Rounders Review

Rounders (1998)

HPG Rating:
Director:John Dahl
Starring:Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen
Written by:David Levien and Brian Koppelman
Produced by:Ted Demme and Joel Stillerman
Release date:September 11, 1998
Length:121 Minutes
Rating:Rated R


Rounders single-handedly motivated millions of people to play poker competitively. The movie was very under-appreciated at the time it was released because it was a movie before it's time. It was only later that the movie was recognized as being a precursor to the explosion in the popularity of poker. And although Rounders remained mostly unnoticed by the masses, it attained the ultimate cult status in the poker world. It’s rare to play in a poker game with friends and go through the whole night without someone quoting at least one line from the movie.

The Plot (with spoilers)

In a conspiratorial, low-key voice-over narration, professional poker player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a clean-cut, high-stakes poker gambler, guides us through the world of underground poker. According to Mike, success in poker comes as much from reading the person as it does from reading the cards that he holds.

The movie opens by showing Mike losing his entire $30,000 bankroll on a single hand to a Russian gangster named Teddy KGB. Now broke, Mike quits playing poker to focus on law school and promises to stay away from poker in order to appease his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol). Sometime later, Mike's best friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison, and the two of them start playing poker together again. Mike lies to Jo about playing poker again and she dumps him after she finds out that he has been lying to her. His performance at law school also begins to suffer because of his renewed focus on poker.

Mike and Worm then set out on a mission to make enough money playing poker to pay off Worm's gambling debt that he piled up with a loan shark before going to prison. After accumulating half of the money needed to pay off the debts, they decide to play in a juicy poker game organized by a bunch of cops. Worm cheats throughout the game in order fatten his bankroll quicker. The cops catch them cheating, beat them up, and then take all their money, including the honestly-earned money that they used to buy in with. So now they are broke. This incident creates a divide in their friendship and they go their separate ways. Afraid that the loan shark will hurt Worm, Mike takes on responsibility for Worm's debt. He now has only a short time to pay it back even though he is broke. So Mike borrows $10,000 from his law professor in order to make his money back from KGB in a rematch. Mike manages to turn that $10,000 into $55,000. He then pays back the professor, pays off Worm's debt, and ends up with the same $30,000 that he started with. The movie closes with Mike getting into a cab to go to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.


Matt Damon plays the clean-cut, book-smart, ultra-talented poker player trying to make a legitimate name for himself in the poker world. Martin Landau plays the cerebral, philosophical Judge Petrovsky who advices Mike on his life's choices. John Turturro plays Joey Knish, the classic grinder who doesn't have any grandiose plans to become a great player. He is only interested in playing in low-risk games in order to grind out a living. The under-nourished role of Mike's girlfriend Jo is played by Gretchen Mol

The movie benefits from a couple of colorful supporting performances. Edward Norton injects a lot of energy as the jittery, impulsive Worm. It's especially fun to watch him during the card-playing scenes. John Malkovich's engaging performance is especially good (and almost cheesy) as KGB, a Russian poker player/gangster with an over-the-top Russian accent.

The Poker Scenes

The poker playing scenes are the best poker scenes in the history of movies. This is mostly due to the attention paid to the details of the game of poker by director John Dahl and writers, David Levien and Brian Koppelman. They delve deeply into the subculture of poker, drench the dialogue in authentic poker lingo, explain all the psychological nuances of the game that only a pro would know, and show all the restrained emotions and subdued excitement of the players. Dahl's talent for creating an atmosphere of suspense makes for some tense and exciting poker hands. There are many other references that real poker players will appreciate, including the footage of the 1988 WSOP Main Event finish between Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel - not to mention Chan's cameo in the movie.

