The Cincinnati Kid

The Cincinnati Kid
The Cincinnati Kid

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Norman Jewison
Produced by Martin Ransohoff
Written by Richard Jessup (novel)
Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern (screenplay)
Starring Steve McQueen
Edward G. Robinson
Karl Malden
Tuesday Weld
Joan Blondell
Rip Torn
Jack Weston
Cab Calloway
Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography Philip H. Lathrop
Editing by Hal Ashby
Studio Filmways
Solar Productions
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date(s) October 15, 1965
Running time 102 minutes
Language English

The Cincinnati Kid is a 1965 American drama film. It tells the story of Eric "The Kid" Stoner, a young Depression-era poker player, as he seeks to establish his reputation as the best. This quest leads him to challenge Lancey "The Man" Howard, an older player widely considered to be the best, culminating in a climactic final poker hand between the two.

The script, adapted from Richard Jessup's novel, was written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern; it was Lardner's first major studio work since his 1947 blacklisting as one of The Hollywood Ten.[1] The film was directed by Norman Jewison and stars Steve McQueen in the title role and Edward G. Robinson as Howard. Jewison, who replaced original director Sam Peckinpah shortly after filming began,[1] describes The Cincinnati Kid as his "ugly duckling" film. He considers it the film that allowed him to transition from the lighter comedic films he had previously been making and take on more serious films and subjects.[2]

The film garnered mixed reviews from critics on its initial release; supporting actors Robinson and Joan Blondell earned award nominations for their performances.



Eric Stoner, nicknamed "The Kid," is an up-and-coming poker player. He hears that Lancey Howard, a long-time master of the game nicknamed "The Man," is in town, and decides to take him on. The Kid's friend Shooter cautions him, reminding the Kid how he thought he was the best five-card stud player in the world, until Howard "gutted" him when they played.

Howard arrives in town and arranges a game with William Jefferson Slade and secures Shooter's services as dealer. Howard takes Slade for $6,000 over a 30-hour game, angering Slade and wounding his pride. That night at Slade's home, Slade tries to bribe Shooter into cheating in the Kid's favor, as a big game involving the Kid and Howard has been arranged. When Shooter declines, Slade calls in markers worth $12,000 he holds on Shooter, and blackmails him by threatening to reveal damaging information about his wife, Melba. When Shooter asks him why he wants him to cheat, Slade tells him that he wants to see Howard gutted the way Howard gutted him. Shooter agonizes over his choice, having spent the last 25 years building a reputation for integrity.

With Stoner's girl Christian visiting her parents, Melba tries to seduce the Kid. Out of respect for Shooter he rebuffs her, and spends the day before the big game with Christian.

The big game starts with six players, including Howard, the Kid and Shooter playing as he deals. In the first big confrontation between Stoner and Howard, Stoner is short $2,000 and Slade steps in to stake him. Several hours later, Howard busts one player, perhaps with a bluff, and the remaining players take a break. Following the break Lady Fingers, who's been delighting in needling Howard all evening, takes over as dealer and continues to needle him.

As the game wears on, Shooter only deals the game, and then after another hand when Howard outplays them, two more players drop out, leaving just Howard and the Kid, who after a few unlikely wins catches on to Shooter's cheating. The Kid calls for a break and confronts Shooter, who brags about his skills as a mechanic but admits to being forced into cheating by Slade. The Kid insists he can win on his own and tells Shooter to deal straight or he'll blow the whistle, destroying Shooter's reputation. Before the game resumes, Melba tries again to seduce the Kid and succeeds, though Christian makes a surprise visit to the room, catches them after the fact and walks out on the Kid.

After another break in the game, Slade tells the Kid that Shooter will continue to cheat in his favor. Despite Slade's threats, the Kid tells him he won't allow Shooter to cheat, insisting he'll beat Howard without help. Back at the game, the Kid maneuvers to have Shooter replaced by Lady Fingers, and wins several major pots from Howard, who is visibly losing confidence.

The final hand

With Lady Fingers dealing, the Kid is on the button. She deals Howard the 8♦ and the Kid the 10♣. The Kid bets $500 and Howard calls. Howard gets the Q♦ and the Kid the 10♠. The Kid bets $1,000 and Howard raises $1,000. The Kid calls. Lady Fingers deals Howard the 10♦ and The Kid gets the A♣. The Kid bets $3,000 and The Man calls. The Man's final card is the 9♦; The Kid gets the A♠. The Kid checks. The Man bets $1,000. The Kid raises $3,500 and is all in. Howard reaches into his wallet and raises another $5,000. The Man agrees to take his marker and the Kid calls the bet. Howard turns over the J♦ for a straight flush. The Kid turns over the A♥, to show his bad beat with a full house, Aces full of tens.

Following the game, a gutted Kid leaves the hotel and loses a penny pitch to a shoe shine boy he'd beaten in the same contest at the film's opening. Around the corner, he runs into Christian and they embrace.

Alternative versions

In some cuts, the film ends with a freeze-frame on Steve McQueen's face following his penny-pitching loss. Turner Classic Movies and the DVD feature the ending with Christian. Jewison wanted to end the film with the freeze-frame but was overruled by the producer.[2]

The cockfight scene was cut by British censors.[3]



The Cincinnati Kid was filmed on location in New Orleans, Louisiana, a change from the original St. Louis, Missouri setting of the novel. Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Lancey Howard, but ill health forced him to decline the role.[4] Sam Peckinpah was originally hired to direct;[1] producer Martin Ransohoff fired him shortly after filming began[2] for "vulgarizing the picture."[5] Peckinpah's version was to be shot in black-and-white to give the film a 1930s period feel. Jewison scrapped the black-and-white footage, feeling it was a mistake to shoot a film with the red and black of playing cards in greyscale. He did mute the colors throughout, both to evoke the period and to help pop the card colors when they appeared.[2]

The film features a theme song performed by Ray Charles[6] and a brief appearance during the film by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with Emma Barrett as vocalist and pianist.

