The Magic Poker Equation

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"Guess I should have warned you -- whenever I'm about to lose, I always draw exactly what I need!"

Seto Kaiba, Yu-Gi-Oh!

A law of probability which only exists in television and movie Poker, and can be expressed thus:

L = si

Where L = luck, s = skill and i = importance.

It describes the phenomenon in TV poker games whereby the better the poker player, or the more crucial the hand of poker being played, the better the players' hands are.

In TV, the most talented poker players get threes of a kind, full houses, straights and flushes with remarkable frequency; it would seem that while real life poker savants are masters of risk management and psychological warfare, TV poker savants are masters of getting dealt good cards.

But even novice players can get full houses and flushes if the hand in question is an amazing climactic hand on which the plot hinges. When both factors are in play, the values of the hands hit the stratosphere - the best poker player in the world, playing the most important hand of his life, will probably beat a straight flush with a royal flush. In real life, he'd probably just beat two pair with a better two pair.

Related TV poker phenomena:

  • Even in unimportant five card hands with regular players, nobody ever has less than two pair. If the players ever do have just a pair (or lower), it's because a point is being made of how bad/unlucky the player is, how good they are at bluffing, or how lame the game is.
    • Depends on the poker variant used. Higher hands are much more frequent in seven-card games such as Texas Hold'em and Seven-Card Stud, where the player has more cards from which to build a five-card hand. Omaha Hold'em turns this up to nine, each player choosing two of four hole cards and three of five community cards, so straights, flushes and full houses are quite common.
  • In a game of three or more players, almost every hand is quickly whittled down to two players - usually the same two, time and time again.
    • Justified in Real Life if these two players are much looser than the rest of the round. A key strategy of No Limit Texas Hold'em even in full-ring games is to raise with premium holdings pre-flop, in an attempt to reduce the field as much as possible, as it is far easier to win against one opponent than several - both at showdown and through bluffing. Though it's not usually the same two players.
  • The more important the hand, the closer together the values. A climactic hand will not be won by a straight flush over two pair; more likely it will be four kings over four queens.
    • This does happen in real life, but only because big pots get to be big pots because multiple people keep betting instead of folding early. Bluffing notwithstanding, this means that everyone left in the game has a hand good enough that they would reasonably expect it to be the best. Someone with a pair of twos would generally fold early if someone else is betting like they've got something good, again bluffing notwithstanding.
    • This is the main reason behind the rise of "community card" games such as Texas Hold'Em. With five cards in common, hands are much closer together than they would be in a draw or stud game. For example, a pair of twos can eventually still wipe the floor with the rest in Texas Hold'em if the five cards from the dealer have one or two twos, giving you a three of a kind or four of a kind or maybe a full house. Even the two-seven hand can win over pair of aces hands if the dealer cards are in favor of the 2-7 hand.
        • In Super System, Doyle Brunson points out that statistically speaking, a pair of twos will beat the "magic hand" of ace-king suited more than half the time. He then points out that it's still the weaker hand because it's not playing solely against random hands; it's playing against the hands that people are willing to spend money to see improve.
          • And Doyle is wrong. Take the hand of 22, hearts and diamonds. It's a slight preflop favorite (49.96% to 49.37%) over AKs of hearts or diamonds but it doesn't even win half the time, thanks to ties. The same hand is also a very slight preflop underdog (49.60% to 49.77%) to AKs of spades or clubs. (AKs does lose to any other pair more than half of the time, regardless of suits, though. Doyle just didn't do the all the math with deuces.)
  • Three of a kind/four of a kind is the only time it will come down to the value of the individual cards, except for the "royal flush beats straight flush" cliché. You never see a full house with queens showing beating a full house with nines showing, or a jack-high flush beating a nine-high flush.
  • The person who puts their cards down first loses. Especially if they've got such a good hand they don't even wait to see the other person's cards before they start cackling and raking in their winnings. (See also: Assumed Win) Exception: the person puts their cards down and the other player concedes defeat without showing their own cards - because they're throwing the game.
    • Corollary: This also applies when the player only shows his cards to the camera. As a general rule, you won't see the winning hand until it's played.
      • Corollary of the corollary: if the winning hand will win by cheating a cheater, the camera shows the hand he player has been dealt, not the hand he will win with (e.g. The Sting).
    • That exception is actually a little bit of Truth in Television. Outside of European casinos, which require surrendered hands to be shown to the rest of the table, it's standard practice for a player to concede rather than show his hand if the hand before him is superior (called "mucking" in most poker circles). Doing so keeps the strength of your hand hidden, making it harder for other players to try to guess your betting patterns by not revealing whether you were bluffing or not.
  • Basically, the amateur can often be seen beating "veterans" of the game. (Also see Bested At Bowling.) Well, poker is partly luck-based, but not that much.
    • The Pratchett Corollary: "When an obvious innocent sits down with three experienced card sharpers and says "How do you play this game, then?", someone is about to be shaken down until their teeth fall out." -- Witches Abroad
    • Again this can be Truth in Television. Experienced players can be very much unsettled when faced with an amateur who is likely to be less predictable than fellow veterans. When pros have favourable table position they have a good sense of how much they should bet in order to provoke the desired response from the following players, whether that be a raise, call or fold. An amateur may respond in a much more haphazard way, derailing strategies and being more difficult to read.
    • An amateur is playing against a veteran (often having been brought in so he can be squeezed for all he's worth). The veteran tosses his cards down, bragging about his great hand. The amateur remarks, "Gee, I've only got two pair. A pair of kings, and another pair of kings."
      • At one time, at some casinos your cards only counted as what you claim them to be (It was originally started to prevent holdups and arguments over hands players miscounted, but ruins the "two pair" trope as well). But as Vegas tourism and camera surveillance became common, the standard became "cards speak". Modern poker books often advise players to turn over their cards at all showdowns to prevent losing because you misread your hand.
      • Even if the rule does not apply, doing this is called "slow-rolling", and is considered absurdly rude and an extreme breach of conduct and etiquette to all of the players he or she is up against. In a showdown, if they must show, all players are expected to say exactly what they have, and nothing else. Doing otherwise can get you thrown out of a casino. No one wants unwanted drama by such a kind of idiot at a poker table.
  • Expert poker players who must be defeated by the hero always have a 'tell' (i.e. a subconscious move they make when they are bluffing, or have a good hand). Rule of Drama is that any plot-important tell has to be clear and visible so the audience can see it, but it often ends up so obvious that viewers are left wondering how the person in question got to be such an expert. Seems to happen more in drama than in comedy.
    • Note that while "tells" do exist in poker, it's extraordinarily rare for a professional player to have one of any kind. They're often obvious displays that only they think no one notices that show without a doubt that they're worked up about something. Tells are invariably used by better players to take advantage of extremely incompetent amateurs.
  • Poker in fiction is typically played for open stakes, meaning that when the hero's four-of-a-kind is up against the villain's straight flush, the hero will end up borrowing vast amounts of money to bet with, being forced to come up with a wacky scheme to repay the resulting debt. In real life, poker is always played for table stakes: you can only bet with the money you have at the table, and may only bring more to the table between hands (except in freeze-out games, where you can't add or remove chips and you always start with the same total of chips after paying a fixed amount of money as a buy in).
  • In the pivotal hand, at least one of the poker players will announce a raise as follows: "I see your bet..." (Dramatic Pause) "...and raise you." While fairly commonplace and tolerated in many informal home games, this sort of action is called a "String Bet" and the intended raise would not stand at any respectable casino (the action is over once the player announces their intent to call).
    • "String bets" are considered extremely rude at a table, and is a different type of slow-rolling. At a real casino table, you can either say "Raise", followed by how much you're raising in addition to the bet, or alternately, you can choose to just say the number alone. For instance, if the bet is 25 and you want to raise to 100, you can say simply, "One hundred."
  • With some rare exceptions (Rounders and Casino Royale), the game in question will always be "Five Card Draw." This probably has to do with the fact that it was the only legal form of poker in California for many years. It was supplanted by stud and community card variants in most places before the end of the 19th century.

