|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|
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.
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 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.
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.
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