The script, adapted from Richard Jessup's novel, was written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern; it was Lardner's first major studio work since his 1947 blacklisting as one of The Hollywood Ten. The film was directed by Norman Jewison and stars Steve McQueen in the title role and Edward G. Robinson as Howard. Jewison, who replaced original director Sam Peckinpah shortly after filming began, describes The Cincinnati Kid as his "ugly duckling" film. He considers it the film that allowed him to transition from the lighter comedic films he had previously been making and take on more serious films and subjects.
The film garnered mixed reviews from critics on its initial release; supporting actors Robinson and Joan Blondell earned award nominations for their performances.
Eric Stoner, nicknamed "The Kid," is an up-and-coming poker player in New Orleans. He hears that Lancey Howard, a longtime master of the game nicknamed "The Man," is in town, and sees it as his chance to finally become the Man himself. The Kid's friend Shooter cautions him, reminding the Kid how he thought he was the best five-card stud player in the world, until Howard "gutted" him when they played.
Howard arranges a game with wealthy William Jefferson Slade, who secures Shooter's services as dealer. Howard wins $6,000 from Slade over a 30-hour game, angering Slade and wounding his pride. That night at Slade's home, he tries to bribe Shooter into cheating in the Kid's favor when the two players meet. Shooter declines, but Slade calls in Shooter's markers worth $12,000, and blackmails him by threatening to reveal damaging information about Shooter's wild wife, Melba. Shooter agonizes over his decision, having spent the last 25 years building a reputation for integrity.
With the Kid's girl Christian visiting her parents, Melba tries to seduce him, even though she and Christian are close friends. Out of respect for Shooter, he rebuffs her, and spends the day before the game with Christian at her family's farm.
The Kid intentionally arrived late to the scheduled game for 8 o'clock. When the Kid finally arrived and met Howard, Howard said that he had heard a lot about him for a couple of years and that Yeller had told him how he was gutted by the Kid with a pair of fours. Yeller said, "remember Kid, the night you cut me up with the two red fours?" The Kid jocularly replied, "I must have overplayed my hand." Everyone laughed, but Howard sternly replied, "that was a dangerous thing to do." The Kid answered, "that depends on whom you're sitting with, Lancey."
The big game starts with six players, including Howard and the Kid, with Shooter playing as he deals and Lady Fingers relieving him whenever Shooter needs a break. In the first big confrontation between the Kid and Howard, the Kid is short $2,000 and Slade steps in to stake him. Several hours later, Howard busts a player called Pig, perhaps with a bluff, and the remaining players take a break. Following the break, Lady Fingers, who has been delighting in needling Howard all evening, takes over as dealer and continues to needle him.
As the game wears on, Shooter only deals, and then after another hand when Howard outplays them, two more players, Yeller and Sokal, drop out. That leaves just Howard and the Kid. After a few unlikely wins, the Kid calls for a break and confronts Shooter, who admits to being forced into cheating by Slade. The Kid insists he can win on his own and tells Shooter to deal straight or he will blow the whistle, destroying Shooter's reputation. Before the game resumes, Melba succeeds in seducing the Kid. Christian makes a surprise visit to the room, catches them after the fact and walks out on The Kid.
Slade tells the Kid that Shooter will continue to cheat for him and confronts him with a menacing thug, but the Kid flatly refuses. Back at the game, The Kid maneuvers to have Shooter replaced by Lady Fingers, lying that Shooter is ill. He then wins several major pots from Howard, who is visibly losing confidence.
The Kid is on the button.
Lady Fingers deals Howard the 8♦ and the Kid the 10♣. The Kid bets $500 and Howard calls. Howard gets the Q♦ and the Kid the 10♠.
The Kid bets $1,000 and Howard raises $1,000. The Kid calls.
Lady Fingers deals Howard the 10♦ and the Kid gets the A♣. The Kid bets $3,000 and the Man calls.
The Man's final card is the 9♦; The Kid gets the A♠ and checks. The Man bets $1,000. The Kid raises $3,500 and is all in. Howard reaches into his wallet and raises another $5,000. The Man offers to take his marker and the Kid calls the bet.
Howard turns over the J♦ for a queen-high straight flush. The Kid turns over the A♥, to show the cooler with a full house, Aces full of tens.
Following the game, the Kid leaves the hotel and loses a penny pitch to a shoe shine boy he had beaten at the same game at the film's opening. Around the corner, he runs into Christian and they embrace.
In some cuts, the film ends with a freeze-frame on Steve McQueen's face following his penny-pitching loss. Turner Classic Movies and the DVD feature the ending with Christian. Jewison wanted to end the film with the freeze-frame but was overruled by the producer.
The cockfight scene was cut by British censors.
