict on the basketball courts or in the racetrack bathroom, just to feel alive. 

Player 1 seems fun on the surface. But Player 1 is a black hole of a person whose journey will suck everyone into it if they stick around long enough.

Player 2: “I have problems with money.”

Player 2 is Gerry, Bill, and Jean. Player 2 is in debt. He steals from his boss or his father or his ex-wife. His life has let him down—maybe it’s too boring, or maybe he’ll tell you he’s taken more bad beats in his life than anyone else you know—and he seeks solace in being a gambler. He is a voyeur in this world. He lies about money and he lies about winning, telling himself these things are important. He loses his temper when he loses control. 

Player 2 avoids conflict. He sits quietly at the table and takes pride in his skills. Each decision is life-or-death for him. He takes himself and the world around him seriously. For Player 2, their newfound partner becomes a part of their addiction, a totem of the action they seek. Bill nearly has a fit when Charlie goes to Tijuana without him, while Jean’s obsession becomes as much about Jackie as it is about roulette. 

Player 2’s journey will always end on tilt. 

These are the players. This relationship is unique in the wide world of sports. They are on the same team until suddenly they aren’t. They form a partnership born of necessity, creating a facsimile of connection. They use each other, and they pretend they aren’t using each other. As one of the many nameless faces that pop in and out of their journeys says to Curtis and Gerry:

“I just know it’s better to not be alone.”

And so, for as long as their interests align, the players pursue common goals. But this should not be mistaken for traditional friendship. Instead, they serve as each other’s totems. “Like a leprechaun,” as Gerry says about Curtis, or “my lucky horseshoe,” as Jackie puts it. The players service each other’s need to find the action.

And the players lie to each other. Player 1 fabricates an entire identity, creating an aura of success and building up a persona that others will want to be around. Curtis creates a vision of Machu Picchu, and Jackie lies about her ex-husband and the source of her money. Player 2 fibs about money, hiding their shame in lies about debt or how well they did at the tables. Gerry hides his big loss at the poker table, and Jean pretends to be up big when he meets his old friend in passing. These lies serve the delusion that keeps these relationships moving forward, but they also enable the gambler’s wretched inability to be honest with themselves.

“We’re fine, we can win millions,” Jackie says to Jean. In another universe, Gerry begs Curtis to let him bet on one more horse: “We bet that…we’re back.”

Their partners don’t believe them. They don’t believe themselves. But all of them need the lies. And they need each other.

Until suddenly, they don’t.

These relationships are built on nothing more than mutual convenience, and eventually their interests must diverge. Jean becomes jealous of Jackie, so she seeks out another man with more chips and less insecurity. Charlie’s chit-chat grates on Bill, who tells his partner to go away so he can focus on the action. Curtis tells Gerry to go home.

“This story doesn’t have a happy ending, Gerry,” Curtis sighs. None of them do.

Fourth Quarter: The Prize

We have the playing field, the Game, and the players.

But what are the stakes?

Gamblers can “win.” We can hit blackjack, bet on the right horse, or even take home a bracelet at the World Series of Poker. But like the athlete-addict, this traditional win will never be enough for us. Instead, winning is the final blow struck against the gambler’s perpetual need for action. Winning removes the stakes.

People often wonder why gamblers so often refuse to walk away from the table when they’re up big. They think we grind through the low moments so that we can revel in the highs—so why can’t we hold on to what we’ve won? But it’s not about the highs. It’s about having a chip and a chair. Gamblers live for the low moments, when everything seems lost, when we’re one bad beat from tipping over the edge.

Big wins are intoxicating in the short-term; they crush a gambler in the long-term.

“You just won half a million dollars, cheer the fuck up,” Curtis says to Gerry toward the end of Mississippi Grind. Gerry’s reversal of fortune has done nothing to fix his mood. He’s still an absentee father and thieving ex-husband—only now he can’t blame it on being broke. And just 12 hours after promising his longtime flame that he was finally coming home, Curtis ignores her call and wakes up in bed with another woman, forced to find action somewhere new.

In California Split, after Bill and Charlie split their $82,000 in winnings—also just shy of half a million in today’s money—they go their separate ways. Like Gerry will be in a few fictional decades, Bill is numb to the joy of riches: “Charlie, there was no special feeling.” 

At first, Charlie dismisses him and comes back with a joke. Bill remains silent. When Charlie eventually falls silent and considers the sentiment, he finally responds. His words come with the weight of the gambler’s realization: the big win does not bring happiness.

“Don’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” 

The Post-Game

Gamblers are some of the most resilient humans on the planet. We can take bad beat after bad beat and still come back with renewed hope. Call it self-delusion—we’re skilled in deception, after all—or call it internal fortitude.

Bay of Angels ends with Jean and Jackie running off into the sunset together.

Mississippi Grind concludes with Gerry listening to his audiobook, straightening his posture, and imagining himself as a confident man.

At first glance, these look like naive happy-ever-afters pasted on by Hollywood to sugar-coat the bleak reality of the gambler. But watching as a gambler, I saw something different. I saw these movies doing the same mental gymnastics I’ve done in the past to convince myself things would be different. The game has changed. I’ve changed. I only gamble responsibly; I play the odds; I set a limit. 

All just excuses to allow me to keep seeking out the action. 

But do we really believe they’ve changed? Do they even believe it themselves? 

No, probably not. Because deep down, gamblers know that the only way to stop being a gambler is to stop playing the Game. I learned this long ago, and I have still spent years convincing myself I could play the Game responsibly. These movies didn’t teach me this lesson, they merely reminded me of a truth I occasionally choose to conveniently bury in the name of action. Even when we stare at you and tell you otherwise, we know the truth.

But just like we can brush off a bad beat at the tables, we can convince ourselves that things might change if we just play the Game in a different way.

Because as Curtis tells Gerry: “Tomorrow’s a new day. So’s the next.”

And all we need is a chip and a chair. And just a little bit of action.