The Game Of Poker In TV Shows Like ‘Columbo’ Always Meant Trouble

poker, Columbo

The game of poker is not just a popular game in US casinos, but rather a truly versatile form of entertainment. It touches pop culture, tourism, skill, virtual gaming, and so much more.

As poker rose in popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, it began to be everywhere, including television sets. Generally speaking, whenever the game of poker appears on a television crime drama, trouble follows. The game’s historical association with violence and vice dates back to the Old West, and TV crime shows generally tend to reinforce those links.

The murder mystery show Columbo, which aired for more than 30 years, was unique when compared to most crime-based dramas. For one thing, its unassuming detective hero played by Peter Falk at times seemed the opposite of most suave and sophisticated crime-solving characters.

That said, whenever poker turned up on Columbo, it mostly followed form. That is to say, on the show, poker consistently leads to problems, the kind a homicide detective has to solve.

‘Columbo’ detective show frequently incorporated poker games

Many regard Falk’s rumpled Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD the best TV detective ever, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. His uncanny ability to spot and decipher the “little things” might remind us of other fictional crime solvers. But his unassuming appearance and modest character help make him totally original, and impossible not to like.

There is the tattered raincoat, the always present cigar, and Columbo’s rundown and unwashed 1959 Peugot. (“It’s French!” he excitedly explains.) There is also a droopy-eyed pet basset hound that debuts in an early episode and defies longevity expectations for canines by continuing to accompany the detective throughout the series’ run. The dog’s name? “Dog.”

poker, Columbo.   Peter Falk (Shutterstock)

There are other tics and traits, such as Columbo frequently whistling “This Old Man” and seemingly never letting a scene end without returning with a “just one more thing.” He constantly references various family members, especially his wife who never once appears on screen and who he always calls “Mrs. Columbo.”

Indeed, although a couple of fleeting shots of identification cards indicate the detective’s first name is Frank, that, too, is kept essentially unconfirmed.

In most episodes, the entertaining back-and-forth between Columbo and the killer represents the most enjoyable aspect for the viewer. The guest stars were a “murderer’s row” in more ways than one, featuring top-flight, talented actors portraying the killers who try to match wits and elude Falk’s Columbo.

Those scenes between Columbo and the killers are often particularly well done, resembling heads-up poker matches replete with aggressive and passive plays, bold bluffs and hero calls, and surprising twists leading to dramatic showdowns.

The “classic” Columbo run began with a 1968 TV movie and a 1971 pilot episode, then included 43 more episodes airing from 1971 to 1978. Those were the shows that not only established all the details of plot and character listed above, but also almost always stuck to the Columbo “formula” of showing us the murder first, then subsequently introducing the Lieutenant who then tries to solve the case.

Unlike “whodunit” murder mysteries, there usually isn’t any question about who the killer is on Columbo. Rather, the pleasure comes from watching the detective figure out what we viewers already know.

After a long hiatus, the show returned in 1989 for two dozen more episodes that aired sporadically through 2003. These are still fun and include several quality shows that rival the best of the ‘70s episodes.

Interestingly, poker never really arose at all during the initial “classic” run. During the height of the chess craze in 1970s America, Columbo featured one excellent chess-themed episode, “The Most Dangerous Match.” In another show, “Double Shock,” Martin Landau plays a character with a serious gambling problem who often takes trips to Vegas where he routinely loses thousands, though we only see him playing craps. But there were no poker players among the killers or victims.

However, in the later shows poker comes up multiple times, and in meaningful ways, too.

A Hollywood home poker game in ‘Uneasy Lies the Crown’

The first Columbo episode to feature poker prominently was “Uneasy Lies the Crown” from April 1990. The episode plays a lot like a “classic” Columbo, likely because the script had first been written back in the 1970s and never used for the show. In fact, the script written by Steven Bochco was used once before for a 1977 episode of another NBC murder mystery show, McMillan & Wife, and includes many of the same plot points, including the killer using a poker game as an alibi. Even some of the characters’ names are the same.

“Uneasy Lies the Crown” features James Read as Wesley Corman, an L.A. dentist who counts a number of actors and celebrities as patients. Corman is a problem gambler who has run up a significant amount of debt, much to the chagrin of his father-in-law who owns the dental practice where Corman works. In fact, Corman owes his father-in-law $200,000. The old man has reached his limit and tells Corman he’s not only not going to loan him anymore money, but he’s going to have to leave the practice by month’s end.