Of course, this also appears in other games of chance, of which poker is just the most common. It also appears with Roulette and Craps (notably in the movie/play Guys and Dolls). If you have a Calvin Ball game, then this overlaps with New Rules as the Plot Demands. Overuse of this trope can make the player's skill to be an Informed Ability.

Also see Hustling the Mark, a con featuring a professional card player disguised as an amateur.

Examples of The Magic Poker Equation include:

Anime and Manga

  • It is the central trope of the Anime Yu-Gi-Oh!, where skilled players have an uncanny ability to always draw the "only" card that will help them. (In the manga on which the series is based, this is explicitly a superpower of the main character, but in the anime it appears to be a function of skill and faith, particularly in the English dub by 4Kids).
    • Joey's luck is also improbable. He has a lot of luck-based cards in his deck (Graceful Dice, Skull Dice, Time Wizard, Roulette Spider, those two in the Courtroom Chaos duel [the monster/magic pick, although you can psych your opponent out with that one; and the coin flip one]), and he always rolls/flips/spins right. On the flipside, he also has a lot of bad draws.
    • Detailed in the manga is the semi-sentience of the 'spirit of the cards'. Play nobly, treat your cards well, don't sacrifice willy-nilly, be cool and your luck increases. Be a jerk, cheat, try to cheat, your luck goes spiralling downwards. One should think the jerks would get it.
    • They've even turned it into a game mechanic in Tag Force 2; called "Destiny Draw", it can be assigned to up to 5 cards, and it only kicks in when you're about to lose.
    • This is turned Up to Eleven at the climax of the duel against Noah, at which point Yugi has no cards in his hand or on he field and Noah has a 10000 life point lead. He is Yugi's life points squared.. Yugi draws just the right card: a card that lets him draw six more cards; those cards turn out to be just the right cards to execute a one-turn kill. The sequence can be seen here.
      • Quite frankly, the brat had it coming with his unabashedly broken deck master and his previous cheating against Kaiba.
      • Noah himself had a lot of this going on. His deck was a theme mishmash, yet he never seemed to have any inopportune draws.
    • It goes beyond a martial art. It's the one true religion.
    • Played with a bit in GX, where Bastion (for part of the series, anyway) has actually calculated the Magic Poker Equation but doesn't rely on it at all, preferring quick thinking to luck.
      • And played straight with Zane, who, throughout the first season, and as lampshaded in flashbacks to his training dojo days, always pulls out Cyber End Dragon within his first 3 turns.
      • Aster doesn't rely on it much, but when he dueled using a Elemental Hero/Destiny Hero hybrid deck, he somehow draws all the Elemental Heroes first, then suddenly only has Destiny Heroes.
      • Lucien Grimley relies on Slash Draw, which discards cards from his deck equal to the number of cards on the field, then lets him draw a card, and if it's another Slash Draw, he destroys every card on the field and inflicts 1000 damage to his opponent for each one. He never fails, though it's revealed that he achieves this with a Deal with the Devil.
      • Damon relies on Miracle Draw, which inflicts 1000 damage to his opponent each time he correctly guesses what card he will draw, and 1000 damage to himself if he guesses wrong.
    • Yusei in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's is often depicted as seeing the winning path depicted as a line of electricity linking the cards in the chain that will pull it out for him.
      • Subverted with Aporia as a Hope Spot. Aporia has the card After Glow, which shuffles itself into the deck and inflicts 4000 damage to the opponent when it is drawn again. To maximize his chances of success, he sends all the cards in his deck to the graveyard so that After Glow will be the only card and he will be sure to draw it. Z-One counters this tactic by using a card to shuffle Aporia's graveyard back into his deck, then declares that with a 1/34 chance, there is no way he can do it. Aporia declares he can do it and draws... Machine Emperor Grannel Infinity, and he loses.
    • Suffice to say, if the draw has a white streak following it, Power Echoes, or both, The Hero just got what he needed.
  • Subverted in manga series Et Cetra, where all but one of the poker games involve cheating through their teeth. To be fair, Baskerville only cheated to beat a cheater. Using the same device as Bandit above, though with far more speed and success.
  • Saki does this with Mahjong, fairly explicitly. Somewhat grating, as the actual probabilities are mentioned early on.
    • Other than the main character, several other 'top players' display similar abilities. It's almost made explicit that these 'super-players' basically act as low-level Reality Warpers, manipulating probability to ensure the desired result.
  • Yami no Matsuei at first subverts this with a hand in which the main character's body is his stake - which the main character loses. Then plays it straight when the main character's partner shows up just in time to win him back in the next hand. With a Royal Flush.
