On Rounders

I originally watched Rounders during my Matt Damon/Ben Affleck film phase, largely due to them being locals. It, of course, features Damon (Good Will Hunting, Dogma, Elysium) in the titular role. According to the Huffington Post article, “‘Rounders’ Turns 15: Matt Damon Poker Movie Splashed The Pot On Sept. 11, 1998“:

If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker; or, on Sept. 11, 1998, Miramax released “Rounders,” Matt Damon’s first film as a leading man following the success of “Good Will Hunting.”

Directed by indie stalwart John Dahl and written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (the duo who went on to write “Ocean’s Thirteen” for Steven Soderbergh, among other films), “Rounders” was the No. 1 movie in North American during its opening weekend, with $8.4 million in ticket sales. Overall, however, it was a disappointment for the studio, earning only $22.9 million during its initial theatrical run.

“It eventually made it into the black on video. Well into the black,” Damon told HuffPost Entertainment in an interview last year. “Harvey Weinstein called me years ago and he was like, ‘Matt, ‘Rounders’ is in the black. I thought you’d like to know.’ I was like, ‘No fucking way.’ He was like, ‘Yes, you did it. I knew we made a good movie.’”

Indeed, they did. “Rounders,” which also co-starred Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Turturro, Martin Landau and John Malkovich (plus “Mindy Project” star Chris Messina in his first onscreen role), has become a cult favorite in the last 15 years, thanks to its prescient storyline (interest in competitive poker tournaments grew after the film’s release) and quote-ready script. (Malkovich, in particular, unloads corker after corker in a thick Russian accent.)

“We’ve talked about [a sequel],” Damon said last year about the possibility of another “Rounders” film. “I know John Dahl, the director, would want to do it. And Edward would want to do it. We’ll see. It’s always about the timing.”

Additionally, according to The A.V. Club‘s article, “The New Cult Canon: Rounders“:

“What’s the difference between a large cheese pizza and a professional poker player? A large cheese pizza can feed a family of four.” —Five-time World Series Of Poker bracelet-winner Chris Ferguson

A thought: Has there been a more influential film in the last 10 or 12 years than Rounders? The question sounds ridiculous on its face, since there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about its neo-noir trappings (familiar from other John Dahl films, like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction) or its story about the powerful and sometimes destructive bonds of friendship. And yet how many movies can claim to have lit the fuse on a multi-billion-dollar industry? There’s been some chicken-or-the-egg argument about how the “poker boom” started, but little argument over when: The 2003 World Series Of Poker, when an accountant from Tennessee by the magical name of Chris Moneymaker won first prize in the main event, to the tune of $2.5 million. Unlike the poker legends who won the event in the past—your Doyle Brunsons and Stu Ungars—Moneymaker was an amateur, playing his first live poker tournament, after having qualified via a $39 online satellite tournament. And with his doughy features and aw-shucks demeanor in the face of improbable victory, Moneymaker sent a message to every beer-swilling, hockey-shirt-donning, low-stakes home-game champion in the country: With a few lucky turns of the cards, this could be you.

Moneymaker cited Rounders as a primary source of inspiration—he even contributed to the DVD commentary track featuring the Ferguson joke above—and it’s a touchstone for everyone in the poker world. Players are inspired by it in the same way hungry young brokers and executives are inspired by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, but without the irony. Log onto any online poker site, and you’ll find endless usernames and/or avatars referencing Teddy KGB, the Russian mobster and card shark played by a deliciously hammy John Malkovich, or “grinders,” a term given to players who doggedly scrape out a living in the game. (Side note to Internet poker players: You always want to sit at a table with someone with a Rounders-inspired name. They’re usually fish. Also, you’ll want to get in a time machine and travel back about four years, before the U.S. government cracked down on online gaming, back when the poker boom was driving novice players and their bottomless credit-card limits to the Internet by the tens of thousands. Good times, good times.) Beyond the Rocky-like inspirational finale, which pits a young comer against Malkovich’s high-stakes shark, Rounders lets viewers lounge in the cool ambience of smoke-filled underground clubs and insider lingo, and indulge in the fantasy of raking in monster pots and bluffing the great Johnny Chan with rags. It’s a recruitment film for would-be degenerates.

Several films about the poker world have been made recently, plus many more where a poker game figures prominently, but authenticity is hard to come by. Even The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen, once the gold standard of poker movies, ends with an utterly preposterous hand where a full house, aces over tens, goes down to a straight flush. (The book Big Deal: A Years As A Professional Poker Player, calculates the odds of these two hands happening at once at over 300 billion to 1.) Just recently, the James Bond redux Casino Royale featured a similar but even more ridiculous scenario where four players face up to a $125 million pot with a flush, a full house, a higher full house, and a straight flush. In both cases, the audience is supposed to be awed by the high quality of play, but what they’re actually witnessing is as improbable as a Mega Millions lottery winner getting struck by lightning. Twice.

