Poker is often used by television and movies to demonstrate tension between protagonists or a gritty underbelly to the location where the central characters arrive. The genius of the episode of popular British sitcom Only Fools and Horses (OFAH) where poker is central to the plot is that the game is treated not only as a subject for comedy but also something completely normal that working class people do all the time. This wasn’t strictly true in every area in the mid 1980s, but it is now, and OFAH can take some credit for making the game seem more commonly played than perhaps it was.
In the episode, entitled ‘A Losing Streak’, the bad luck run of Del Boy is turned up to 11 as he embarks on a series of bets while chasing his losses, the warning of bad bankroll management both stark yet hilarious at the same time. This culminates in a poker game which quickly gets out of hand, leaving Del Boy and his nemesis, a more successful South London wheeler dealer called Boycie, to battle it out for rolls.
According to legend, the game in the episode, indeed the episode in general was written by John Sullivan about his own father’s gambling habits, and the 30-minute feature does a great job of both letting you enjoy the main protagonist winning his way back to even and more besides yet still putting you off gambling so recklessly in the first place.
As Boycie says, “Well done, Del. Nicely played. Where did you get those bloody Aces from?” and Del replies: “Same place you got them Kings. I knew you was cheating, Boycie.” Boycie is confused and asks how.
“‘Cos that wasn’t the hand that I dealt you.” Comes the reply and we realise that the pair of them were playing the other, it’s just that Del Boy was on the right side of the twist.
While Del Boy and Rodney collect in the dough, paying back Grandad, leveling with their friends who donated to Del Boy for the stake money, Boycie is left out of pocket, for what one feels might be the first time in a long while. Sensing a chance to rub it in, Del Boy offers Boycie double or nothing, letting Rodney ‘guess’ heads or tails on a coinflip that Del Boy Rodney and everyone from Battersea to Wimbledon knows is a double-headed coin.
Rodney guesses tails, and everything is back to where it started.
As an introduction to poker, which it was to millions of people, especially during the reruns of the sitcom which gathered viewers like a runaway snowball in a Christmas movie, it was perfect. It both taught you the dangers of bad bankroll management, of chasing your losses and ending up in over your head.
Poker is also seen as a vital social tool for the men involved in the episode and while this is slightly sexist, it’s true to its time in that regard. It also talks up the game, adds in drama, emotion and a genuine sense of excitement that both long-time fans of the show and first-time viewers can lap up in equal measure.
While OFAH would never really revisit poker in the same way, part of that was down to the fact they’d already covered it so well. Del Boy would hardly be a poker pro by today’s standards; he’d be the mark in any game, although, if he still had his millions that he’d win years after this episode, he’d be a welcome player in any super high roller.
Maybe he’d turn to Rodney on the rail, and in all seriousness announce:
“This time tomorrow, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires.”