  • In Vandread, the cool and collected Gasgone is seen constantly beating the hotheaded Hibiki at poker. Sadly, though she seems to do this through sheer luck, as the two of them get dealt more and more unlikely hands culminating in four aces and a joker! Meaning either 5 of a kind or somebody screwed up the shuffle.
  • Subverted twice in a single chapter of D.Gray-man. Arystar Krory decides to play poker for the first time with some fellows he meets on the train - when Allen goes to check on him, he's managed to literally lose his shirt to the gamblers. Allen proceeds to sit down and wins back all of Krory's possessions - by showing off his incredible skills at cheating at poker.
  • Subverted? Averted? Something'd? rather deftly in 20th Century Boys, where Kanna takes up the ridiculously swingy game of Rabbit Nabokov and in her first session playing the game, goes from a single chip to enough money to bankrupt the whole casino, constantly knowing when to bet up and increase her lead. In the end, with enough money to completely bankrupt the casino on the line, as she goes to bet into the dealer, said dealer draws a gun and tries to kill her, rather than let her ruin the casino. It's then revealed afterwards that Kanna, in addition to being psychic, and therefore, happily cheating the pants off everyone in the room, was going to get neither an incredibly bad hand, nor the hand the dealer feared - she had just built up sufficient reputation through the earlier play that everyone was convinced this trope was about to turn up and hoover all the money out of their collective pockets.
  • The English dub of Digimon Adventure 02 does this in episode 12 as a gag near the end of the episode. It's in the two pair form, and with aces.
  • Subverted in part three of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Jotaro, having never played a game of poker in his life, wins a game of poker against D'arby, an expert gambler, with not only his soul, but also the souls of his friend Polnareff and his grandfather Joseph as the stakes. Despite D'arby cheating to rig the hands, Jotaro manages to bluff him out of the game by not looking at his hand, making it look like he might have used his powers to change his cards, adopting his usual poker face, and then continually raising until the stakes were just too high for D'arby to risk calling on. After the game was over, Jotaro's hand was flipped over, and it was revealed that he had absolute crap.
    • ... And humorously admitted that if he had looked at his cards, he would've had a heart attack. Cue everyone yelling at him.
  • Quite explicitly justified in Liar Game, with "Seventeen Card Poker". It's mathematically impossible not to have at least a pair of suits, and there are so few cards in the deck that Akiyama's opponent can easily track the Joker during the shuffle to set up fantastic hands; Akiyama then uses deductive logic to track the entire deck and consistently get four Queens by asking the dealer to shuffle a few more times.
  • The Legend of Koizumi takes this trope Serial Escalation, with players consistently earning their trademark ultra-rare hands - for example, Koizumi's Kokushi Musou/Rising Sun which shows up in just about every match.
  • Hakkai in Saiyuki gets good hands in poker and majong with alarming frequency. He does however insist its just cause he's lucky in this (and nothing else) not any skill.
  • In a throw-away gag at the end of "Endless Eight"; Kyon, with less skill but greater character importance than Koizumi, realizes too late he should have bet money, and drops a royal flush on the table.
  • Dante in the Devil May Cry: The Animated Series episode "Death Poker" lets a magically imbued watch influence his chances of winning at a high-stakes poker game to flush out "King", a gambler who's been killing people whenever they lose to "King" (in truth, it's a demon messing around with the gamblers).
    • This trope is taken Up to Eleven in the final hand when beats his opponent's royal flush with his own royal flush.
  • Subverted in the first episode of Rio -Rainbow Gate!- when Rio won with a pair of Deuces. Her opponent was one card away from a flush or a straight but threw that hand away to try for four Queens. Needless to say it didn't quite work out that way and he only ended up with Queen-High

Comic Books

  • The proximity corollary of this Law is averted in the Hellboy story "The Vampire of Prague". The story itself is mostly a brawl between the titular vampire and Hellboy, but HB can't win the fight unless he can beat the vampire at poker. During the battle, Hellboy inadvertently comes across a handful of cards, while the vampire drops a hand of cards during the scuffle. Upon The Reveal, the vampire has a middle-of-the-road straight (which nearly was a straight flush), while Hellboy has a moderate full house. The two hands are pretty distinct, and either could have been beaten by rarer, more valuable hands.
  • Subverted in Jack of Fables. Jack has been consistently losing but manages to win the final hand of a high stakes poker game because of his power to summon all four jacks in a deck of cards at will.
  • A friendly low-stakes Super Hero charity poker game once got derailed by the Kingpin in Spider-Man. Of course the game came down to Spidey vs. Kingpin. I beat Kingpin's hand with four of a kind—he even pulled "two threes and another two threes" which, humorously enough, tricked Kingpin into a villain monologue.


