If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table then you are the sucker.
That’s the opening line to Rounders, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and regarded as one of the greatest poker movies of all time. This is a pretty good assessment, considering that most poker movies are complete nonsense. All in all, this one hits the mark in that its entertaining and fairly realistic, even for those who understand poker.
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a working class kid from New York City who plays underground poker and uses his winnings to pay his way through law school. A talented mid-stakes player, Mike McD takes a shot at a high-stakes game in an underground club run by the eccentric Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a member of the Russian mob. Mike McDs mentor, Joey Knish (John Turturro), a poker pro who has never had to work a day job, warns him to stay away from the sharks, especially Teddy KGB. Alas, Mike McD loses his entire bankroll of $30,000 to Teddy KGB playing no-limit Texas Holdem in a scene that starts the movie off with a pretty good bang.
Anyone who understands poker will know that this scene is absolutely gut-wrenching. After all five community cards are dealt, Mike has made a full house and feels absolutely amazing, ready to double up. However, it turns out to be a sick cooler and KGB takes everything Mike has, sending him home to face the music and pick up the pieces.
Joey Knish offers to stake Mike McD until he gets back on his feet, but Mike McD decides to quit and focus on law school instead.
Flash forward to almost a year later Mike McD drives a delivery truck at night while attending classes during the day. Mike McD impresses his professor, Petrovsky, and a group of poker-playing judges when he accidentally crashes the Judges Game in a scene that is pretty fun to watch because Mike is borderline obnoxious and nobody kicks him out. Anyway, Mike McD helps Petrovsky win a hand and, using his people reading skills and mathematical aptitude, correctly guesses everyone else’s hands at the table. Fat chance that this could go down in real life, but entertaining nonetheless.
Mike McDs straitlaced and fairly hateable girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) is a fellow law student who does not approve of Mike McDs affinity for cards. She gets upset when he tells her he played cards with Professor Petrovsky and a judge. She grows even more suspicious when he says his childhood friend Worm (Edward Norton) is finally getting out of prison for credit card fraud.
Upon his release, Worm is deep in debt to a low-level gangster and needs to raise cash quickly. When Mike McD picks up Worm, Worm convinces him to play in a soft game with rich college kids, who play poker at a suburban mansion. The poker hiatus is over for Mike McD and he helps Worm easily hustle the rich kids for fast cash.
Upon his return to NYC, Worm hits the tables right away, cheats a couple of Russian mob guys, and borrows money on Mike McDs tab from his local club, the Chesterfield.
Meanwhile, Mike McDs girlfriend is livid that hes gone back to playing poker. She sifts through his pockets while hes in the shower and finds his bankroll in his pants pocket (I betcha shes probably the type of crazy girlfriend who checks his phone for text messages and reads his email too). She dumps Mike McD and moves out without telling him. You always taught me to fold a losing hand. Anyone in their right mind is glad to see her leave. Good riddance, Jo.
Worm tries to console his best friend with the worst (but most hysterical) bit of advice: In the poker game of life women are the rake.
Mike McD decides only one thing can get him over heartbreak a road trip to Atlantic City to play poker at the Taj where the sand turns to gold.
At the poker room in Atlantic City, Mike McD runs into characters he knows from NYC card rooms like Joey Knish. The NYC rounders fleece overmatched tourists, but they dont beat up on each other. During a montage revealing the obvious tells on tourists faces, the voice-over explains, Its like the nature channel. You dont see piranhas eating each other, do you?
In the most unrealistic scene in the movie, Petra (Famke Janssen) from the Chesterfield stops by Mike McDs empty apartment to collect the weekly juice (5 points a week) on the loan Worm took out on his account. She practically throws herself at Mike McD and he refuses to have sex with her in favor of watching a VCR tape of the 1988 WSOP when Johnny Chan trapped Erik Seidel to win the WSOP Main Event. What a joke. This would never happen in real life and leaves the viewer wondering what is wrong with our check-raising hero.
Worm has a strict deadline $15,000 in 5 days to pay back his debt to a loan shark backed by Teddy KGB. Mike McD helps Worm by playing as much poker as he can. Starting with around $1,000, Mike McD stays up for two days playing in games around NYC, and the pair get themselves in some pretty rough situations.
While there are some really cool scenes involving poker, which are fairly realistic given the fact that this movie was written before the poker boom, the best part of Rounders is the cast. Most crappy poker movies we’ve seen (like the horrific romantic comedy joke of a film Lucky You) feature a couple of big names and a lot of low budget actors to fill in the gaps. However, the cast of Rounders most notably Damon, Norton, and Turturro really deliver and make this movie watchable, even for those who have never touched a deck of cards.
Oh, and lets not forget the entertaining scenes featuring the amazing Martin Landau, who plays Mikes law professor and unexpected confidant, Petrovsky. He’s almost a father figure to Mike, which helps motivate him at the tables in a deeper way than his degeneracy or loyalty to Worm do. We only wish we had father figures who would bail us out with sacks of cash in the middle of the night,but that’s another story.
If you haven’t seen Rounders, you should definitely give it a go. Its entertainment value and suspense make it worth a watch, and anyone who’s a fan of poker or who wants to see John Malkovich do a terrible Russian accent – will certainly enjoy it.
MEMORABLE QUOTES AND ONE-LINERS:
- If you’re too careful, your entire life can be a fucking grind.
- Always leave yourself outs.
- You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.
- Stop speaking fucking Sputnik. I know you’re talking about pierogis and snow and shit, but cut it out.
- It hurts doesn’t it? Your hopes dashed, your dreams down the toilet. And your fate is sitting right beside you.