The relative level of fame of the other actors at the table is essential. Pitt has always been an actor unafraid to make fun of his own vanity for the sake of a role, like as the doofus fitness enthusiast in Burn After Reading, or ugly himself up for a part, like the prophetic mental patient in 12 Monkeys. Here, Soderbergh and Griffin introduce him, still looking boyish and improbably handsome in his late 30s, amidst a rag-tag group of teen actor pin-ups. Basically, it's the next generation of potential Brad Pitts. He's not as young as he used to be. Later in the film, Danny Ocean says to him, "You're cold-decking Teen Beat cover boys," as a way to convince him to do the big casino heist. Rusty is desperate.
What I'm calling the poker scene is actually two separate scenes: In the first, Rusty attempts to teach the actors to play poker but keeps getting derailed by their buffoonery; in the second, Danny appears and the two run a minor con on the teen idols. The first half, which ends with Grace laying out his cards and saying "fellas, all reds," was largely improvised, according to the DVD commentary track with Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin. Griffin was reportedly cursing Soderbergh's name for "ruining the scene" during filming, but he now thinks it's "one of the best scenes in the movie." Looking back, it's hard to disagree.
What makes it so good? The success of the scene lies in what gets acknowledged and what slides by. The young actors, who now feel like a peculiar time capsule of early '00s white dude stardom, aren't referencing their own roles or getting super inside-baseball. The closest thing the scene has to nudge-nudge Hollywood humor is in the first bit of dialogue we overhear when Rusty returns to the game after getting a drink and overhears Danny talking to the group. "That's hard to do, isn't it?" Danny asks. "Crossing over from television to film?" With a laugh, Grace says, "Not for me, dude." It's the type of off-the-cuff exchange that anyone watching at home or in a theater can get -- obviously, Clooney had recently transitioned from ER star to movie star -- but the delivery is muffled. It's not begging for a laugh.