  • The climactic hand in The Cincinnati Kid features a game of 5-card stud where The Kid (Steve McQueen) gets dealt a full house only to lose to The Man (Edward G. Robinson) and his straight flush. The odds of these two particular hands coming out is over 300 billion to 1.
  • Casino Royale
    • At one point, James Bond is actually berated for not having magically held better cards.
    • The climactic end of the poker tournament is on a hand where he holds the nuts: a 5-7 of spades which gives him a straight flush. (Bond, incidentally, has abused this trope a fair deal throughout the films; the number of times he's gotten exactly nine in baccarat defies statistical probability.)
    • Le Chiffre, the villain, apparently has a tell. This is then subverted when it's revealed that he was deliberately displaying it to goad Bond into betting high, and uses the trick to wash him out of the game altogether. Then double subverted when it's revealed Mathis had told Le Chiffre about the tell, revealing his duplicitous nature and something Bond realizes only after the tournament and about a half-second too late to prevent Vesper Lynd from being abducted.
    • Earlier on, one of Le Chiffre's subordinates tries to break the "no additions" rule by taking out his check book. The croupier objects, saying "table stakes only"...which prompts the guy to bet his rare vintage Aston Martin instead under the rationale that the car keys were on the table. The croupier tries to object again only for Bond to convince her to "let the man get his money back". Naturally, Bond wins the car.
    • The novel is, if anything, worse. Bond (playing baccarat) loses hand after hand, driving the stakes up until Bond is cleaned out. He then gets a 32 million franc bailout from Leiter and gets two nines (the first drawn after an initial 0, the second natural) to bankrupt Le Chiffre.
  • An interesting subversion of this happens in The World Is Not Enough; the Big Bad Elektra King bets a million dollars on a high-card draw at the casino of one of Bond's old nemeses/informants... and loses (though the loss was only by a slim margin; the Big Bad had a king, the opponent had an ace). Turns out, the bid was a buyout for a favor, so the loss would've happened, anyway. Interestingly, Bond, before the cards were drawn, demanded the top three cards be buried, to prevent tampering with the deck and an Oh Crap expression hits the dealers face immediately.
  • In Rounders, Teddy KGB, the villain, is supposedly a great poker player. He very conspicuously eats Oreo cookies while playing, and he has a very obvious tell when he had a good hand by eating them in a peculiar way. Matt Damon's character is apparently the first person to ever notice it. In the end, Damon also defeats him in the end by laying an extremely simple trap in which he remarks, suspiciously casually given the fact that the stakes of this particular game are implied to be his life, that he is "gambling" by calling KGB's bet, implying that he is hoping to draw a flush (when in fact he has already made his hand, a straight). While this sort of table chatter might be effective in a casual home game, any poker book will tell you that representing weakness when you are strong and representing strength when you are weak is the oldest trick in the book. No poker player of KGB's supposed caliber would be taken in by such a simple ploy, nor would any player of Damon's caliber attempt it on one of KGB's.
    • It works in this case because Matt Damon's character went up against KGB before and lost rather spectacularly, so Damon's character plays on the fact that KGB thinks he knows what's going on. He's thought by KGB to be a weak player in over his head, and he shows exactly what KGB is expecting while playing an entirely different game.
  • Maverick plays with the trope throughout the film, as Bret Maverick is convinced that he can draw any card out of the deck at will. However, most of his attempts are completely unsuccessful until the end of the film, when he manages to draw the Ace of Spades he needs to complete his Royal Flush and win the poker tournament. The final poker battle on the gambling ship at the end of the film is made of this trope. First, Maverick beats Annabelle by showing his cards, after she thought she won and already started collecting the winnings. Next, the final showdown between Maverick, Angel, and the Commodore. The Commodore shows his hand first: "Two small pair. Eights... and eights." Then Angel shows his hand, "See if you can beat my straight flush!" Maverick finally reveals his royal flush and wins it all, without saying a word.[1] Also, a large part of the movie is of Annabelle trying to get Maverick to tell her his tells, and she ends up losing on the poker ship from the one tell he didn't let her know about.
  • In the first Austin Powers, Number Two hits on a 17 while playing blackjack in a Las Vegas casino, despite being advised to stand. Sure enough, his next card is a 4, making 21. Of course, he had X-Ray Vision from his Eyepatch of Power, and could at least see the card. Austin then subverts the trope by trying to upstage Number Two's risky playstyle. He holds on 5, and loses.
  • In the 1998 version of The Parent Trap, there is exactly one poker game. It is resolved with a royal flush over a "lesser" straight flush. The winner even says "Sorry, you're just not good enough."
  • The Sting: The poker game on the train used to hook Lonnegan for the long con. Justified because both players were cheating.
  • A Big Hand for the Little Lady - with an all star cast. Henry Fonda's a gambling addict in the Old West. In a high-stakes game he stresses himself into a heart attack after seeing his cards when he's almost out of money. His naive bride takes over and Hilarity Ensues. It was a con job with The Bluff to End All Bluffs.
  • Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels starts off with the protagonist being conned by a gangster that is using a spotter and a telegraph tapping morse code on his back. They also violate the first rule of betting above. The fixed buy-in for the game suggests that it's a table stakes game, although it's never explicitly said. Harry makes it clear that Eddie has to put up the money to call, and Eddie doesn't argue.
  • The Hong Kong movie series God of Gamblers is filled with several instances of this trope. Made more amazing is the fact that they attribute the "pick the best card" to an actual skill.
  • Averted in the ending of Oh God You Devil. God (played by George Burns) beats the Devil (also played by George Burns) in a hand of poker when the Devil decides to fold. And what was God's downright amazing hand? Complete garbage.
  • Briefly seen in Run Fatboy Run. Dylan Moran's character is playing a backroom game of Texas Hold'Em and bets all of his remaining money; his King-high flush is beaten by an Ace-high flush.
  • In Guys and Dolls, this is Inverted Trope, as Jerkass Big Jule repeatedly rolls snake-eyes, and has to resort to threats of violence and cheating to make his money back.


