November isn’t just the season of Thanksgiving and pumpkin lattes. It also marks Tinseltown’s biggest movie studio releases and the closing ceremony of the World Series of Poker (WSOP). In celebration of the latter two events, let’s look back at a film that pays homage to classic film themes and high-stakes poker, Rounders.
Originally released in 1998, Rounders follows two poker-loving friends, Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon who seems to enjoy good-guy roles where he plays against a more volatile character) and Lester Murphy (Edward Norton). While Mike is a naturally gifted law student by day and a poker player by night, his old pal Lester—nicknamed “Worm”—is an ex-con who cheats his way to cash finishes.
Mike’s dream is to make it to the highly acclaimed World Series of Poker. For those unfamiliar with the professional poker circuit, the WSOP is the Oscars of the poker world. Dating back to the 1970s, the WSOP has hundreds of events with the biggest one called the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em World Championship. This is the match that Mike wants to make it to. Sadly, during a Texas Hold’em game against Russian mobster KGB (John Malkovich), Mike loses his entire $30,000 bankroll. Shaken by the loss of their savings, he promises his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he’s quitting poker.
Enter Worm, who’s just been released from prison and wants to get rich fast. Norton fleshes Worm out to be more charismatic and authoritative—much like Norton himself who recently used his poker know-how to dissect former POTUS Trumps’ “hand”. Using this charm, Worm tries to convince Mike to join him, but Mike refuses. Soon, Worm racks up debt—$6,000 of which is under Mike’s credit. Of course, Worm can’t pay this back, which is a problem for the duo since a large chunk of this money is owed to KGB himself.
At this point, Mike has no choice but to fall back into the life he had sworn off. Together with Worm, the two go on a series of games (where the name Rounders comes from) where Mike enjoys a winning streak. These scenes are perhaps the best of the film as they’re delivered in a fast-paced and immersive style that makes you root for the unlikely pair. Unfortunately, during the last 48 hours before their debt’s deadline, the pair joins an ill-fated poker game with New York State troopers. Though Mike is doing well, Worm’s hustler tactics get them beaten up and relieved of their bankroll. Back at square one, the two cut ties, and Worm flees.
Alone, Mike asks KGB for more time but is refused. His actions have also turned off his mentor John Knish (John Turturro) who won’t loan him cash. After an impassioned plea where he explains why he thinks he can make it all the way to the WSOP, he turns to his old law school professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau) who loans him $10,000. With his new bankroll, Mike challenges KGB to a winner-takes-all game. Mike wins the round but is goaded to keep playing. This time, the game is much closer until Mike spots KGB’s tell. Sure that he can provoke the mobster into playing on a tilt, Mike manipulates KBG into going all-in before wiping him clean. The movie ends with Mike settling his debts and making his way to play in the WSOP.
Why Does Rounders Hold Up?
Admittedly, when Rounders first came out, it was met with a lukewarm reception. Perhaps it was because this was before the 2000s poker boom or because it was before its lead stars earned more mainstream acclaim. But over time Rounders has earned a cult status. Many credit the film for getting them into poker, including poker star Chris Moneymaker. Nowadays, the film is praised for its replay value. More than 20 years later, Rounders is still often credited as partly why Norton and Damon are avid poker fans. Rounders is still often credited as partly why Norton and Damon are avid poker fans. In 2020, Matt Damon even took part in a charity poker tournament with fellow celebrities. The game included other celebrities like Ben Affleck, Tom Brady, and Jon Hamm, with all proceeds going to Feeding America.
Rounders may not be a unique or faultless movie, but it still deals a strong hand. Backed by powerful performances and set within a gritty and intoxicating poker realm, Rounders is a solid movie to put on your watch list.
Also published on Medium.