Adding to Corman’s difficulties is the fact that his wife is having an affair with a famous actor who happens to be one of Corman’s patients. Corman hits upon a complicated scheme to kill the actor and frame his wife, then enlist the father-in-law to help try to cover up the crime and his daughter’s (apparent) guilt. Doing so will make the father-in-law an accomplice, he reasons, thereby ensuring Corman won’t be forced to leave the practice (and will probably be able to keep getting loans going forward).

poker, Ron CeyRon Cey (Shutterstock)

So… how does the dentist-turned-killer do it? When replacing a crown for his wife’s lover, Corman fills it with his wife’s heart medicine. The drug won’t have an effect for hours, but when it does it will kill the man. (The episode title, then, contains a pun.) Corman times everything perfectly so that in fact his wife and the man are in the throes of passion when he dies. Meanwhile, Corman is playing in his regular poker game, the table surrounded with players who will be able to attest to his whereabouts at the time the delayed murder takes place.

About that poker game, it’s a Hollywood home game featuring celebs who are presumably patients of Corman. The actors portraying the poker players all play themselves, and several of the group were recognizable to TV audiences back in 1990.

The actress Nancy Walker is there, known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and many other shows but perhaps most recognizable then as the “quicker-picker-upper” lady in a string of commercials for Bounty paper towels. Dick Sargent, one of two actors who played Samantha’s husband on Bewitched, is also at the table. So is the recently retired Ron Cey, the longtime third baseman who played most of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The comedian and impressionist, John Roarke, is playing as well, and given many opportunities to deliver impressions in a way that seems as though it would be more than a little tedious at an actual poker game.

The game is seven-card stud, which would make sense circa 1990 as no-limit Texas hold’em had yet to emerge to challenge stud’s supremacy as the most popular variant. While we don’t witness too many specifics with particular hands, we do see Nancy Walker scooping pots and Corman losing steadily.

After the crime takes place and Columbo begins his investigation, the detective eventually visits the game and takes a seat, though he doesn’t play himself. Columbo does successfully pull off an elaborate bluff on Corman, though, when he traps him into confessing the crime at the end of the show.

Not only does the episode recycle a once-used script, it also repeats a standard idea regarding poker as presented in dramas and crime shows. Namely, poker is here presented negatively, not really distinguished from other types of gambling (in which Corman also indulges) and shown to be a destructive influence.

Indeed, in a way, it is Corman’s poker playing (and losing) that in part leads to his becoming a murderer.

Poker in Vegas casinos and LA in ‘A Bird in the Hand…’

Poker returns a couple of years later in another Columbo episode, “A Bird in the Hand…” from November 1992. Again, the game is shown to have a negative impact on a character, with another problem gambler with mounting debts contemplating murder as a means to get out from under.

Greg Evigan guest stars as Harold McCain, the down-on-his-luck gambler who hatches an ill-fated scheme to get rid of his uncle who owns a pro football team, then obtain the funds he needs from his aunt and the owner’s wife, Dolores, played by Tyne Daly.

The episode begins in Las Vegas with a montage of scenes showing McCain losing at roulette, craps and poker where once again the game is seven-card stud. The sequence ends abruptly, though, when McCain dodges a couple of mean-looking loan sharks and scampers back to LA. McCain enjoys sports betting, too, and soon we see him lose a big bet on his uncle’s team placed after having been mistaken about a player’s injury.

The Columbo formula gets considerably skewed in this one when a second killer emerges in Aunt Dolores. In fact, not only are there multiple killers and multiple murders in the show, but there’s a “whodunit” aspect to the plot as well that doesn’t really jibe with how Columbo usually goes. Complicating things further, McCain ends up being both a killer and a victim in the story.

poker, casino, Commerce Casino.   Commerce Casino (Shutterstock)

In addition to the early poker scene, there is one interesting reference to McCain having enjoyed a winning session playing all night at the Commerce Casino card room in suburban Los Angeles. In the context of the story, McCain’s session is atypical insofar as he often loses at the tables. The character’s trip to the Commerce is unusual for another reason, too, as it leads to a rare reference to tournament poker as part of a TV show plot. At least it was rare then, in the early 1990s.

As Columbo later finds out when investigating McCain’s death, after he won $5,000 during an all-night session at the Commerce, McCain received a “V.I.P. Invitation” to play in the L.A. Poker Classic the following night. After a phone call and subsequent visit to the Commerce, Columbo learns McCain had already bought his way into the tournament before he left.