  • In Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax bests a card shark in Cripple Mr. Onion (a poker-like game played with the Discworld equivalent of a Tarot deck) through a combination of skill, psychological warfare, disabling the other players' cheating aids and explicitly manipulating the above poker tropes (since the Discworld runs on Narrativum, holding the best possible hand of a game against a protagonist when there's a single exception to the rule is an automatic loss). However, in Maskerade, Granny Weatherwax's poker game against Death to save a child's life is a subversion. Granny has four queens, while Death has four aces. Death chooses to dismiss his hand as "just four ones". The cards came out like that because Granny cheated. She'd have had the four aces in her hand if Death hadn't had them switch. The trick here, is both of them wanted Granny to win (Death's got a soft spot for humanity); they just went through the pantomime because those were the rules.
  • Somewhat justified in Robert Asprin's Little Myth Marker, where hero Skeeve finds himself in a flashy high stakes poker challenge; he puts the entire stakes on the first hand without even looking at his cards. The twist being, as he explains to his opponent, he does so because he knows he doesn't have any outstanding skill at the game—but essentially reducing the game to a coin flip makes the skill gap irrelevant. But of course, he wins with a big flashy hand anyhow.
    • Then again, it's Dragon Poker, which Asprin probably got the idea for from watching the Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action" (anyone familiar with both series will think "Fizzbin" while reading the book, and "Dragon Poker" while watching the Trek episode). Depending on the day, the hands that have already happened, where you're sitting compared to the other players, where you're sitting based on the compass, and any number of other factors, an otherwise unremarkable hand can wipe out a royal flush no problem. What got Skeeve into trouble was the fact that he had a fairly reasonable success rate playing as best he could and letting everyone else work out whether he'd won or lost the hand.
      • What he didn't realize until later was the dealer was cheating on Skeeve's behalf for that initial success, as part of a larger scheme to infiltrate a literal Character Assassin into Skeeve's home. Though this didn't affect the game described above.
  • The poker game in The Canary Murder Case has two rounds come down to high hands. Vance wanted to analyze the suspect's psychology, so he paid a card cheat to arrange for those big hands.
  • Used and subverted in Alexander Pushkin's story "The Queen of Spades". The story concerns a young gambler who wishes to gain the secret of getting three good cards in a row from an elderly countess. After she refuses to tell him, he ends up threatening and frightening her to death, and is then visited by her in a dream with the secret. Wishing to marry his much wealthier sweetheart, he places all of his money on a bet and then loses everything when the final card turns out to be the wrong one. As this story was written in the 1830s, this trope is Older Than Radio.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Expanded Universe novel "Dragon's Honor", Riker makes the mistake of introducing the game of poker to the natives (a race based upon traditional Asian values), including the heir to the planetary empire. Despite trying to throw the game as best he can, he ends up winning all of the valuables on the planet, including the planet itself.
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel "The Big Game", a poker tournament which lasts most of the book is decided on the final hand, in which Odo gets a royal flush. The chances of this happening, needless to say, are astronomically small.
  • The Alex Rider novel Crocodile Tears hangs a lampshade on this by stating the very long odds on the four of a kind that Big Bad Desmond McCain has just produced. And then Alex produces a straight flush to beat it.
  • In Joe Queenan's America, Queenan describes an occasion when he went to Atlantic City and sat in on a table with experienced poker players. Not really knowing anything about the game, he just bet when he felt lucky, and started winning—and got a lot of derision from the experienced players for screwing up the 'system'. After one of them took him aside and explained it to him, he started betting by the system—and promptly lost all his winnings and more besides. Not entirely surprisingly, he concluded that the system blows.
    • Truth in Television at work here, combined with one of Murphy's Rules of Warfare: professionals are predictable, but the world is full of amateurs. Just watch the WSOP when there's a large number of amateurs playing. They don't know when or how to bet, so the unspoken rules of the game are completely out of the window, which in turn throws off the professionals. But, being professionals, the old-timers simply wait out and figure out how each amateur plays. Or pulls them aside to throw them off their game.
    • all you need to do to see why this is reality is ask yourself when the last time a professional has won the WSOP. Without checking myself,[please verify] I am pretty sure it was pre-Chris Moneymaker since his victory encouraged thousands of amateurs to play to the point where the law of averages says that an amateur IS more likely to win now. (Pros may not get as many victories now, but because of the increased field, the prize money is increased to the point where coming in 4th pays more than coming in first used to. This is similar to pro-golfers taking a back seat to Tiger Woods in the '00s. Coming in 2nd was much more lucrative than winning was in the mid 90s.)

Live Action TV

  • Who's The Boss?, "When Worlds Collide" shows Angela winning loads at poker early on, and Johnathan (Angela's kid) getting four aces in the epilogue.
  • I Love Lucy, when Lucy forces herself into a poker game of Ricky's, since she has just learned to play that very morning. She has no trouble convincing the regulars that she has a very good hand, and she wins when she doesn't even have a single pair.
  • Lottery - The representatives of the Intersweep Lottery deliver the prize money of a winner, but not before he put the ticket into the pot of a poker game. Now, with the true value of the ticket revealed, the other players refuse to allow it to be removed from contention. On the advice of the reps, the players agree to let the next winning poker hand settle the issue. As pure luck would have it, the purchaser of the lottery ticket pulls a miraculous royal flush to win the game.
  • A rare subversion comes in the 1980s Degrassi High. The cool kids invite nerdy, insecure Arthur to their poker party so they can take him for all he's worth. He's totally out of his depth—at one point, he asks, "does three of a kind beat a full house?" But he suddenly starts winning—including, of course, beating three of a kind with a full house. By the last hand, it's down to Arthur and the host—and Arthur wins almost all the money by bluffing when his hand is complete junk. The cool kids are amazed. Then comes the subversion: Arthur grins and says, "'Does three of a kind beat a full house?' You guys are so gullible."
  • Subverted in an episode of Angel, where Angel bets his soul to a demon on a single high card draw. His opponent gets a nine, and Angel... draws a three. He then switches to Plan B and chops the demon's head off before the bet can be claimed.
  • In Only Fools and Horses episode "A Losing Streak", a poker game between most of the recurring characters eventually comes down to Del and Boycie. Del insists Boycie is bluffing, and when Boycie raises the stakes beyond the agreed limit persuades all the others to throw in everything they've got. It transpires Boycie isn't bluffing, and Del only has two pair. He then waits for Boycie to start raking in the winnings before inevitably adding "A pair of aces, and... another pair of aces". The subversion comes when Boycie demands to how Del got four aces, and Del replies "Same place you got them kings. I knew you was cheating, Boycie, because that wasn't the hand I dealt you."
  • Done twice in an episode of Family Matters where Urkel and Lt. Murtaugh are playing poker with each other, both using the "All I have is two pair..." line (Murtaugh first with kings, and Urkel later in the episode with tens).
  • Subverted in Police Squad! During a poker game with the management of a boxer on the line, an undercover Drebin reveals his full house and starts to pick up the winnings. "Not so fast", one of the other players tells him. "I have a straight." Cue an argument about the rules of poker.
    • The game also features a joke on the Open Stakes rule above. In a montage Drebin and a crooked fight promoter are tossing into the pot every type of currency from subway tokens to Monopoly money and property cards.