Movie analysis

At first glance, some viewers might look at Mike's quest to turn his 5-figure bankroll into millions as an unbelievable Hollywood script, but the winner of the WSOP Main Event in 2003, Chris Moneymaker, was an amateur player who turned $39 into several million. And when Kinish tries to convince Mike to take fewer risks and aim to make a stable living at poker by telling him "I don't have dreams of winning the World Series of Poker on ESPN", this shows the decision that most good poker players go through - should I grind out a low-risk, low-return living (by playing in cash games) - or go for the big money and fame (mainly in tournaments)? That dichotomy manifests itself in today's poker by the difference between the many amateur players entering satellites for the WPT and WSOP, while others are grinding out $30,000 per year multi-tabling at $2/$4 limits for several hours a day. The movie also illustrates the differences between the personalities and psychological qualities (such as risk aversion and emotional management) of the different types of poker players. One scene that illustrates this is where Jo asks Kinish how he is doing. After a brief contemplative pause, Kinish answers in a flat tone "the same" - because that's what any grinder aspires his life to be. If Kinish were a stock market investor he would be invested in low-risk stocks and collecting safe dividends, while Mike would be a day-trader trying to make very high (but achievable) returns, and Worm would probably be trading penny stocks and losing his ass.

Part of the value of this movie is that it attempts to break down the outdated and inaccurate stereotypes associated with poker. In the past, there has always been a certain amount of criminal element associated with the game of poker as well as the people who play it. Professional poker players have always been thought of as con men who sit down with unsuspecting novice players and steal their money. But in poker you aren't trying to "con" people because anyone who sits down at a poker table knows that the object of the game is to take money away from the other players. And to do this you simply need to be able to read people. Admittedly, being able to read people is a trait that is disproportionately possessed by street smart (and sometimes immoral) people. Nonetheless, most successful poker players today are normal, moral, intelligent people - not people who just got out of jail yesterday. Even though the recent increase in the popularity of poker has helped legitimize the game of poker, the movie still suffers from discrimination from ignorant anti-gambling viewers despite the fact that the film offers you a chance to increase your understanding of the game and the people who play it.

Part of the discrimination against the movie is based on the perception that Mike is a self-destructing gambling addict. But addict is defined as somebody who can't stop from engaging in a hurtful behavior. Yet, after the first scene where Mike loses his life savings, he stopped playing poker when he realized that poker was interfering with his life. That kind of person is not an addict. It was simply a calculated risk that had a negative outcome. Some critics thought that the movie took the easy way out, and let Mike off the hook. But this isn't true because, even though Mike loses his girlfriend and future law degree to poker, his separation from those aspects of his life was actually a step closer to self-actualization (even if he didn't realize it at the time). When you lose something that you don't really want, then it isn't actually a loss.

One review I read said that Rounders offers no powerful insight into the world of gambling. I disagree. The main point of the plot was to show people that poker is a skill game, and is not the same as playing the lotto, which is something that the general public doesn't understand. The scene where Mike tries to defend himself to Jo after she chastises him for losing money illustrates the writers' attempt to educate the audience on the legitimacy of poker. When Mike says "It's a skill game Jo!", I was immediately convinced that this line was not directed at Jo as much as it was directed at the portion of the audience that views playing poker as being no different than playing roulette. This movie isn't about a bunch of guys wildly betting their life savings. It is a juxtaposition of the pure gamblers who have no hope of making money at poker, and the real poker players who are interested in building skills and growing as a player. If a person doesn't understand the difference after watching the movie then they probably (1) lack the cognititve ability to comprehand the difference, or (2) have an emotional problem which causes them to have a bias towards the subject matter.

Another critic was disappointed because he thought the movie had a lot of potential to be a more serious movie. Since gamblers have always made for interesting characters studies, he wanted the movie to be a character study of gamblers and to tell a good human story. The irony of that comment is that the movie actually was a character study of gamblers - but only successful gamblers. This critic didn't notice this point though since he was viewing the movie through the judgmental eyes of conventional society that only see full-time gamblers as people with pathological problems. People assume that when you are watching a character study of a habitual gambler, then this movie MUST show negative qualities. This is exactly what the movie tried to avoid.

