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The Cincinnati Kid

The most famous hand in play poker is probably the final hand of Five-Card Stud in the film The Cincinnati Kid.  Steve McQueen, the Kid, is playing Edward G. Robinson, who is Lancey Howard, ‘The Man’, the champion all players want to beat.

After two up-cards, the hands are as below.  It is no limit, and the pot stands at $250.  The kid, with a pair showing, is first to act, as indeed he is throughout the play of the hand.  The Kid is in a strong position.  He must be holding the strongest hand at the moment, because Lancey’s best possible hand is a pair of 8s.  The Kid bets $ 500, expecting to pick up the pot.  From Lancey’s position, he should fold.  Why put another $ 500 into a pot for which the Kid is favorite?  But Lancey not only calls the Kid, but raises him $ 300.

What is his reasoning?  Well, nobody can answer that.  His hole-card is J, so he has chances of a flush, a straight, obviously therefore a straight flush, and of pairing his Jack to beat the Kid’s two 10s.  but the odds against a flush or straight are too big.  To start with, he has to find a 10 for a straight, and the Kid has two of them on the table already, making the odds against Lancey getting one of the other two over 10 to 1.  And then he has a nine to get.  The odds against a straight are around 125 to 1.  The odds against a flush are around 23-1.  No poker player, certainly not ‘The Man’, would act as Lancey did.  But he did.  This is not criticism of the author of the book, Richard Jessup, or course if Lancey had acted rationally, there wouldn’t be a story at all.

            The Kid immediately raises Lancey $ 2,000.  What else would he do?  Lancey must know he’d do it.  He calls.  The pot now totals $ 5,850.  This is likely to be the decisive pot of the game and The Man is playing it like a novice.

 

Lancey is now dealt 10 (it was a 45 to 2 shot that he got 10 or 9) and the kid ♥ Q.  We should now reveal the Kid’s hole-card to ourselves, since it is significant.  It is Q, giving the Kid two pairs.  When dealing Lancey’s 10, the dealer says ‘possible straight flush’.

            The situation has now changed considerably, on account mainly of the 45 to 2 chance which has favored Lancey.  The kid is still long odds on to win the hand of course.  He bets $ 1000.

This could be called a mistake because he has increased the pot only to $ 6,850, and Lancey needs to pay only $ 1,000 to stay in.  His chances now of filling a straight or a flush, from his point of view (remember he does not know the Kid’s hole-card) were 12 in 45, or under 3 to 1.  His reward for pulling off this shot would be $ 6,850(assuming the Kid doesn’t fill to a full house).  In round numbers he is being offered odds 7 to 1 on a 3 to 1 chance, so it is now a very good bet.  He calls.  The pot is $ 7,850.
            The kid could have made it harder for Lancey by betting, say, $ 5,000 instead of $ 1,000.  This would have increased the pot to $ 10,850 and Lancey’s proposition would have looked very different now he could win $ 10,850 but would need to bet $ 5,000.  He would be getting just over 2 to 1 for his 3 to 1 chance, and even at this stage the sensible thing would be to fold.

            The position after each player received his last card is highly improbable, of course, but that’s the story.  The Kid has completed a full house (the odds against that, knowing all the cards dealt, were nearly 14 to 1 ) and Lancey has competed a straight flush (at odds of 43 to 1).  Lancey knows he has won.  The Kid thinks he has, as only the 6 or J would be sufficient as Lancey’s hole card to beat him.  On the other hand, the way Lancey has bet, the likeliest card to be his hole card is 6.  Anyway the Kid pushes across his last $ 1,400, and Lancey raises him by all he has left, too, around $4,000.  The Kid writes out an IOU to call, and Lancey turns over the fateful J.
            An excellent story, but not one to draw useful conclusions from.  Neither player played well, and if your poker career is to rely on pulling off 43 to 1 shots, you’re going to be very poor, very quickly.