Crooked Fight Promoter: I'm out of dough-re-me. How about... (He reaches for something next to him.)
Drebin: No dice! (Cut back to the CFP holding a pair of fuzzy dice.)

  • Played with in the old Twilight Zone poker episode, where both players are dealt implausibly good hands...except it's lowball, making them implausibly bad.
  • At once subverted and played straight in "An Echolls Family Christmas", a first-season episode of Veronica Mars. In The Teaser, a Texas Hold'Em game is down to a climactic final hand. Logan's hand could go well any number of ways with the cards on the table, though he still technically has nothing, with only the river remaining. When it comes time to reveal hands, Weevil's hand...isn't so impressive. As Logan notes, given the number of cards left in the deck, he can win with over thirty of them. And as the river is played, Weevil beats him with a pair of twos.
  • Played with on In The House; when inexperienced player Tonia joins Marion's game and promptly squeals "lookie here; a whole family"! The other players fold, only to learn that she's bluffing.
  • Sports Night: In "Shoe Money Tonight" Jeremy is supposed to be portrayed as an excellent poker player. The only skill he exhibits is his ability to get a straight on every single hand. Rule of Funny is very much in play.
  • Whenever a poker game is shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation, you can bet that Riker will always turn out with a possible straight that he's bluffing about. Whether or not the bluff is called, though, depends on which would be more dramatically convenient.
  • On The Office (USA), Dwight thinks he has figured Jim out on "Casino Night."

Dwight: Jim has a huge tell. Every time he has good cards, he coughs.
(Jim coughs, Dwight folds)
Jim: It's weird. Every time I cough, Dwight folds.

    • In the same episode, Michael brags about his Texas Hold 'Em prowess. On his first hand, he goes all in before the flop. Toby calls him, to which Michael gets angry:

Michael: Why did you call there? I just went all-in without even seeing the cards!
Toby: I have a good hand.
(The dealer plays the community cards, Michael loses and stomps off.)
Toby: (To camera) I'm not much a gambler, but cleaning Michael out felt pretty good. I'm gonna chase that feeling.

  • Bottom: Richie, naturally, tries to cheat by hiding most of the deck up his sleeves and in his underpants ("Look, I'm not angry, it's just we're playing with a deck of twelve cards here") and by having three pairs ("But you're only allowed five cards!" "What? Oh, I mean two and a half pairs!"). Eddie then beats him with five kings.
  • Married... with Children features an episode in which Jefferson arranges a poker game between Al and some shady associates. Al is on an incredible lucky streak, which has him terrified of how much bad luck will come his way to make up for it. Drawing a royal flush on the biggest pot of the game, Al quickly discards everything but the ace... only to draw three more aces! Oh yeah, that bad luck comes to collect pretty soon afterwards.
  • FlashForward had a important plot decision come down to a poker tournament. One character was so confident of his hand - 4 Kings - that despite having a massive chip lead, he said that this hand would be winner take all. His opponent had a straight flush. Lloyd cheated using a previously shown skill with card tricks.
  • In one episode of Supernatural, several characters play high-stakes poker (very high-stakes, since the chips represent years of life), and the only hand we see that's as mundane as one pair ends a game the other player throws.
  • A M*A*S*H episode has poker novice Frank Burns sitting in on a game, getting plastered and winning hand after hand through sheer dumb luck.
    • A later episode has Frank's replacement, Charles Winchester, enjoying a similar lucky streak...until the others discover his tell: he whistles when he's bluffing.
  • On The X-Files episode "The Goldberg Variation," the title character wins a mob game in this fashion. Which is actually justfified in-story, as he has ridiculous luck with the downside that something bad happens to someone nearby shortly afterward. He hoped to mitigate that problem by playing against mobsters, who probably deserved whatever they got.
  • Subverted in Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger: Joe and Luka get caught by a Monster of the Week, who stakes their freedom on a single hand of poker. Joe manages to pull out a Royal Straight Flush to everyone's amazement.[2] At the end of the episode, it's revealed that during a moment of confusion where Joe called the MotW out on blatantly cheating, Luka took the opportunity to switch out the decks.
  • Played with in The Mentalist; Jane, who can count cards better than Rain Man, arranges a poker game with the suspect in a Vegas case, provoking him into producing key evidence as a wager on the final hand. The suspect is holding four Kings; Jane beats it with a straight flush—because he cheated while the guy's back is turned to ensure they both had those exact hands.
  • Played completely straight, oddly enough, in the poker episode of Hustle - when in the final hand, the last two players (Mickey, and Jake, his arch-rival of sorts) go all in, and Mickey's straight-to-the-king loses to Jake's straight-to-the-ace... you really expect some sort of subversion to happen, given that both are experts at cheating. But no - both hands were apparently entirely legitimate. (The swap happened to the prize money, off-screen.)
    • Hustle has also used the Roulette version of this trope on several occasions.
  • Subverted in an episode of Psych, where Shawn is actually a pretty good poker player, but the action isn't about the cards themselves (no one cares what hands each player has, in other words), but about Shawn playing a good game against a cheater while trying to figure out how he cheats. He eventually wins by exposing the cheater rather than having a good hand.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Pogo, the three bats (Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred) are often seen playing poker.

Bewitched: I got four kings.
Bothered: I got five -- all hearts.
Bemildred: One a' you is mus' be cheatin', 'cause I never had no kings of hearts in no deck of mine.

