Why Was Rounders a Great Movie for Poker?

4 years ago
Why Was Rounders a Great Poker Movie?
31 May

Watching the movie Rounders is a pleasure for any poker player. Matt Damon and Edward Norton headline the 120 minute movie that was released in 1998. It had a production budget of $12 million and grossed $23 million in the United States. It didn't exactly set records for money earned, yet it retains a loyal following via it’s cult status that, nearly 20 years on, continues to entertain and interest the poker community. There has been talk of a sequel which has the poker community very excited indeed.

Of course the acting throughout the movie is excellent and because it is so believable, we are easily captured by its main plot and various sub-plots. But this alone does not explain the appeal of Rounders. Why is the movie so great for poker? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons Rounders got it so right.

There is a bit of Mike McDermott in all of us

From the very first words of the movie, the main character Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, informs of that:

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.”

This immediately lets us know McDermott is not the sucker. In fact, he is the shark in most poker situations. But we learn that he has also made a promise to a loved one that he will not play poker anymore, hence his struggle.

Straight away we relate to the main character. How many of us have struggled to explain to someonethat poker is a game of skill and not pure gambling? How many of us have watched as our loved ones looked at us with concern, thinking that as we explain this concept we are, in fact, only kidding ourselves? We have all collected a nice win and told someone about it only for them to view it as a lucky one-off as our inevitable slide towards oblivion continues. We find it incredibly easy to connect to Mike McDermott as we have all faced similar struggles.

Do you know a “Worm”?

You will know someone like Worm, played by Edward Norton, who is carefree, gung-ho, and always needs your help in life and in poker. You feel that you need to watch their back and help them as they are not the best at taking care of themselves.

Rounders captures perfectly that when a poker friend that is down on their luck they might come to you for help. When they ask for a stake, poker etiquette urges you to be sympathetic and remember that if you can help you should help. You often feel obliged to help but you know that they are not necessarily reliable. They are not malicious but your better judgment pulls you back. Then you help them anyway. The movie utilises this risky loyalty as one of its main themes.

You may not know someone like Worm, but you certainly know the devil on your shoulder that urges you to be more reckless than you know is sensible. There is an urge sometimes to take a shot and live a little. There is even a little bit of Worm inside Mike McDermott too, otherwise he would not have taken the shot that had him going busto in the first scene.

Rounders Gives Out Good Lessons

Mike McDermott acts out of character at the beginning of the movie when he loses it all to Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, but we all have moments when we make a really bad choice. As it happens, McDermott does everything right in the hand. He reads the action well and the only hand that can beat him turns out to be the hand held by Teddy, it's just a nasty cooler. He loses everything and is destroyed. Rounders lets the public see the downside. You can lose everything even if you do things right if you do not manage your bankroll properly. We note throughout the movie that everything would have been fine if McDermott had managed his bankroll.

Every player has played a session where theyleft wishing we had stayed at home. Before McDermott loses everything the successful grinder who plays poker the right way, Joey Knish, pulls him to once side and begs him not to risk his whole bankroll. McDermott acknowledges Knish is a long-term winner by adopting a cautious style and even admits he should follow his lead, but for whatever reason he feels he must take his shot. The movie openly urges viewers to note the right move in that situation. Taking a shot is not recommended and Rounders subtly implies you should aspire to approach poker like Knish instead.

McDermott’s relationship with his beautiful girlfriend, law student Jo played by Gretchen Mol, ends because she hates poker. We empathise with her as she sees the downsides to the game and lives with the swings when McDermott comes home a loser. We are told McDermott is a big winner in the games and we understand the edge he therefore holds at the tables. We wish she understood it too, but she does not so they go their separate ways. The movie suggests Jo is headed to the less exciting but lucrative world of law and we expect she makes it in that field. The movie reminds us there is more than one path to success.

Poker Solidarity & Integrity

Pay him. Pay that man his money.”

Teddy KGB is a nasty character and he reacts badly when he loses the final hand in the movie, the hand that sees McDermott triumph when his life literally depends on it. But after the initial tilt, Teddy admits that he lost fairly and he instructs his henchmen to pay McDermott his winnings.

This shows an integrity that in poker, by and large, you find at the poker tables. Providing the game is straight, this zero sum game creates a winner and it creates a loser in each and every hand and we all understand this fundamental poker reality. Teddy accepts his defeat and we do not begrudge him initially expressing unhappiness at losing. Despite his many other failings, Teddy ultimately does the right thing by pokers standards. We respect that poker has delivered this integrity where there it is suggested there is little integrity elsewhere in his life.

Rounders is a great movie but not simply because it is about poker. It is carefully produced to paint an authentic picture of the good and bad aspects of the gambling lifestyle of a poker player. It is honest enough to say that poker offers opportunity to those brave and skilled enough to work hard enough at it to succeed, but a price can be paid if you are the fish in the game.

The fantastic actors and actresses throughout the two hours of action play the characters to perfection allowing us to enjoy a good story with twists and turns. We are drip fed essential poker lessons as the movie progresses. We root for Mike McDermott to rediscover himself as a winning poker player and to eventually collect all the chips and we are ultimately left satisfied.

If they do make a sequel to Rounders, I hope they do the original justice. It will not be easy.

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Malcolm comes from Consett in the North East of England and is an avid poker player and writer.Read more


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