Rounders Review4 years ago
Rounders is the most beloved poker movie of all time. No other film captures that degen lifestyle many of us fantasize about in quite the same way. And of course, in many ways, Rounders is just that - a fantasy. For example, if you are currently planning on playing Head’s Up NLHE for your life against a Russian mob boss, I would strongly advise you against it, there are easier ways to make three stacks of “high-society”.
That said, there are some real lessons about life that can be learned from the trials of legendary rounder, Mike McDermott.
Lesson #1: Our Choices Matter
Rounders is fundamentally a movie about the consequences of our choices. Mike’s decision to blow up the possibility of a stable life in order to pursue his passion of being a card player is the most obvious, but it’s not the only one. Rounders also shows us that our choices don’t affect us in isolation, they also impact the people around us.
The best example of this is the scene where Mike confronts Worm in the same high school gym he’s been using to hide from his problems since childhood. When Worm tells Mike, “I’m not going to let anyone drop a garbage can on my head,” Mike replies “No, you’re going to get out of the way - it’s going to land on me.” Despite all of Worm’s character flaws, Mike is the only friend he has ever known. Worm didn’t intend to get Mike into trouble, but by being blind to the effect of his choices on other people, that’s exactly what he does.
When making decisions, it’s important to remember that you don’t operate in a vacuum. The idea that your choices won’t have any repercussions on those closest to you is selfish. The reality is that our choices can - and do - affect those that we care about. True, your loved ones don’t have the right to tell you what to do, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking them into account before making a choice that might have negative consequences for them.
Lesson #2: Be Disciplined or Prepare to Be humbled
When Mike is desperate for cash to rebuild his bankroll, he turns to his mentor Joey Knish. Although Joey has been there for Mike thought his poker career and life, this time he refuses to help:
I told you a lot of things, and you don’t listen. I tell you to play within your means, you risk your whole bankroll
Knish respects discipline because it’s what got him to where he is. He’s shown himself to be a good friend to Mike, but that only goes so far. Knish isn’t willing to help someone looking for the easy way out, and that’s because a man whose mind is set on the easy way won’t be able to accomplish anything. He says to Mike:
If I give you two grand what’s that buy you? A day? I give it to you, I’m wasting it."
When we are making quick progress towards something, it’s easy to remain committed to a steady course of action, but there are always problems and stall-outs along the way to any goal. Those are the times when even the most committed of us can get tired of the daily grind. But those are exactly the same times when drawing up a plan and committing to it - day in, and day out - is most important.
By humbling Mike into accepting the consequences of his actions - even if it means his death - Knish makes a powerful statement: someone who lacks discipline in the tough times is not only undeserving of being helped, they’re also a lost cause.
Lesson #3: Remain true to yourself
Out of options, and almost out of time, Mike finally turns to Professor Petrovsky for help in desperation. When Petrovsky responds with the story of how his father cast him out of the house for refusing to become a Rabbi, Mike asks him if he would make the same choices again. The professor’s response - “What choice?” - is one of the most powerful lines in any movie, ever.
Too often, we let others dictate how we live our lives. The agency we have to live our own lives as we choose is arguably the most human thing about us. And yet, we worry so much about others’ approval and judgement of our actions that many of us wind up spending our whole lives miserable, stuck doing not what we want but what we think others expect from us.
The reality is that a life wholly spent trying to please other people is a wasted life.
Lesson #4: You can’t get anywhere if you don’t take risks
After making back the money he owes Teddy KGB in a second HUNLHE match, Mike begins to walk away. Teddy is too frustrated for that though, and tries to goad Mike into letting his winnings ride in a second match. Mike knows the safe thing to do is to walk away, but the possibility of playing a tilted Teddy KGB for high stakes is a huge opportunity. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the whole movie:
I told Worm you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win much, either.”
In the end, Mike’s calculated risk is rewarded with the iconic line, “Pay that man…pay that man his money,” as he gets himself back up to his original bankroll of $30k:
Lesson #5: Life is about the journey
In Rounders’ final scene, Mike gets into a NYC cab to start his journey to Las Vegas:
First prize at the World Series of Poker is a million bucks. Does it have my name on it? I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
The reality is that Mike doesn’t know if he will realize his dream, or if he will end up flat broke. But either way, what’s important is the decision to take the journey in the first place.
If we needed to know that we would reach a goal before trying to accomplish it, we would never achieve anything. The satisfaction of realizing a dream only comes from the uncertainty that surrounded it at the start.
Anything worth doing in life is hard; insulating yourself from risk is a surefire way to lead a boring, unfulfilled, and meaningless life.
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