This was a full decade before the World Poker Tour launched and the L.A. Poker Classic became a well-known WPT stop. In fact, the L.A. Poker Classic only debuted at the Commerce in May-June 1992.

Incidentally, looking back at the schedule for that 31-event series, there was just a single no-limit hold’em tournament, the rest being either fixed-limit hold’em, seven-card stud (both high only and hi-lo), lowball (i.e., razz), Omaha high and hi-lo (both limit), deuce-to-seven no-limit.

There were also a couple of Asian five-card stud tournaments (one limit, one no-limit), a version of stud then played in California in which the deuces through sixes are removed from the deck. Buy-ins ranged from $300 to $2,500, gradually increasing as the series went along. The climactic event, a $2,500 2-7 NL tournament, was won by Phil Hellmuth.

In any case, we don’t get to see poor McCain play his L.A. Poker Classic tournament as he’s found dead the next morning. But his entry into the event helps Columbo figure out his death was not a suicide as McCain’s killer had arranged it to appear. Why would he do that when he had a poker tournament to play later that night?

Falk and Dunaway go heads-up in “It’s All in the Game”

The last Columbo episode to involve poker was one of the best of the later shows, one from October 1993 titled “It’s All in the Game” in which Faye Dunaway plays the killer. Dunaway’s appearance certainly elevates that episode, and in fact she won an Emmy for her performance. (Incidentally, Falk won four Emmys over the course of the series.)

poker, Faye DunawayFaye Dunaway (AP)

For the most part the plot does follow the “classic” Columbo formula, albeit with one very unique element incorporated into the story. The episode title alludes to the famous pop standard that is heard during the show, although it is arguably also a poker allusion. It refers as well to the romantic “game” Dunaway’s character, Lauren, plays with Columbo.

We find Lauren involved with a man who is cheating on her with a younger woman. The lie the man offers to cover his illicit liaison and explain why he can’t be with Lauren is a familiar one. He says he’s playing a poker game. Specifically, he says he’s stuck $12,000 and must continue the game until he gets back even.

I won’t rehearse the entire complicated plot, but after Lauren kills the man and the investigation begins, the poker references return more than once. At one point Columbo pointedly tells Lauren that he would never lie to her about playing in a poker game, a curious line because he’s revealing to her he knows that’s precisely what her now-deceased lover did. Meanwhile, on a couple of occasions, Lauren confides in someone else that if she “plays her cards right,” she believes she’ll be able to deceive the detective and get away with the crime.

It’s a somewhat standard Columbo plot (with an extra twist or two), though decidedly nonstandard with regard to the intense flirting that occurs between the happily married Columbo and the killer. Both pursue the budding “affair” for ulterior reasons — Lauren to avoid being found out and Columbo as a means to try and catch her.

Dunaway and Falk handle the dynamic especially well, and knowing that Falk actually wrote this episode makes the interaction between the two veteran actors all the more enjoyable. It’s another clever show, and like a great poker hand ends with a satisfying showdown.

Falk preferred drawing pictures to drawing cards

Falk himself did play poker, but he wasn’t a huge fan of the game. In fact, in his 2006 autobiography Just One More Thing, Falk confessed he found poker boring.

poker, Peter Falk.   Peter Falk (AP)

In the book, Falk shares a story of acting in a Sydney Pollack film in the late 1960s shot in what was then Yugoslavia. “It’s a war film, the actors are all males, it’s winter, it’s cold, it’s Serbia,” he explains. “What do you do at night? You play poker.”

But for Falk “that got old pretty fast.” One evening he decided to quit the game early and instead went off by himself to draw. For Falk that revived what had been a favorite hobby, one he continued to practice for the rest of his life and for which he had genuine talent.

If you ever catch the great Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire in which Falk plays a version of himself (as a former angel), you can see him sketching others in the film.

So Falk would rather draw pictures than draw cards. But if Columbo had continued any further, we might well have seen more poker in the plots. (Falk passed away in 2011.)

The very last Columbo aired in January 2003, just a few months before Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event to help ignite the “poker boom.”

Thinking back to that 1970s chess episode, if there had been any more Columbo shows, I imagine poker would have likely cropped up at least once more, particularly given the game’s sudden cultural prominence during the mid-2000s.

And if poker had come up in any of those shows, you can bet that trouble would have followed.

Author: Timothy Henderson