Notes on the play

  • When reciting the rules, Shooter clearly states "no string bets," though players (including Howard) go on to make string bets during the game.
  • The game is open stakes. This is unusual in modern times and almost never allowed in casinos, but permissible in home games and was common for the time period of the film.[7][8]
  • The unlikely nature of the final hand is discussed by Anthony Holden in his book Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player, "the odds against any full house losing to any straight flush, in a two-handed game, are 45,102,781 to 1," with Holden continuing that the odds against the particular final hand in the movie are astronomical (as both hands include 10s). Holden states that the chances of both such hands appearing in one deal are "a laughable" 332,220,508,619 to 1 (more than 332 billion to 1 against) and goes on: "If these two played 50 hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, the situation would arise about once every 443 years."


Upon its 1965 release, The Cincinnati Kid was favorably reviewed by Variety which wrote "Martin Ransohoff has constructed a taut, well-turned-out production. In Steve McQueen he has the near-perfect delineator of the title role. Edward G. Robinson is at his best in some years as the aging, ruthless Lancey Howard...."[9] Howard Thompson of The New York Times called the film a "respectably packaged drama" that is "strictly for those who relish—or at least play—stud poker" and notes that the "film pales beside The Hustler, to which it bears a striking similarity of theme and characterization."[10] Time magazine also noted the similarities to The Hustler, saying "nearly everything about Cincinnati Kid is reminiscent" of that film, but falls short in the comparison, in part because of the subject matter:[11]

Director Jewison can put his cards on the table, let his camera cut suspensefully to the players' intent faces, but a pool shark sinking a tricky shot into a side pocket undoubtedly offers more range. Kid also has a less compelling subplot. Away from the table, McQueen gambles on a blonde (Tuesday Weld) and on the integrity of his dealer pal, Karl Malden. Pressure comes from a conventionally vicious Southern gentleman (Rip Torn), whose pleasures include a Negro mistress, a pistol range adjacent to his parlor, and fixed card games. As Malden's wife, Ann-Margret spells trouble of another kind, though her naive impersonation of a wicked, wicked woman recalls the era when the femme fatale wore breastplates lashed together with spider web. By the time all the bets are in, Cincinnati Kid appears to hold a losing hand.

A retrospective review published by the New York State Writers Institute of the University at Albany also noted the similarities the film had to The Hustler, but in contrast said The Cincinnati Kid's "stylized realism, dreamlike color, and detailed subplots give [the film] a dramatic complexity and self-awareness that The Hustler lacks.[1]

Blondell was singled out for her performance as Lady Fingers with an award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine nominated Robinson for its Best Supporting Actor Laurel Award.

Home media

The Cincinnati Kid was released on Region 1 DVD on May 31, 2005. The DVD features a commentary track by director Norman Jewison, commentary on selected scenes from Celebrity Poker Showdown hosts Phil Gordon and Dave Foley and The Cincinnati Kid Plays According to Hoyle, a promotional short featuring magician Jay Ose.[12]

With the release of the film on DVD, one modern reviewer said the film "is as hip now as when it was released in 1965"[13] and another cited McQueen as "effortlessly watchable as the Kid, providing a masterclass in the power of natural screen presence over dialogue" and Robinson "simply fantastic."[14] Poker author Michael Wiesenberg calls The Cincinnati Kid "[o]ne of the greatest poker movies of all time."[15]


  1. ^ a b c d Hartman, Steven (1998 (?)). "Film Notes: Cincinnati Kid". New York State Writers Institute Film Notes. University at Albany. Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d Jewison, Norman (2005). The Cincinnati Kid director commentary (DVD). Turner Entertainment Co. 
  3. ^ "The Cincinnati Kid Review". Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  4. ^ Deschner, David (1993). The Complete Films of Spencer Tracy. Citadel Press. p. 57. 
  5. ^ Carroll, E. Jean (March 1982). "Last of the Desperadoes: Dueling with Sam Peckinpah". Rocky Mountain Magazine 
  6. ^ The Cincinnati Kid opening credits
  7. ^ Ciaffone, Robert. "Robert's Rules of Poker — Version 6". Retrieved 2007-08-04. 
  8. ^ Cooke, Roy (2005-10-04). "A Famous Movie Poker Hand". Card Player. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  9. ^ Variety staff (1965-01-01). "Review". Variety. Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  10. ^ Thompson, Howard (October 28, 1965). "Movie Review: The Cincinnati Kid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-18. 
  11. ^ "Mixed Deal". Time. November 5, 1965.,9171,901808,00.html. Retrieved 2009-01-18. 
  12. ^ "Cincinnati Kid, The (DVD)". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 2007-09-13. 
  13. ^ Cullum, Brett (June 13, 2005). "DVD Verdict Review: The Cincinnati Kid". DVD Verdict. Retrieved 2007-09-11. 
  14. ^ Sutton, Mike (June 20, 2005). "The Cincinnati Kid". DVD Times. Retrieved 2007-09-11. 
  15. ^ Weisenberg, Michael (August 23, 2005). "Implausible Play in The Cincinnati Kid? A play-by-play analysis of a highly unlikely poker hand". Card Player Magazine. 

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