There is plenty of entertainment to be had at a modern online casino but sometimes you just want to curl up in front of the television with a really good series that you can immerse yourself in. Maybe it’s the characters involved or the high stakes action, but gambling has long been a favoured subject matter for screenplay writers. After all, there are probably half a dozen movies you could name off the top of your head that feature poker, blackjack or roulette in some way. However, small-screen series about gambling seem to be spread a little more thinly on the ground.
Thank goodness for digital streaming services because a lot of the old gambling shows that were made before the times when people would play casino online games are now available to watch again. You might not have heard of all of the shows on our list, but they are all extremely watchable and feature gambling as a primary theme or plot point. So, whether you play casino games in bricks and mortar establishments and want to pick up a few tips, or simply want to relax after a few games at your favourite online casino, read on to find out more about some of the best gambling TV shows ever made.
Set well before the times when you could even conceive of an online casino, Vega$ was an early production of the famous US TV show creator Aaron Spelling who is also known for Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dynasty – among others. It was a crime drama set in Las Vegas but also featured some episodes where the action moved to Hawaii and San Francisco. This series ran for three seasons before it was cancelled and it must be said that some episodes have dated. Nevertheless, there are some excellent episodes in Vega$, especially those which focus on casino scams. Other plotlines include things like missing persons and helping the police solve crimes but the mainstay of Vega$ is its focus on the gambling and entertainment world of Las Vegas.
The show starred Robert Urich as Dan Tanna and he is an ever-present figure in all 69 episodes. Other regular cast members include Bart Braverman and Greg Morris, an actor who also featured in several Mission Impossible episodes. Among the show’s many guest stars, there are some big names. Melanie Griffith turns up in it as does the comic actor, Leslie Nielsen. You might also detect George Taki of Star Trek fame as well as a young Tori Spelling and a youthful Kim Cattrall.
The Player (2015)
Only nine episodes of The Player were ever made. This is because the US network that commissioned the show were disappointed with the low ratings it enjoyed at the time. In fact, NBC had originally intended to make 13 episodes of the show with the potential for additional seasons. The decision to drop The Player on a reduced run angered many fans, however. This is because, despite the show’s lack of commercial success, it really is very watchable. Created by John Fox and John Rogers – who had previously worked on TV shows with Jackie Chan – The Player starred Phillip Winchester, best known for his roles in The Patriot and Chicago Justice, alongside the Hollywood A-lister Wesley Snipes.
In the show, Snipes plays a tough casino pit boss who recruits Winchester’s character to try and prevent crimes that have been planned for the purposes of betting. Needless to say, all of this is done in a fantastical way to give some master criminals the chance to place wagers on what they know most about, namely, crime. Keep an eye out for Charity Wakefield, a British actress who puts in a superb performance as Cassandra King, otherwise known as The Dealer.
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man (2016)
Over the course of three series, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man gained a cult following in North America and Europe for its creative approach to gambling in a TV show. The show stars James Nesbitt in the title role, a detective inspector working for the Metropolitan Police in London. Like many of Stan Lee’s comic book adaptations, there is something a little far-fetched about Lucky Man. In this case, Harry Clayton – the aforementioned policeman – obtains a charmed bracelet that means he enjoys an astounding level of luck. Okay, it’s not the same as being bitten by a radioactive spider, but the concept gave the writers the opportunity to explore luck and gambling in extremely interesting ways.
Of course, in Lucky Man, Clayton starts to use the lucky charm to his own advantage but is it all in his mind or not? The show was initially made available on the British digital network Sky One. Nearly all of the 28 episodes are set in London. The supporting cast is strong, too, notably Sienna Guillory who plays the woman who gives Clayton the bracelet in the first place. The comedian Omid Djalili also puts an entertaining performance in as Kalil, a slightly dodgy businessman.
Breaking Vegas (2004)
This TV series aired in Canada on the Discovery Channel. It looked into various aspects of gambling and gamblers from the point of view of actual players. Much of the content focussed on particular games. For example, there was a show called ‘Blackjack Man’ that was devoted to Ken Uston, a gambler who was well-known for using team strategies against casinos and also for being an exponent of card counting. Other shows were entitled ‘Dice Dominator’ and ‘Slot Scoundrel’ to give you an idea of the changing nature of each documentary in the series.
Interestingly, Breaking Vegas was developed into a movie-length documentary when it came to the famous group of MIT research students who used their mathematical powers to try and win big in Las Vegas. This TV show reveals some of the true-life stories behind the characters who would subsequently be played in the Hollywood movie, 21, by Kevin Spacey, among others. The documentary offers some fascinating insights into the lives of professional gamblers, especially those who try to cheat the system. ‘Prince of Poker’ and ‘Slot Buster’ are other good episodes to keep an eye open for.
Poker After Dark (2007)
When it premiered on New Year’s Day in the United States over thirteen years ago, few thought that a mainstream show about live poker games would be a runaway success. And yet, Poker After Dark ran continually until 2011. Although some people thought it would not return after its seventh season, the show was famously revived in 2017 with much the same format. In fact, it is the simplicity of Poker After Dark that makes it so engagingly watchable. The hour-long format of the show does not make the games that unfold feel rushed because the editing keeps the viewer informed of all of the key decision-making that is going on.