The genius of the hand is that 1) it could happen, and has happened to anyone who’s played the game for any significant length of time, and 2) it’s a hand where a person could plausibly lose all his money. The ins and outs have been a common discussion among poker players: Would it have been possible to get away from it? (Probably not, most agree, but Phil Hellmuth thinks that Damon’s character could have limited the damage.) What do you think of Malkovich’s decision to cold-call the pre-flop raise with AA, which could lead to potential disaster if his opponent flops two pair? How about Damon’s decision to overbet top two pair after the flop, counting on an aggressive player like Malkovich to read his hand as weak? And how about when both of them hit their full houses on the turn and check? For once, here’s a poker movie that understands—and, through superb use of voiceover narration, communicates—how good players think through hands, and how such a simple game can be bound up in complex psychology and stratagems. Conventional wisdom says that a card game isn’t exciting enough to be captivating onscreen, so the solution is to highlight the money (like Casino Royale‘s nine-figure haul) and divorce the game from reality. Rounders proves that it doesn’t have to be that dumbed-down.

After Damon loses everything on one hand, Rounders picks up nine months later with him working graveyard shifts driving a delivery truck to pay for a respectable law-school education. He’s sworn off poker forever, at the insistence of a girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) who could kindly be referred to as a bit of a nag. (Or, less kindly, by the following expression: “In the poker game of life, women are the rake.”) When Damon reunites with his old buddy Worm (Edward Norton), a card mechanic and con artist newly released from his latest scam, the war for his soul is influenced by several different parties. Should he stick to the straight-and-narrow, graduate with a law degree and a plum clerkship, while settling down with the scold of his dreams? Or does he swear off buttoned-down legitimacy and follow the uncertain path that destiny appears to be laying out for him?

The chief catalyst for Damon’s ascension (or perhaps descent) back into poker is Norton, who doesn’t like to play any game straight-up when he can cheat his way to victory. Minutes before getting sprung from jail, he delights at winning cigarettes off of inmates just for the sport of it, no matter that he doesn’t smoke. It isn’t the payoff he’s after, but the sense of danger and superiority he feels in pulling a fast one on somebody; he never passes up the opportunity to razz every low-level gangster and loan shark he encounters, despite the threat to his personal safety. Norton knows how to take people’s money fair and square, just like Damon, but why suffer the swings that even the best players have to withstand when you tilt the table in your direction every time out? It’s a short-sighted view: As Damon says via voiceover: “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.”

If Norton is the devil on Damon’s shoulder, then the angel is John Turturro, a grinder personified. Turturro hovers over Damon like a guilty conscience, a constant reminder that he should play within the limits of his abilities and his bankroll. The whole concept of taking a shot, as Damon does against Malkovich with his “three stacks of high society,” is antithetical to Turturro, who plays cards with the dull practicality of a factory worker clocking in. To his mind, the only prudent course is to seek out the fish and reel them in; there’s no point in sitting down with a table full of high-stakes professionals, just for the chance of proving himself against them.

Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman—who would tackle poker again, with vastly diminished returns, on the short-lived ESPN series Tilt—set up a stark philosophical contrast between Norton and Turturro, yet manage to split the difference. Damon cannily chooses Option C: Play the game straight and never stake your entire bankroll, yet take a calculated risk when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proposition, and it speaks to the film’s occasional lapses in purposefulness. Dahl is a superb creator of atmosphere, but sometimes his slow-burning style comes at the expense of dramatic urgency; it doesn’t help that his lead character is by far (and deliberately) the least dynamic and unformed, twisting on the influence of several more colorful and persuasive voices. Yet there’s something convincing about the film’s studied noir inflections, too: In the end, Damon embraces a rogue’s destiny, but Dahl and the screenwriters give him the space to give it very thoughtful consideration. One of the reasons that poker players like Rounders so much is that it legitimizes the notion that playing cards for a living isn’t impulsive or stupid, but “like any other job.” And don’t even try to call it gambling.