The movie had good character development since all of the characters eventually moved on to do the things they really want to do in life. Mike drops out of law school to focus his energy exclusively to poker. KGB realizes he isn't a poker God. Jo realizes that she and Mike live in different worlds and breaks up with him, to presumably start a new relationship with some briefcase-carrying, BMW-driving, law-school-graduating yuppie. The only character that doesn't grow (and rightfully so) is Worm, because you know that 20 years from now he will still be getting his ass kicked when his old, arthritic fingers are "catching hangers" every time he tries to cheat someone.

The voiceover offers rich narration and provides just enough explanation about the game to amateurs. The voiceover is also a particularly useful device and relevant stylistic choice in a movie about poker since it is a game where most of the action is actually occurring strictly within the confines of a person's mind. Hence, Mike's private dialogue with the viewers satisfies the audience's need to know what everyone is thinking.

The only really unrealistic point in the movie was when Mike is watching the judge's game and he perfectly reads every card that every player was holding and every card they were looking to get. This wouldn't happen in real life. At best, he could tell which players were strong and which was weak, and put players on groups of hands - but that's about all. It's possible to call exact hands against one or two players but not against a whole table.


Rounders succeeds at providing a fascinating look at the underground poker world. David Levien and Brian Koppelman's story does a very good, if mechanical, job of taking the audience into the world of poker while seasoning it with just enough humor to keep it from getting monotonous. The movie's greatest asset is its attention to detail. The writers have an acute understanding of the game and the poker world, making extensive use of insider vernacular, which lends the film an air of authenticity. Poker neophytes, though, will still be able to easily understand the insider dialogue within the context of the scenes. Although Rounders does have a formula script with a predictable ending, the movie is in no rush to get you there because the movie's value is in the small moments and the journey itself.

Rounders Facts

  • Rounders was set in New York City but all of the law school scenes were filmed in and around Rutgers Law School in Newark, NJ.
  • Worm was originally supposed to smoke but avid nonsmoker Edward Norton refused.
  • Matt Damon and Edward Norton played in the $10,000 Main Event at the 1998 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. During the first of four days, Matt Damon was knocked out by poker legend Doyle Brunson.
  • Screenwriter Brian Koppelman came up with the idea for the script when he heard about a friend of a friend who made more money as a "rounder" than from his day job on Wall Street. He met the guy on a street corner in Manhattan and they went down to one of the clubs where Koppelman, a former A&R scout for a record company, was immediately hooked by the exotic environment. When he got home at 2:30 in the morning, he called his old friend Levien and told him about this great movie idea.
  • Matt Damon got paid $600,000 for his part in the movie.


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Seen at least a dozen times.

DHG on February 16, 2011

Well here is how I look at it...
He ended with just over 60 (which if the math is going to work out, is probably close to 61)
-15 to KGB/Grammer
-6 to the chesterfield
-10 to the professor

Now as for how he TURNED it into 60 (obviously doubling the 20 is only 40), when Mike steps back to the table after the famous "stick it in you" line, he says "reload at anytime". I've always presumed that KGB "reloaded" for another 20....

PokerDav on February 14, 2008

yeah, the I'm not sure if the money does add up and there were numerous threads around the internet having people outline where the money went. I think it was implied there was a few miscellaneous thousand dollars that were spent or made here and there.

Another thing about the movie was that I was a little surprised they didn't re-release the movie around 2004 or so after moneymaker made poker popular. I think they could have clocked another $20 million or so at the box office without much marginal cost. There were many people, including me, who also never got to see it on the big screen.

