Well before “Rounders (1998)”, there was “California Split (1974)”, director Robert Altman’s look at a pair of compulsive gamblers and the various venues where they make their bets.
Today, casino gambling exists in states across the union, but in 1974, public card rooms were available only in Nevada and California.
Even in California, play was restricted to variations of draw poker, including the most popular form of California Split whose structure promoted the most action (5 card draw played with a joker, with a split pot awarded to the best lowball and best high hand).
So the opening scene of California split was for many their first look into the worked of public card rooms. It is a headfirst dive into jargon and social conventions of poker rooms that still resonates today. You can expect to hear the same grumblings about luck and play, the same gripes about technicalities, and the same calls to the floor that Elliott Gould (Charlie) and George Segal (Bill) hear at their table.
It should be noted that the room, with its uniformed staff, poker tables, brush station with illuminated table indicators and waiting lists, was constructed in an open warehouse for the movie by Set Decorator Sam J. Jones. It is a beautiful set, and one would swear it was an actual California card club from 1974.
Other completely convincing scenes that any gambler would know well 40 years later:
- A drunken bit of prop betting around movie trivia (improvised by Segal and Gould)
- Bemoaning a bouncing ball at the roulette wheel that jumps out of a winning number
- A heater session at a craps table, and the lengths players will go to not to jynx the shooter
- Willingness to bet with strangers at a sporting event (in this case a boxing match)
- A bettor at the track pissed that she was talked out of a winning bet by Gould, and her reaction on seeing him again after the race
Even an interaction with a trans woman feels somewhat up to date. Yes, she can be seen as the butt of the joke for the scene she is in, but the way that Gould’s character interacts with her is about as accepting as one would hope a contemporary portrayal would be. Moreover, the lone joke he makes is based on dramatic irony and not the personal nature of his foil.
The movie does not seem to pass the Bechdel test, but sex workers are portrayed with compassion.
Refreshingly, when the movie makes its turn from California to Nevada, the gamblers head to Reno rather than Las Vegas. And the Reno of this movie is one firmly set in the West, complete with plenty of cowboys and a cameo appearance by “Amarillo” Slim.
The clothes (especially Gould’s oversized lapels and flamboyant prints) and furnishings (lush tufted leather bar stools) are also a delight.
There is even a small part for a very young Jeff Goldblum to enjoy.
If anything is dated about the movie, it is that the horse track is overflowing with people in a way seen only at Triple Crown events these days.
“California Split (1974)” holds up and is worth the watch, for degens and those just amused by them.