California Split, which takes its name from a variant of draw poker in which the pot is divided, or split, between the high hand and the low hand, is a comedy drama directed by Robert Altman. Released in 1974, California Split turns the spotlight on the west coast gambling scene of the day, as seen through the eyes of two compulsive gamblers. Unsurprisingly, the two main protagonists, Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) and Bill Denny (George Segal) meet at the California Club, a Los Angeles poker parlour, where their friendship is cemented by being jointly mugged in the parking lot by a disgruntled opponent.
Of the ‘two bet-on-anything guys’, Denny is married, but separated from his wife, while Waters rooms, rent-free, with two prostitutes, Barbara Miller (Ann Prentis) and Susan Peters (Gwen Welles). Both men acknowledge that they have a gambling problem, at least up to a point, but nonetheless embark on a gambling streak, which lasts for several weeks and includes cards, horses, basketball and boxing, for increasing large stakes.
Ultimately, Denny is forced to sell all his possessions, including his car, to fund a trip to Reno, Nevada, by bus, to play high-stakes poker. The elusive winning streak does finally materialise, with Denny winning at poker – against none other than Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., a.k.a. ‘Amarillo Slim’ (who played himself) – blackjack, roulette and craps. Altogether, Denny amasses a total of $82,000, which he splits evenly with Waters, who is naturally ecstatic. Nevertheless, Denny confesses, ‘Charlie, there was no special feeling in it’, and the film ends on a downbeat note, with the two ‘heroes’ going their separate ways. According to Joe Pollock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ‘The conclusion falls a bit flat, but getting there is much more than half the fun.’