Nevertheless, the lure of competition and money may ultimately be stronger in Rounders than the message to grind it out prudently. Being a consistent winner in poker requires a lot of discipline, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who doesn’t thrill to the idea of putting a blustery thug like Teddy KGB on tilt, or picking up on the most blaringly obvious “tell” in poker history. (Malkovich’s cartoonish performance has caught a lot of ridicule, but he and his hammy Russian accent make a five-course meal out of exclamations like “Nyet! Nyet!” and “Meesta Son-of-beeech!”) Rounders has a lot of sound wisdom to impart about the game, from reading a table (“If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour of playing, then you are the sucker”) to the reality of big swings (“from time to time, everyone goes bust”) to the tacit collusion of strong players preying on weak ones. (“It’s like the Nature Channel: You don’t see piranhas eating each other, do you?”) But it’s likely the majority of poker newcomers inspired by Rounders watched Damon stick Malkovich for five times his original buy-in, and opened up their wallets in the hope of doing likewise. Cue the piranhas.

Finally, the film is known for having an impact within the Poker gaming community, as according to PokerListings‘ article, “Pros discuss Rounders’ impact on poker“:

“I sat with the best in the world, Knish, and I won.”

There are many poker players who would love to be able to say those words, and not many who haven’t seen the movie the quote comes from either.

Rounders is what you might call a cult classic movie, and it’s certainly a poker classic that has inspired new players to enter the poker realm and has elevated Texas Hold’em to its current status as most-popular game.

After 10 years, the impact the movie made on young poker players and the industry can still be seen.

“I have seen Rounders about 30 times, and it played a huge part in my developing a strong addiction to all the facets about No-Limit Hold’em,” said Hevad Khan, Team PokerStars Pro.

Khan isn’t alone in being inspired by the movie. Russ “Dutch” Boyd credited the movie for getting him interested in poker, and so has Gavin Griffin.

There are a few reasons why Rounders made poker so appealing, or at least a few theories as to why it did.

Khan brought up the David vs. Goliath storyline that draws people into the movie and to the game of poker. Whether you want to call it a sport or not, poker is a game where giants can be slain with brains and even the best of players can be toppled.

Vanessa Rousso, Team PokerStars pro, has a similar theory for why the movie helped popularize the game so much.

“Everyone has a poker idol they wish they could come face to face with. Watching that dream and that uncertainty unfold for these characters is spellbinding,” she said.

“Not to mention those lines you hear people repeat over and over again like, ‘Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.’ It’s priceless.”

Rousso also said the movie helped define the underground poker scene in New York and showed how judges, cops and ultimately the pros in Vegas were all hooked on a game of skill.

Lou Krieger, poker player and author, agreed that Rounders was good for the poker industry because it spurred an interest in the game, and it depicted Texas Hold’em as a game of skill rather than a pure gamble, like craps or roulette.

Griffin, also a member of Team PokerStars Pro, says that that realistic depiction of the game is what helps Rounders draw people to poker.

“They don’t just glamorize poker and gambling. You get to know the bad things about poker along with the good things,” Griffin said. “People don’t always come out on top, and it’s good to see that.”

Rounders brought a lot of celebrities into the game and created a lot of interest in poker over the years,” Griffin said. “I still hear people quoting the movie at the table and talking about how it got them interested in poker in the first place.”

Rounders became a window that allowed people to look into the poker world, giving it a broader appeal.

“With star power like Ed Norton, Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol and John Turturro, it let poker cross over into the mainstream and made poker cool,” Rousso said. “Many of us believe that it set the stage for the era of live, televised play that finally catapulted poker to center stage.”

Khan said he thought Rounders coupled with the WSOP broadcasting worked together, coincidentally, to give us the current poker craze.

That’s a sentiment reflected by Krieger as well. He agreed thatRounders kicked up an interest in poker, but it was Chris Moneymaker’s WSOP victory and the use of the lipstick cameras at the poker tables that did more to popularize the game.

As big an influence as it was, Rounders was not without its faults in the eyes of players who have been around the poker industry a while.

“While I enjoyed the film, there was a lot that was incredibly misleading about it,” Krieger said. “First of all, when Matt Damon’s character is watching the law professor’s poker game and he is so absolutely clear about what hands are held by the players.”

Krieger said it would be “more realistic” if he put players on a range of hands, coming up with some percentage chance of what different players are holding, rather than the specificity of his analysis in the film.

“But more important than that is the fact that the entire plot develops when Worm takes $10,000 in credit and charges it to the account of Matt Damon’s character. That would never happen,” Krieger said.

“If it did, I’d simply go into a casino, take $10,000 out of some other player’s account, and play with no risk to myself. Yet the entire plot of the film develops from that incident!”

However, Krieger said he didn’t think the movie had any negative effects on poker – unless you count creating players who think poker is easy to beat and who delude themselves into believing they have the requisite skills when they don’t.

“There are lots of people who have overly inflated opinions of their own ability, and those people will continue to lose money at poker unless they improve their game. With their inability to see themselves as others do – flaws and all – if they didn’t have poker, they’d find some other road to failure and oblivion.”