HPG ADMIN on March 16, 2007

This is a great review. I agree with pretty much everything said here. This movie cheers me up, and encourages me. I kind of like how this movie equates life to poker in an metaphorical way. I find myself referencing this movie a lot. My favorite scene/quote in the movie though is when he pulls Knish aside and tells him his story about beating Johnny Chan at the round of poker. I love it. Or, Martin Landau's line, "We can't run from who we are; our destiny chooses us...." What an awesome fucking movie. The only thing i didn't understand/like was the math of how he got back to 30,000. I can't remember how much he said he turned his money into, but it didn't add up to me, i remember. I'll have to check it out again. It's been a few months since i've seen it, but i've been feeling the urge. I've seen the movie hundreds of times. By the way, here's a link to a script of the movie: [url][/url]

Osceana on March 16, 2007

As far as how Mike ends up with that much money at the end is sort of a mystery. I agree that on the surface the math does not add up. If you recall however, when Mike wins the 10K and KGB talks him into playing again, as they are discussing raisings the blinds Mike says, "and feel free to reload at any time". I may not have the quote exactly right but you get the idea. Teddy may have gotten low on chips and got some more. Besides, they weren't paying a tournament. KGB could have brought more to the table for the second game for all we know. My point is that we are never really certain how much money was involved on KGB's side.

As far as why Grandma was pissed. I Think that there are two reasons. 1) Grandma was Worms "lacky" before worm went to prison. I think that Grandma bought up worms debt figuring on not betting paid. He just wanted to have leverage over worm and get worm in trouble with KGB (and the russian mob). It was a revenge thing. 2) Even though Grandma got paid back, it was really with his backers or partners money. His partner (KGB) being who he is, may or may not pay grandma. Actually Grandma probably borrowed KGBs money to buy worms debt. Grandma is really in a bad spot.

Unregistered on April 23, 2006

I am kinda like Kinish myself. Using low limit poker to make a living, feeling comfortable where I am. I could relate to his statements to Matt Damon about his "Pipe dreams" to win the world series of poker, and how he grinds out small wins every day to feed his family.

Andrew BCPoker on January 6, 2006

Norton should have gotten an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He nailed the character. Who hasn't had a "worm" in their life. Turturro did an excellent job with the character he had to work with. One of the quotes I feel that was missed above was when "worm" tells "Knish" "Keep up the noble work you're doing". All in all a 5 Star performance, a made straight on the flop.

Hydrophobia on December 11, 2005

amazing movie full of suspense. very real poker unlike that new show on espn (good show bad poker). this movie prolly got more kids in to poker then any other movie ever made. one love and burn one. oh and i love Joey Kinish because he is jewish(or looks jewish) and i just think that alone is funny.

pebbesen on December 11, 2005

The only problem I had, really, with this movie is: Why is Grandma so pissed at the end? I mean, KGB, I get. He's getting his money, but he doesn't like to lose, I see that. But Granma had nothing on the line, and he gets his money out of what mike won from teddy, so why is he so ticked? Comments about the review: The "English at the table" rule dates from the old west or at LEAST the turn of the century - one of my favorite cardrooms has a sign with the rule on it, and the *sign* has to be 50 years older then I am. Also, I think worm actually smoked in the movie (although norton just held a lit smoke or puffed on an unlit one) but the scenes were cut, I'm sure I remember them griping about it on the commentary, how they got norton to do it and then didn't end up using it.

JohnnyCache on September 30, 2005

My favorite movie..To reply to stealyourface...there were "titties" in the movie. There is a scene where Worm goes to a strip club, meets up with Gramo (or whatever), and gets beaten up and his money is stolen by Gramo.

hutch on September 25, 2005

DanH - the money matt damon won at the end was 40 thousand 10 doubled then 20 doubled but he pays back 15 to the russian 9 to pay off worms debt and ten back to the professor and has 30 for vegas how does he have that much money? this is what bothered me about the movie if I am wrong please email me. thanks

DanH on July 11, 2005

A sweet movie. You know you've accomplished something great when you've inspired millions to participate in something that many people call immoral. It's lines have become a staple at any poker table, almost annoyingly so. And on another note, Mike def should have banged Petra. Some titties in this movie would have been much appreciated.

stealyourface on March 24, 2005

Totally my favorite because the guy represents a true poker player that does'nt desire the fact to take it to ESPN,of course you know he could,but makes money just playing cards for a living which is my goal.And not only that he is full of wisdom and good beats and not to many players are.He represents the best of players on more than one level.These kind of players are one in a million.

