Looking back at Rounders

We celebrate a hugely influential poker movie with a great cast. Read our look-back at John Dahl's 1998 film, Rounders, here.

To the casual observer, John Dahl’s gambling flick might not seem like much to write home about, but to legions of poker players around the world, the film is much more than a simple story. Step into the anaemic glow of a bedroom lit by widescreen monitors and talk to any young poker player about Rounders. For these dedicated grinders, this isn’t a film, it’s a mission statement.

Rounders stars Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, a budding poker whizz with a career as a lawyer on the horizon. The plot deals mainly with his struggle between two contrasting destinies. The respectable world of the law, embodied by his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and the high-risk life of a gambler, steeped in the allure of underground cardrooms – McDermott’s spiritual home and den of best friend and ex-con, Worm (Edward Norton).

Mike begins the movie as a reformed character. A man who won’t even touch the warm felt of a poker table lest he spiral back into the condition that compelled him blow $30,000 to mobster Tony KGB (John Malkovich). That all changes when Worm is released from jail and, quicker than you can say “busted flush draw”, they’re back on the game. McDermott’s respectable tendons straining against the inexorable attraction of a night spent winning other people’s money.

Which would be great, were it not for Worm’s destructive tendencies. He borrows money against Mike’s name, cheats constantly and generally ruins every situation he burrows his way into. Not to mention the $25,000 debt he acquired before his stint in the slammer. A snafu parade winds up in Mike and Worm both being liable for the money, with five days to pay before mobster Grama (Michael Rispoli) makes card protectors out of their skulls. So how are they going to turn a few hundred dollars into twenty five grand? I really hope I don’t have to tell you.

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Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Damon had nailed the naive good guy schtick and Edward Norton possessed a penchant for coming across all tragic and loveable. It’s a wonderful pairing and a big reason why Rounders is not just a brochure for the romance of poker.

Not that there isn’t a healthy slice of romance cake to be had (please don’t think too hard about the ingredients of romance cake). The film is replete with cardroom wisdom like, “play the man, not the cards,” and “if you can’t spot the sucker in your first 30 minutes a the table, you are the sucker.”

It also does a great job of layering the film with poker lingo. Most gambling films either totally disregard the patois of the poker room or else abandon all hope of their audience understanding, filling the gambling scene with two minutes of indecipherable babble about runnered gut draws and wired cowboys.

Sure, in Rounders, characters say things like “give me three stacks of high society,” but the context always makes the meaning clear. Early on, Damon announces he’s going to “over-bet the pot and make it look like I’m trying to buy it.” That’s the way people steeped in poker actually talk, but it’s easy to figure out that Mike’s going to bet a lot of money to make it look like a bluff.

Rounders’ greatest strength is capturing what it feels like to play poker. The underground card rooms run by mobsters are a specific sub-slice of poker culture and one that is largely outdated. Their use in Rounders is to make Mike’s poker decisions feel important, so that when he throws chips into the pot, you feel like his attempts to outplay his opponent have consequences.

What makes Rounders so special is that this is what playing poker always feels like. When you have your own money on the table, it’s just you, your skills, and a little luck against a handful of opponents and it feels big, important, momentous even. The buzz generated from outplaying someone, even if that means making the right fold at the right time, is extremely heady. No other film has ever managed to capture this feeling.

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Rounders emulates this sensation by placing added emphasis on every single game. Watching hands of poker is pretty boring, and writers Levien and Koppelman understand this. You can count on one foot the number of poker hands that we see from start to finish. The reason the film is so beloved by the poker community, is because it understands that how poker feels isn’t about this or that hand, it’s about the thrill of mental competition with money on the line.

In the early 2000s, poker underwent something of a revolution. Increased internet connectivity made it possible for online poker sites to host thousands of simultaneous games, while increased television coverage introduced the game’s most engaging characters. It all build to a crescendo in 2003, when an accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million as the champion of the World Series of Poker. During that period thousands of new young players poured into the game, but ask many of them what propelled them to play and the answer won’t be Phil Ivey or PokerStars; it’s Rounders.

The movie has extra layers of meaning for those who understand poker. Which helps make it a pre and post-conversion favourite. Really, McDermott is not a role model for the budding rounder. He’s an everyman, sure, but the sage-like Knish (John Turturro) is who you really want to be. Knish never plays beyond his means and never puts money down on the table he can’t afford to lose. He always pays his bills and is never in debt.

Speaking of Turtorro, he stands among the ranks of Rounders’ stellar bit-part players. Be they wizened old judge Martin Landau or sultry hostess Famke Janssen. The scrunchy-faced Gretchen Mol has one very important job and she does it well: embodying the universal fear that your partner might disapprove of an all-important hobby to the extent that they make you choose between them and it. Be that staying up all night in a poker game or collecting miniature figurines of Jason Statham.

Awards for scene stealing, however, all belong to John Malkovich. His Russian accent sounds like it’s been passed back and forth through Google Translate a few times and his pantomime thrustings make him the perfect end-boss.

These fine thespians are the struts that prop up the emotional core of Rounders. In a movie that sometimes borders on poker fetishism, these characters help support the storm of Mike and Worm as they stumble from one table to the next. Without them, the film would perhaps be well regarded in poker circles, but by setting Mike and Worm’s engaging story against a backdrop dripping in the trappings of poker, Rounders has become more than just a cult hit. It has inspired people to transform their lives and define careers. Not many moves, no matter how special, can say that.

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