Phil Gordon, who said he’s watched the movie about five times over the years, took a much more lighthearted approach to how it may have negatively affected the poker world.

“The only negative I have experienced is a tendency for players to break out really, really bad Russian accents when they deliver a bad beat, à la John Malkovich [who also did a really, really bad Russian accent]. ‘I stick it in you,'” said the Full Tilt Poker pro.

Good or bad, that quotability is just one sign of the impactRounders had on the poker world. Rousso sums up the movie and its effect best:

“There have been lots of movies that have included poker, but onlyRounders really captures the energy and tension in the game. And that’s why it stands as the best poker movie ever made.”

According to Roger Ebert:

“Rounders” cheerfully buys into compulsive gambling. The hero gambles away his tuition money, his girlfriend, his law degree and nearly his life, and at the end he’s still a happy gambler. If this movie were about alcoholism, the hero would regain consciousness after the DTs and order another double. Most gambling movies are dire warnings; this one is a recruiting poster.

I think that’s because the movie would rather recycle the “Rocky” genre than end on a sour note. It stars Matt Damon as a New York law student who is a truly gifted poker player, and since the movie ends with a big game you somehow kinda know he’s not going to lose it. Since the genre insists on a victory at the end, the movie has to be in favor of poker; you don’t see Rocky deciding to retire because of brain damage.

As a poker movie, it’s knowledgeable and entertaining. And as a mediocre player who hits the poker room at the Mirage a couple of times a year and has read a fair share of books about the World Series of Poker, I enjoyed it. It takes place within the pro poker underground of New York and Atlantic City, where everybody knows the big games and the key players. And it shows brash, clean-cut young Mike McDermott (Damon) venturing into the world of cutthroats like Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), the poker genius of the Russian-American mob.

Mike is a law student, living with fellow student Jo (Gretchen Mol). As the movie opens, he gathers his entire stake of $30,000 and loses it to Teddy KGB. Jo has been trying to talk him into quitting poker, and he promises to reform. But the next day his best friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison, and of course he has to meet him at the prison gates, and of course that leads to a poker game that night, and to an escalating and dangerous series of problems.

Worm owes a lot of money to bad people. Mike unwisely becomes his co-guarantor. It becomes necessary for them to win a lot of money in a short period of time or be hurt very badly, and the movie is about the places they go and the weird people they encounter in the process. Although it’s not necessary to play poker to understand the movie, the screenwriters (David Levien and Brian Koppelman) have done their homework, and approvingly quote truisms such as, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.”

The movie buys into the seedy glamor of poker, romanticizing a game that essentially consists of exhausted technicians living off brief bursts of adrenaline generated by risking everything they own or can borrow. All gambling comes down to that–the queasy combination of thrill and fear as you win or lose–and real gambling ideally involves more of your money than it reasonably should.

Mike is established as a brilliant poker player in a scene where he walks into a game between some judges and tells every player what’s in his hand. The movie doesn’t have him in the room long enough to be able to do that, but never mind: The point is made, and one of the players is his mentor, Professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), who tells him, “Our destiny chooses us.” Sounds like Mike’s destiny is not the law but poker, although I am not sure I follow the Professor’s reasoning when he lends his student $10,000 and calls it a mitzvah. (The professor remembers someone who helped him when he decided to become a lawyer instead of a rabbi, but that’s not quite the same thing as deciding to become a gambler instead of a lawyer.)

The best scenes contrast the personalities of Mike and Worm. Mike wants to win by playing well. Worm wants to hustle. He’s a card mechanic who takes outrageous chances, and his intoxication with danger leads them both into trouble–not least when they find themselves in a high-stakes game in a roomful of state troopers. Not for Worm is the cautious lifestyle of Joey Knish (John Turturro), who has ground out a living for 15 years by folding, folding, folding, until he draws a good hand.

There’s humor in the film, especially when a lot of professional players find themselves at the same table in Atlantic City, and Mike’s droll voice-over narration describes the unsuspecting suckers who sit down at the table. (“We weren’t working with one another, but we weren’t working against one another, either. It’s like the Nature Channel; you don’t see piranhas eating each other.”) The movie was directed by John Dahl, whose “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction” are inspired neo-noirs. “Rounders” sometimes has a noir look but it never has a noir feel, because it’s not about losers (or at least it doesn’t admit it is). It’s essentially a sports picture, in which the talented hero wins, loses, faces disaster, and then is paired off one last time against the champ. For a grimmer and more realistic look at this world, no modern movie has surpassed Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler” (1974), starring James Caan in a screenplay by self-described degenerate gambler James Toback. Compared to that, “Rounders” sees compulsive gambling as a lark–as long as it’s not your money.

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3 thoughts on “On Rounders

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