  • Parodied in a scene in Sovisa, where the other players have stopped playing in favor of watching Alexi and Travis, in one of their one-upsmanship bouts, both trying to out-cheat the other. Alexi opens with a royal flush in hearts, only to be countered by Travis' royal flush in spades. The dealer at this point, exclaims "OH COME ON! That's barely even physically possible!". Even more silly, is that cheating in cards is usually done by the one dealing, and it's quite difficult to do otherwise.
  • In one strip, Calvin and Hobbes are playing poker. While deciding his next move, Clavin notices Hobbes' tail suddenly thrash about wildly. Calvin quickly folds, much to Hobbes' exasperation.
    • Which merges this trope with All Animals Are Dogs, since when a cat wags it's tail, it doesn't mean it's happy.

Tabletop Games

  • A term in the card game Magic: The Gathering, mise, sometimes refers to the critical gamewinning card drawn at exactly the right moment, usually without the aid of tutoring or library manipulating effects (unless you mise the tutor spell and use that to extract your winning card). Mising is referred to a lot in tournaments by article-writing professionals. Some pros have the superstition that mising happens more often during dramatic moments. It's a contraction of (the player) "might as well have" (drawn some specific obviously gamewinning card).
    • There's also a joke card called Mise, which lets you draw three cards if you correctly guess the name of the top card of your library. The Unhinged version shows a rabbit monster using its own foot for luck while rolling dice, and the DCI promo version shows dogs playing Magic. The flavor text of the DCI version is:
      • Statistically mind-staggering as it might seem, the term "mise" was in fact coined simultaneously by over one thousand Magic players.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh it's called 'god drawing' or 'godhanding', and occasionally 'topdecking' (though 'topdecking' often refers explicitly to drawing cards when you have nothing in your hand).
  • 'Topdecking' is the more usual term in Magic: The Gathering as well for getting a card turn up just exactly when it is useful rather than having it sit in your hand for a while.
    • 'Topdecking' has become a generic term in card games for drawing exactly the card you need.
  • Made part of the basic mechanics of Doomtown, the collectible card game based on Deadlands. Doomtown cards have playing card values on them, which are used for a variety of purposes, most notably combat: each round of a shootout is ultimately resolved by drawing a number of cards and trying to build the best five-card hand you can from them. Skill comes into it because your characters and actions in the shootout affect how many cards you draw and can discard and replace, along with the fact that your deck normally does not have a normal distribution of values, but one that you decided on. While a hand that has multiples of the same value/suit card is certainly possible, it makes you vulnerable to game-changing "Cheatin!" cards, so those five Kings may not be as good as you thought. The importance of the hand also factors in, as players are more likely to use up resources to improve an important fight that they wouldn't use over a minor scuffle.

Video Games

  • Spoofed in Kingdom of Loathing: a special adventure encountered during a Bad Moon ascension run has your character winning a sizeable amount of money in a poker game, but then the other players complain about the use of the "complete newcomer wins the high-stakes card game despite not knowing the rules" cliche and the "two pair of aces" joke, then beat the crap out of you.
  • In Star Wars: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction: The titular character is playing Sabacc against a Republic ensign. They both get an Idiots Array (a two, three and an idiot) which would allow them both to win if the other hadn't gotten it. They both get a nine which was supposed to end the stalemate so Bane gets nine and the Ensign gets eight allowing Bane to win the hand and the pot.
  • Two plot deaths, one in Wing Commander II and one in Wing Commander IV, are signaled by the doomed NPC drawing a Dead Man's Hand (aces and eights, "Wild Bill" Hickock's hand when he was gunned down).
  • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Phoenix is accused of murdering a man over a game of Poker, which ended when both players had Full Houses, but Phoenix had a Pair of aces with 3 sevens, while the other had a pair of kings and 3 aces.
    • This is, however, justified (the trope, not the killing): it turns out that the dealer, Olga Orly, was cheating, and dealt out five aces intentionally - the actual cards in that hand were: Phoenix: Pair of aces with three sevens, Shadi: Three aces with a pair of kings. It's repeatedly pointed out that the chances of both players having full houses are incredibly low, and thus the cheating is the only way it could happen.
  • Played Straight then Subverted in Batman: Arkham City. Zzasz tells Batman about his Start of Darkness, which involved being cleaned out by the Penguin at Poker. Zzasz had four 6s, the Pengiun beat it with a straight flush... to the 9.[3]

Web Comics

  • Played with in Real Life Comics. One card game had the players with only a pair of twos, a pair of threes and a pair of fours, dubbed the worst hand of poker ever. In another, Greg complains about his luck, in which he somehow manages to draw cards that weren't even in the deck, such a Magic the Gathering mana card.
  • Averted in the Sluggy Freelance arc "That Which Redeems" - Torg wins by bluffing when he only has one pair. Then again, that served another purpose - emphasizing the naiveté of the residents of the "Dimension of Lame."
  • Subverted in this Penny Arcade strip: Gabe, a complete tyro with a good hand, loses his shirt due to his complete ignorance of the rules and the twisted machination of Tycho.
  • An issue with tells: the normally unflappable Ozy in Ozy and Millie apparently has a great poker face, but needs to work on his 'poker butt': his tail wags all over the place when he gets a good hand.

Western Animation

  • Played strictly for laughs several times in Bugs Bunny cartoons
    • In "Barbary Coast Bunny". The villain gets a full house, to which a dejected Bugs (disguised as a gullible country bumpkin) moans, "Gee, all I got is two pair. A pair of ones, and another pair of ones." He, of course, is referring to a Quad of aces, the second highest value hand in the rules of poker. He also manages to win several other casino games, despite the fact they've all been rigged by the same villain.
    • Later, in "Bonanza Bunny", he decides to play a round of blackjack with only one card. The villain has two tens[4] in his hand, but loses anyway, as Bugs has drawn the 21 of Hearts.
    • In "Mississippi Hare", riverboat gambler Colonel Shuffle holds five aces - and Bugs beats him with a hand of six aces.
  • Humourously subverted in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters: The Ghostbusters are pursuing the ghosts of four Old West desperados, and Peter gets snagged into a poker game with the four spirits. When it comes time to call, each of the ghosts produces two aces, two eights and a ten (the "dead man's hand"). Peter then produces four aces, whereupon the ghosts accuse him of cheating and draw their guns. Peter escapes and mutters how wise it was of him not to show them the fifth ace.
  • In a Peanuts cartoon episode, Snoopy held five aces including the "ace of anchors"
  • Spoofed in The Simpsons, where Fat Tony and an underling are playing cards.