Ash bassman786 on February 15, 2005

Im also thinking what happend to second version?? My thougts goes to the proffessor who was the one that told Mike to keep up the things ( poker ) that kept him "alive".My favorite quote is - While I sat down at that table I felt alive for the first time in 9 months!!!!

L`Artist on February 6, 2005

great movie. but where is the next one, they leave us hanging with mike goin to the w.s.o.p what happens whens he gets to vegas am i right?

ruzzo45 on January 20, 2005

I am only 25, but I have probably seen this movie somewhere between 500 and 700 times. My freshman year in college, I watched it every night before I went to bed. I still have an ex-girlfriend who when asks what I am doing and I say watching a moving still replys..."are you watching fucking rounders!!!" Which is usually followed by a yes. Even at 25 I can still remember when it was a back-room in the bar kind of poker washington and a casino in oregon you only have to be 19 to play poker...So now all my friends love to play and the movie...What could be better, I get to watch my favorite movie and when everyone is done they ar all geard up to play poker...then I get to take all the money too....LIFE IS GOOD ;)

theone on January 16, 2005

Great movie I watch it all the time. This is one one of those movies that make you feel like you are in the same room watching the action. slow pace but still very interesting and fun. Kinish was great, just laid back and cool. Not a showboat... knew he was the best and played the part well.

GWDGuy on January 5, 2005

best scenes in poker...i made a short film from KGB's perspective in college. this time mike has pocket 9s. (THE NUTS)I also go to school in the city and play in many clubs as well as deal at a club in midtown.

ssd240 on December 29, 2004

Truly a great movie. However, for someone who is so good at judging people he sure can not get a read on Edward Norton’s character. He should know that he is bad news – but what are friends for?I have searched the Internet everywhere for a transcript of the movie. Does anyone have or know where I can find a transcript? I am about to make my own. There are so many good lines in the movie.Thanks for your time,Little Chicago Bill

Little Chicago Bill on December 19, 2004

Its what cheers me up when I am feelin down. This movie and rolled-up aces over kings. So many great quotes and just a great poker movie.

RounderAAAA on December 1, 2004

I loved everything about this movie from the gratuitist narrating to John Malchovich over exaggerating his accent. I only pray they make a Rounders 2 Mike Takes on the WSOP.

Sonny on November 22, 2004

That girl is hot, I just wish she would have gotten naked.

Cory on November 16, 2004

Actually, his name is Gramma. Or at least that's how it's read in the subtitles. I'd assume it's a take-off from Graeme, which is a fairly common name, I think, among greek people. I could be way off on this.I'd also like to note that he is not my favorite character in the movie. I find it sad that Petra is not mentioned in this whole page. I know that she was only in a couple of scenes, but each scene that she was in, she was killer-hot! What was Mike thinking?!?? Anyways, very cool movie.

really? on November 13, 2004

The greatest fucking movie ever

ReboFace on October 12, 2004

Great movie and Malkovich would have been my favorite character, but his Russian accent was beyond bad. Otherwise, as unrealistic as the scene where he correctly calls every hand, the movie is perfectly shot.

Xirces on October 7, 2004

This movie is just the best gambling/Texas Holdem movie of all time. It's brought a lot of fish to my table who just love giving their money away to me trying to play fancy like Mike D did in the movie!

