Hand Histories: 50 Years of Debate Over the Last Hand of “The Cincinnati Kid”


50 Years of Debate Over the Last Hand of “The Cincinnati Kid”
Fifty years ago today — on October 15, 1965 — came the premiere of a film that a half-century later remains one of the best poker movies ever made, The Cincinnati Kid.

Based on a short, pulp novel by Richard Jessup, the film directed by Norman Jewison stars Steve McQueen as poker player Eric Stoner, a.k.a. “the Kid,” who after an extended period of dominating poker games against locals is eager to challenge the player known as “the Man,” Lancey Howard, portrayed by Edward G. Robinson.

The two characters’ nicknames unsubtly suggest one of the film’s more obvious themes — the “coming of age” story in which the younger Eric is shown to learn a lesson of sorts after going up against the experienced Lancey. That point gets emphasized in the final scene when Lancey delivers a series of memorable lines to Eric, including one in which he refers to the last hand of five-card stud the pair played.

“Gets down to what it’s all about, doesn’t it?” says Lancey, looking more than a little devilish as he lights a cigar. “Making the wrong move at the right time.”

The Kid sounds less than convinced when he responds with a question: “Is that what it’s all about?” “Like life, I guess,” continues the Man, somewhat inscrutably.

The hand the pair has just played is perhaps the most famous in any poker movie — indeed, one of the most famous in poker, period. It’s certainly one that has earned the most debate, for a variety of reasons.

The Hand
(Fifty years would seem like enough time to make the “spoiler alert” warning no longer obligatory, but know that in what follows the film’s ending is thoroughly given away.)

The game is no-limit five-card stud, appropriate for the film’s Depression-era setting. Incidentally, while the novel is set in St. Louis during the 1950s, the film pushes the story back a couple of decades and moves it to New Orleans, thought by many to be the birthplace of poker.

In five-card stud players initially receive one card down and one card up, followed by the first round of betting. From there they each receive three more cards one at a time, all face up, with betting after each deal. In the end, then, four of each player’s five cards are shown.

By the time the final hand arrives, other players originally involved in the game have dropped out to leave just Eric and Lancey to battle heads-up, and the Kid appears to be having the best of it. A montage shows him winning several hands in a row, with shots of Lancey rubbing his forehead and loosening his collar suggesting the Man is starting to wear down physically, if not mentally, too.

Lady Fingers (portrayed by Joan Blondell) — brought on to deal by Eric after he has discovered the original dealer, Shooter, has been trying to cheat for him — shuffles and deals. Eric’s up card is the {10-Clubs} while Lancey has the {8-Diamonds} showing, meaning Eric acts first. He bets $500, and the Man calls.

The next round sees Eric pick up the {10-Spades}, pairing his ten, while Lancey is dealt the {Q-Diamonds}. Eric leads for $1,000, then despite his opponent’s pair showing Lancey raises to $2,000. “I’ll just call,” says Eric. There’s now $5,000 in the middle.

On fourth street Eric is dealt the {A-Clubs} while Lancey gets the {10-Diamonds}. “Three diamonds and a possible,” says Lady Fingers when describing Lancey’s board as he has a possible flush draw going. The Kid bets $3,000 — 60% of the pot — causing onlookers to sit up and murmur loudly. A couple are shown speculating that the Man is “going for the flush.”

“A reasonable bet,” says Lancey, who then places forward the cash needed to call. “Deal the cards,” he says to Lady Fingers. Pot is $11,000.

She tosses Lancey the {9-Diamonds}, noting the possible flush and the possible straight flush. She then deals Eric his last card, the {A-Spades}, saying “two pair” then indicating Eric is to act first.

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