The Cincinnati Kid was filmed on location in New Orleans, Louisiana, a change from the original St. Louis, Missouri, setting of the novel. Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Lancey Howard, but ill health forced him to withdraw from the film. Sam Peckinpah was originally hired to direct; producer Martin Ransohoff fired him shortly after filming began for "vulgarizing the picture." Peckinpah's version was to be shot in black-and-white to give the film a 1930s period feel. Jewison scrapped the black-and-white footage, feeling it was a mistake to shoot a film with the red and black of playing cards in greyscale. He did mute the colors throughout, both to evoke the period and to help pop the card colors when they appeared. Strother Martin claimed he was cast in the film but got fired after Jewison replaced Peckinpah.
The film features a theme song performed by Ray Charles and a brief appearance during the film by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with Emma Barrett as vocalist and pianist.When reciting the rules, Shooter clearly states "no string bets," though players (including Howard) go on to make string bets during the game.
The game is open stakes. This is unusual in modern times and almost never allowed in casinos, but permissible in home games and was common for the time period of the film.
The unlikely nature of the final hand is discussed by Anthony Holden in his book Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player, "the odds against any full house losing to any straight flush, in a two-handed game, are 45,102,781 to 1," with Holden continuing that the odds against the particular final hand in the movie are astronomical (as both hands include 10s). Holden states that the chances of both such hands appearing in one deal are "a laughable" 332,220,508,619 to 1 (more than 332 billion to 1 against) and goes on: "If these two played 50 hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, the situation would arise about once every 443 years."
After the final hand, Lady Fingers questioned Howard how he could have made that $1000 raise, to which Howard replied that poker was all about making the wrong move at the right time. On third street, the Kid bet $1000 into a $1000 pot with a pair of 10s shows while Howard had just a Queen high. By raising $1000, Howard was possibly representing a Queen in the hole and trying to buy the pot at the point. The Kid only had to put in another $1000 into a $4000, so he was offered 4 to 1 odds, which were very favorable odds, since he only had to be right 1 in 5 times to break even. Howard seemed to be relying on implied odds to justify that raise as well as the $3000 call on fourth street.
Upon its 1965 release, The Cincinnati Kid was favorably reviewed by Variety which wrote "Martin Ransohoff has constructed a taut, well-turned-out production. In Steve McQueen he has the near-perfect delineator of the title role. Edward G. Robinson is at his best in some years as the aging, ruthless Lancey Howard...." Howard Thompson of The New York Times called the film a "respectably packaged drama" that is "strictly for those who relish—or at least play—stud poker" and notes that the "film pales beside The Hustler, to which it bears a striking similarity of theme and characterization." Time magazine also noted the similarities to The Hustler, saying "nearly everything about Cincinnati Kid is reminiscent" of that film, but falls short in the comparison, in part because of the subject matter:
Director Jewison can put his cards on the table, let his camera cut suspensefully to the players' intent faces, but a pool shark sinking a tricky shot into a side pocket undoubtedly offers more range. Kid also has a less compelling subplot. Away from the table, McQueen gambles on a blonde (Tuesday Weld) and on the integrity of his dealer pal, Karl Malden. Pressure comes from a conventionally vicious Southern gentleman (Rip Torn), whose pleasures include a Negro mistress, a pistol range adjacent to his parlor, and fixed card games. As Malden's wife, Ann-Margret spells trouble of another kind, though her naive impersonation of a wicked, wicked woman recalls the era when the femme fatale wore breastplates lashed together with spider web. By the time all the bets are in, Cincinnati Kid appears to hold a losing hand.
A retrospective review published by the New York State Writers Institute of the University at Albany also noted the similarities the film had to The Hustler, but in contrast said The Cincinnati Kid's "stylized realism, dreamlike color, and detailed subplots give [the film] a dramatic complexity and self-awareness that The Hustler lacks.
Blondell was singled out for her performance as Lady Fingers with an award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine nominated Robinson for its Best Supporting Actor Laurel Award.
The Cincinnati Kid was released on Region 1 DVD on May 31, 2005. The DVD features a commentary track by director Norman Jewison, commentary on selected scenes from Celebrity Poker Showdown hosts Phil Gordon and Dave Foley and The Cincinnati Kid Plays According to Hoyle, a promotional short featuring magician Jay Ose. A Blu-Ray was released on June 14, 2011.
With the release of the film on DVD, one modern reviewer said the film "is as hip now as when it was released in 1965" and another cited McQueen as "effortlessly watchable as the Kid, providing a masterclass in the power of natural screen presence over dialogue" and Robinson "simply fantastic." Poker author Michael Wiesenberg calls The Cincinnati Kid "[o]ne of the greatest poker movies of all time."