Louie: Six queens. Read 'em and weep.
Fat Tony: Uh-uh-uh, seven queens.

    • Also played straight when Krusty's four aces is beaten by Fat Tony's straight flush.
      • Though Krusty and Fat Tony broke the betting rule mentioned above by raising with violins, Rolexes, and whatnot. But it is a mob game, after all.
    • Spoofed some more when Mr. Burns wins a basketball team and millions of dollars in a single hand... which he wins with a nine-high. His opponent had a seven.
    • Spoofed even more in the style of the Peanuts example above. One mobster holds the ace of stars and the ace of anchors; the table shows nine more aces, including the ace of smiley faces, the ace of male symbols and the ace of stereotypical atom model drawings.
  • Played with in The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. When K'nuckles bets Flapjack in a poker game, he wins with a pair of threes (the opponent had a pair of twos).
  • Spoofed in the fourth Futurama movie, "Into the Wild Green Yonder". Bender, who has a lucky robot's foot and always catches cards, and Fry, who can read minds, face off in the final hand of a poker tournament. Fry has two aces, but can't know Bender's hand because he didn't look at his cards. When it comes to showdown, Fry makes the absolute nuts, four aces, only for Bender to make five kings by being dealt a coaster called "The King of Beers".
  • Parodied in one old Goofy short. A very high-stakes poker game, complete with sinister shady characters smoking cigars, comes down to the last hand, and when it's called...

Card sharp #1: Nuthin'.
Card sharp #2: Nuthin'.
Card sharp #3: Nuthin'.
Goofy: Pair of deuces...?
Card sharp #1: Ya takes it all!
Card sharp #2: We thought you was bluffin'!

Web Original

  • Sooni from Tales of MU tries to invoke this law by telling Mack (the protagonist) to draw first. It kind of works; Mack draws a king and Sooni draws an ace, but with a shout of "Nobody did ever say aces were high" from the audience, all hell breaks loose.
  • Parodied in SMBC Theater here, where the players go from implausibly good hands, to outright impossible hands, to things that aren't even poker hands.

Real Life

  • And, quite obviously, not truth in television. Well, the part about luck may or may not be—there have been some times where the final hand of the World Series of Poker has seen a player win with worse pocket cards (e.g. 1979, when 7-6 off-suit defeated pocket aces). Most notably, 2005, when Joe Hachem won with 7-3 off-suit. (In fairness, he flopped a straight—another subversion of this, as if this were television/movie poker, he wouldn't have hit that straight until the river, although his opponent would've still paired his ace on the turn. Come to think of it, that turn was most of what made it the final hand...
    • On the other hand, the one in a million (well, one in a very large number combination) of four aces vs. a royal flush did happen at the WSOP in 2008...but it was very early in the tournament, and neither player went on to win.
      • And it was hold'em, not draw poker. By definition, in draw poker, if someone has all the aces, nobody can get a royal flush.
      • The linked video mentions the odds of four aces and a royal flush occurring on the same hand as 1 in 2.7 billion. Life does imitate art sometimes.
      • The odds are a bit better than that, when you consider the exact same thing would have happened with four kings v. royal flush. On top of that, high pocket pairs and high suited cards are more likely to be played, meaning it's less likely somebody will fold cards that would have become quads or a royal flush. With the sheer number of poker hands played in a day, four kind vs. a royal flush has to happen on a regular basis. With cameras at more and more events, one of them would be caught on tape eventually.
    • The nature of Tournament Play when it comes to poker is that, in the end, you have to get down and play marginal hands, otherwise the blinds (forced bets, which are raised continually throughout the tournament for this very reason) will eat you alive. Doyle Brunson won two consecutive world championships with a 10-2 offsuit.
    • A World Poker Tour episode had two (of the last 3 or 4 remaining) players end up All-In, one with pocket 10s and the other A / J. The flop was Ace, King, and another 10. So, triple 10s over a pair of aces. Next card was a Queen, making the hand a Straight over trip 10s. The final card? Another Queen. Full house over Straight.
    • Televised poker tournaments typically seem to have a higher percentage of these scenarios because the action is prerecorded, and dozens of boring hands where everyone immediately folds to someone with a strong hand are cut out, for dramatic purposes.
    • For laypeople: Craig Jones was in a very bad position against his semifinals opponent in the deciding game of the set, in the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour. The commentators were theorizing he'd take the safer play of using his only direct-damage spell on his opponent's creatures, giving him more time to live and potentially draw what he needed. Craig Jones instead, figuring he was in such a bad position he'd lose even with an extra turn or two, opted to use the spell on his opponent. He had one and only one out - Lightning Helix, the one spell in his deck that would deal the remaining damage needed to his foe without killing himself in the process. His opponent gets to his feet: "Slam it!" he said. "Don't look, just slam it!"
      • Yeah, it was Lightning Helix. That Lightning Helix won Craig Jones $16,000.
  • Similarly, this topdeck. Gabriel Nassif was a turn away from losing his quarterfinal match against Matteo Orsini-Jones. On his turn, he draws his card but doesn't look at it, then arranges his lands, saying "I'm putting together my Ultimatum mana." That would be Cruel Ultimatum, a card that would turn the tables in a hurry. Then, he finally looks at his card...and sure enough, it's Cruel Ultimatum, giving him the match and, eventually, the tournament.
  1. It should also be noted that Maverick noticed the dealer dealing from the bottom of a stacked deck.
  2. Though it's a moot point, since the MotW goes back on his word anyway
  3. Which cannot happen together because it involves five 6s. One or both were cheating.
  4. Both of which are the 10 of spades, which may or may not prove he was cheating, depending on how many decks were being used. Most (modern) American casinos use about four or six