California Split (1974) by Silver Dollar Sam

I suppose I’d see a Robert Altman film no matter what it was, just to see what he did with it.  I know he’ll probably never match his initial and biggest success, M*A*S*H*, but good or bad, the films he makes are, and will be, always interesting. 

Altman’s way of carefully planned casual film making is difficult, unusual, and refreshing.  His imitators can’t quite get the hang of it.  The authentic surroundings and actual people who dwell in this particular film are signature Altman.  In California Split, Amarillo Slim Preston appears in a chapter in Reno.  Other real life card players can also be found. 

This 1974 film is about compulsive gambling. Elliott Gould as “Charlie” and George Segal as “Bill” meet in a California poker house.  While they know little about each other, each recognizes the compulsive gambling in the other and they become fast friends. They’ll gamble on most anything, from naming the seven dwarfs to high stakes cards.

Charlie makes friends with two rather personable hookers played by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss (yep, Paula’s younger sister) who give the boys a place to sleep and feed them breakfasts of Fruit Loops and beer.  It’s a relationship built solely for funny scenes. 

The boys proceed to win at cards, at the track, at the boxing match, and at basketball.  Then Segal plays “six card lo ball stud”, which us moderns call “Razzle Dazzle” or just plain “razz”.  But if the screen writer, Joseph Walsh, had called it by its familiar name, he would have had to make some explanations which were simply answered by calling it lo ball stud. 

After losing at razz, Segal needs a loan from the shark to whom he already owes money.  There are two mentionable sub-plots.   The first is the scene with the loan shark, which goes nowhere, and the second concerns an enemy made at the card table.  The second plot serves to let us know that gambling is a dangerous undertaking. 

Shark money and the sale of an automobile are enough to arm Segal for a $40 and $80 razz game in Reno, not in Las Vegas, but in Reno. This lets Altman take us away from the casino atmosphere and into a back room in the smaller town.  There we are introduced to Amarillo Slim who does a very credible job of delivering several lines in a couple of scenes.  Good for you, Slim, I didn’t know you had it in you.  Of course, Altman does a great job of bringing performances out of the inexperienced. 

Segal wins big money in the Razz game, $11,000.  And then he adds $7,000 more to the win.  The boys take the money to the craps table and roulette wheel where it swells to $82,000. 

Now we see the difference in the two gambling compulsive friends.  Gould wants the win, enjoys the win, has plans for the win.  Segal is despondent, disappointed that there is no thrill, walks away from the money and, apparently, the gambling life. 

Walsh and Altman never let us get too deeply into the lead characters, but we have enough information to understand the difference between the disappointed business man (Segal) who feels he hasn’t accomplished anything and the dedicated gambler (Gould) who will undoubtedly have many losing and winning days ahead of him, loving the up and down adventure all the way. 

But guess what, friends.  They never do play poker in this movie.

It seems the compulsives bet on about everything but poker.  Lo ball draw isn’t poker.  Neither is razz, another form of lo ball.

The lo ball draw scenes are well filmed.  They take place in an actual California poker parlor and Altman knew just how to do it.  We are denied seeing the cards and the exact hands played.  And the drama of card strategy is sparse.  But the location and atmosphere is believable.

The filming of the Reno razz games, shot in a studio, is done from a distance and we know nothing about the nuts and bolts of the winning of the $18,000.  But, since razz is not the universal game poker is, Walsh and Altman, in not showing the play of the hands, avoided a lot of explanation to a generic audience.  After all, this is a story and a humorous, light study of two people who like to gamble, as opposed to a story about the playing of cards.


The only (extremely dark) nudity comes from Alyce Passman (her bum). She had never been in anything before, and has been in nothing since.

DVD info from Amazon

  • full-length commentary

  • widescreen anamorphic

Another reason for filming Razz, is that it was high on the list at the time as a card game, at time when hold 'em was still being cultivated.  Today, the movie would have been about hold 'em.  Oh, yeah, it was.  It was called “Rounders”.