Poker After Dark is a good TV show to watch if you are a newcomer to the game and would like to see how experienced players handle themselves in pressurized situations. One of the enduring elements in the show is the voice-over narration that is supplied by Ali Nejad. Unlike the show’s presenters, he has been ever-present during all of the show’s seasons. Nevertheless, his commentary is kept to a minimum, instead allowing viewers to pick up on all of the talk that is being exchanged between players; some of it idle chat and some of it very much a part of the bluff and counter-bluff that is going on.
Big Deal (1984)
There is an American game show called Big Deal but this should not be confused with the comedy-drama of the same name that was made much earlier by the BBC. Starring Ray Brooks, this show went down very well when it was first broadcast to British audiences. After an initial run of ten episodes, the show was recommissioned in 1985 and then again in 1986. This show follows the life of Robbie Box, a Londoner, and his long-suffering romantic interest, Jan, who is played by Sharon Duce. The storylines in Big Deal see Box on the up when he seems to be winning frequently against much wealthier opponents. However, the show also follows Box during losing streaks, too, anchoring it in reality.
Unlike many of the other shows on this list, Big Deal is not a glamorous production. It is mainly set in the back rooms of London pubs rather than glitzy gaming houses. However, it is not so much a gritty drama as one that focusses on the lives of the characters involved and how they all react to Box’s gambling, both wins and losses. The show was released on DVD in 2006 which is likely to be one of the best ways to track it down today.
LA to Vegas (2018)
As the name suggests, LA to Vegas is a TV show that depicts the lives of many people who are drawn to Las Vegas to gamble and work. The regular characters include casino workers, entertainers, gamblers and a number of airline employees. This is because the whole premise of the show revolves around the crew and passengers of a budget airline route between Los Angeles and the centre of the gaming world, Las Vegas. A comedy which is often outrageous, LA to Vegas uses the tried and tested, single-camera mockumentary style of comedy making to good effect.
Although many of the characters in the show are deliberately flamboyant, the TV series keeps drawing you in because, like all good comedies, you start to care about them. The workers of the fictitious Jackpot Airlines have to deal with over-excited passengers, pushy bosses and even each others’ personal lives, somehow always keeping the show on the road or, more properly, in the air. Kim Matula, starring as Ronnie, is particularly entertaining as a no-nonsense flight attendant who takes no prisoners. There are only 15 episodes of LA to Vegas to watch but each of them are little gems.
Starring screen legend, Dustin Hoffman, the pilot episode of Luck was directed by none other than Michael Mann, most famous for films like Miami Vice, the Last of the Mohicans, Heat and the 2001 biopic, Ali. In Luck, the action mostly takes place at a racetrack which means it has a very different feel from the casino-orientated shows that feature on this list. One of the best things about Luck is its opening theme music which was composed by the British band Massive Attack. Much of the plot in Luck revolves around Ace Bernstein, played by Hoffman, and his desire to win – sometimes at any costs – with a racehorse he has invested in.
Luck has a very strong cast. Not only does it feature an undoubted Hollywood star, but it also has some excellent actors in supporting roles. Dennis Farina plays Gus Demitriou while Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon both turn up in episodes, too. HBO chose to cancel the show after just nine episodes but do not let that decision put you off because Luck is a very high-quality drama series that will engage you even if you have no interest in horse race betting.
Banzai was a spoof gambling game show which was first commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK. The first thing worth saying about it is that it is weird, very weird. However, that is what makes it so entertaining. Often the action on which people are supposedly betting is so bizarre that you wonder about the imagination of the team that dreamed up such things. However, it is all in good fun because the premise of the show is to mock some of the truly odd things that go on in real Japanese game shows for real. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that Banzai is a genuine game show from Japan rather than a cheeky British comedy show.
The idea with Banzai is that there will be a set up in each segment that explains the ‘rules’ of what is to follow. Then, the screen freezes while players supposedly place their bets. The result is then played out. Although you couldn’t really bet on such things as how long a celebrity will continue to shake hands with one of the show’s regular characters, it is fun to try to work out will happen in the company of like-minded friends. The narration in Banzai is supplied by Bert Kwouk, best known for his role as Cato opposite Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies. Three series of Banzai were made and there was Christmas special that was commissioned, too. Fans of the show should note that there was a book made to accompany the series, too, called ‘Banzai Book of Betting’. Like the TV show, the book is most definitely not to be taken seriously.
Liar Game (2007)
When Liar Game first aired few fans of the manga cartoon from which it was adapted thought that it could be nearly as good. That said, the show has continued to confound many of its critics and won more and more audience members. The two main characters in Liar Game are played by Shota Matsuda and Erika Toda. Matsuda plays a criminal with a reputation for being something of a mastermind. Toda plays a naive student nurse called Kanzaki Nao who gets wrapped up in his warped sense of gambling. The whole premise of Liar Game is utterly original. In the show, players are given large sums of cash which they then try to swindle out of one another. Essentially, this means taking part in what is known as the Liar Game Tournament.
As the action unfolds over the ten main shows of the first season of Liar Game, more and more revelations occur which throw light onto previous events, sometimes shocking the audience about what they thought was going on. In short, this is an exciting drama with lots of twists and turns, deceit and human frailty. Another thing that marks Liar Game out from other gambling dramas is that the season finale, episode 11, is three hours long, a record for a TV drama series show. Produced by Shimuta Toru for Fuji Television in Japan, this is a show that anyone who is interested in gambling will not want to miss!