Poker Movie Review: Rounders (1998)

Talking about Poker Movies I cannot ignore Matt Damon & Edward Norton in this very underrated movie about a poker rounder who turns to high stakes poker to help a friend out of a bad spot. Rounders (1998) remains one of the most popular Poker movies on the market.

The movie starts as Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) loses his entire bankroll of $30,000 playing against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) who runs an illegal poker room that Mike plays regularly in. Sickened by this loss he decides to concentrate on his law studies promising his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he is now done with cards and will not play anymore. He is so sure that he does not want to play poker that he takes a delivery driver job rather than be staked into a game. On one delivery he stops at his professor’s house where a home game is ensuing. To the surprise of the professors he demonstrates his card prowess, but still he refuses to play. The professor respects his skills and backs him when he is in a rough spot later in the movie.

Once Les “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison the action hots up with Mike being enticed back into the card games. But Worm is careless and ends up in a spot of bother owing money to a very unsavory character. Mike is forced into a worse situation than when he loses the $30,000 in the opening scene and bets it all to get back to even. Worm gives the movie an edge and is slightly out of control, not taking care to put himself first and making poker a dangerous thing for Mike to associate with.

The movie is well produced with a nice reference to the fact you can actually win money from poker if you are good enough. The struggle with his girlfriend Jo, who is completely anti-gambling is true to life of a lot of poker players who’s family worry about their increased gambling activity. Mike can see their point, but he has belief in his skills and he feels that he must play to take advantage of the opportunities. It is pushed throughout the film that poker is a game of skill that is subject to luck, rather than the other way around.

The ending is neither a positive or negative one. The movie ends with Mike going to the World Series of Poker, having proved to himself he can win by having played a hand against Johnny Chan before the film begins. Significantly after beating Teddy KGB he only ends up with as much money as he starts with, giving reference to the fact poker is no guaranteed route to success. We learn that beating Chan in a pot was the was the basis of him taking a shot at Teddy KGB in the opening scene as he had believed he was good enough to win. He learns throughout the film that apart from the knowledge he is good enough, having no money to play is what stops him fulfilling his potential and thus bankroll management becomes a key theme throughout the movie with staking, loaning and paying back debt all covered in detail.

I found the movie to be a realistic portrayal of poker. It touches on staking and taking shots, as well as both appreciating and mocking the tight careful player Knish (played by John Turturro) who grinds a steady living as risk free as possible. The young player Worm is the reckless young player caught up in the gamble and taking too many risks, whilst the main character Damon is somewhere in the middle. Most poker players will be able to identify with one of these characters. Even the bad guys in the movie are honest enough to pay up when they lose. Street credibility and honour is prevalent throughout the movie where these players live dangerously but in a perverse way watch each others back, with begrudging respect to their fellow gamblers.

This DVD is a must see for poker players. Norton and Damon both play excellent parts and are convincing as poker players. The movie gives a good all-round account of poker, with the benefit of finishing on a more optimistic note than some other poker movies like The Cincinnati Kid.

By Malcolm Clarke