Additional notes on Lo Ball from Silver Dollar Sam:

“Excuse the impertinence, Lord Ravanal, but methinks, since I can’t establish the superior hand tonight, we contest for the lowest cards to win.  Perhaps I can retrieve a few farthings.” 

Low Ball, before it was lo ball, began with the lowest poker hand winning.  In the beginning, the lowest hand would therefore be the “deuce to seven” hand, as long it wasn’t a flush.  (It follows, deuce and seven, off suit, are the worst starting pocket cards in hold 'em.) 

Kansas City Low Ball is the venerable lo ball game.  In the Kansas variety, the lowest and best hand is the unsuited deuce, three, four, five, seven.  It’s lowest because the ace is high, flushes count as flushes and straights count as straights. 

Soon after Low Ball's invention, players decided it would be best to ignore straights and flushes and just play for the low cards.  Ace, then, became low.  Ace to five became the lowest hand and was called the “wheel”.  Most lo ball is now “wheel” lo ball.  The rest of this discussion will be with the “wheel” in mind. 

My disdain for lo ball lies in the lack of play opportunity.  Unlike poker, when we play lo ball, we are playing for one hand, the lowest one.  If possible, we’re playing for the wheel in every hand, while in poker we are playing for a variety of hands, sometimes two or three of them simultaneously.  The variety of possible combinations of cards for a winner is what puts the pizzazz in poker.  While many low cards can win in poker, many high cards have a hard time winning in lo ball.  Therein lies the biggest difference. 

Lo ball became popular for the same reasons new types of poker become popular – it’s fun because it brings the players closer in ability.  Lo ball puts less thinking and more gamble in the game.  During the development of lo ball, the true card player resisted it and the public embraced it. It was the same kind of evolution that brought five card poker games to seven card varieties, and beyond. 

Razz became popular because some of the cards are exposed and it allows for more betting and a couple of more maneuvers than hidden cards can provide. The original Razzle Dazzle was a six card lo ball stud game and it is the one played in California Split, the subject of yesterday’s discussion. Seven card razz was introduced by the card rooms to give the players more opportunity to draw out, thereby leveling the playing field even more. Card rooms really like that. 

I hustled six card razz for awhile when I was a kid in my twenties.  The only game I’d play was at the Golden Nugget because it was the better of the two razz games in Las Vegas.  The other one was out on the Strip at the Stardust and it was the first to become a seven card razz game.  When that happened, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. 

I would play in the Nugget razz if there were two loose players.  If there weren’t two, I’d pass it by.  The ability to play a good mathematical game is a fair cinch and every serious player managed that part well.  Someone had to be playing a loose game at the table in order for a hustler to be optimistic about a win.  Two players throwing off money was even better. 

Since the mathematical probabilities of razz were so easy to learn and apply, the game, for the serious player, centered almost entirely on playing the players and picking up tells. It was one heckuva training ground for observing players. Playing the players must be observed in all the games we discuss, but playing the players held nearly the only advantage in razz.  The only other edge was in position, which is also a simple application. If the probabilities and positions are no-brainers and the only thing left to give serious winning thought to is the players, you learn to read the players, you learn or you die.  My early days at the razz table were good old fashioned people-playing school days. 

Every player who is addicted to high / low split games knows the possibility of a low hand is the crux of the game.  If the player can make the simple low hand, he can then look to a high hand possibility in an effort to take both the high and the low halves of the pot.  Wheels are great. What’s the first consideration?  The low hand; it’s the easiest.

That’s my case.  Lo ball is one dimensional.  Poker has many card possibilities.  While lo ball may have been born of poker, it isn’t as complicated as poker and therefore isn’t played much like poker.  And perhaps, in that observation, the difference is more fairly stated.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus three stars. TV Guide 3/5, Roger Ebert 4/4.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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