A_Real_Rounder on September 29, 2004

thats totally wrong jack, you cant only work once a week no matter how good of a day you had and still live a decent life.

yeah on September 27, 2004

How could you leave out "You vant a cookie?"!!! Great film, and it's getting more and more popular with the whole WSOP and WPT explosion. Lots of bandwagon jumpers, but I'm proud to say I saw it twice in theaters and later purchased the home version. The scene with Chan is priceless. Ed Norton is great as the shifty, fast-talking, doomed Worm. He needed to smoke, though. In the long run, I think this film will be mentioned as the film that did for poker what "The Hustler" did for billiards. One of my most watched and all-time faves.

goldminde on September 24, 2004

This is honestly the greatest gaming movie i have ever seen. John Malkovich plays the greatest russian. It is a must see to who ever hasnt seen it. The only greater crime than not betting 9's full of aces is not seeing this movie!!!!!!!!!!

Anaconda on September 22, 2004

Loved the movie although I tend to get frustrated when watching Mike interact with the other characters (Mainly Worm and his the chick). If Mike's so good at reading people, why couldn't he see through his friends bullshit, especially Worm. But will I buy the new special edition DVD? Of course

Benji on September 5, 2004

This was a great movie. I agree it was well ahead of the current boom in publicity, although, I think poker has been popular in many peoples basements. My favorite line is "I will splash the pot, when the f*ck I want!"

PigDog on August 22, 2004

Movie is great. But my favorite quote is by one of the regular player, I forget who, who says "Check-oslovakia". Another one jsut makes fun of KGB's accent, but whenever he talks and especially when he says check, once in a while at my games, someone will say it like that. Oh an d"I will splash the pot whenever I want" or something like that. I love watching that movie. I always have oreos on hand, so I can do what KGB does, and I follow the same rule as him, so if my friends realize it, they now waht I will do.

Ross on August 17, 2004

I think Kinish represents what most real players are about. Someone not looking to be on TV and be a star, but rather make a living by doing a job you can get away with only having to work once a week if you have a good day

jack on August 14, 2004

Charlie I do agree with Gill in that there has been a recent boom in the popularity of gambling, but I like to think that this increase in interest doesnt take anything away from the game itself or the movie despite yuppies talking smack and thinking they can take down the World series because they won a few games in their buddies basement. P.S. whats the quote that mike says when he goes to tell grandma that they dont have the money its something about having a reason can anyone help me out?

wired aces on August 11, 2004

I like this movie a lot. I love the one liners maybe would be the best if it weren't for Pulp Fiction. My favorite line isn't posted here if anyone remembers exactly let us know. But it goes a little something like this.--I bet your kicking yourself for not walking away when you had the chance--bad judgement--With "bad judgement" being my favorite. Oh ya I just remembered, "You must feel proud and good""Strong enough to beat the world" "Nobody can push you around"Also I must comment on Gills comment about bandwagon poker people. Hasn't poker always been insanely popular? I've been playing since I was 5, and most everybody at least knows how to play 5 card draw. What does everyone else think about this? Are more people playing now than before?

charlie on August 2, 2004

One of my fav movies till all these bandwagon poker people found out about poker because of the WPT....

Gill on August 1, 2004

I'd like to give this movie 4 stars, but because there isn't another modern poker movie it gets a 1-star bonus. John Malkovich, Ed Norton, and Matt Damon kick ass in the best poker/gambling movie I've ever seen.

Ismality on July 27, 2004

During a rainy day, I decided to pop in my video copy of Rounders, and let's just say that I loved the movie. The poker play is very realistic, the plot continues to thicken as the movie goes along, and most of all, Johnny Chan was in it! Johnny fuckin' Chan!

Tom Delgado on July 24, 2004

The Best Poker Movie Ever!

Mechanics Grip on July 24, 2004

Really good movie. If you have the DVD, after watching it a few times, just skip every scene with Gretchen Mol (Mike's GF). While hot, she sucks the life out of the movie. Skipping her scenes cuts the movie to about 40 minutes of the best poker scenes caught in cinema.

head1021 on July 7, 2004