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Steve Friess: 25 Years Later, Poker’s Cult Classic, ‘Rounders,’ Still Holds Up

Written By Steve Friess on September 5, 2023
Steve Friess State Of Play 'Rounders' Still Resonates

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


 

Forty minutes into the classic poker film “Rounders,” which debuted at the Venice Film Festival 25 years ago this week, there is a key moment. It’s the exchange that seals it as the perfect movie for a very specific cohort of young heterosexual men with killjoy girlfriends, wives, parents and friends.

Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, and Jo, his soon-to-be ex played by Gretchen Mol, are arguing because she discovered he lied when he said he’d been out partying all night with an old friend who was just released from prison. Instead, he was cleaning up at some private poker game, but he didn’t tell her because he had promised he’d quit that grind after he lost his bankroll to an unhinged John Malkovich.

People wax philosophic about how authentic “Rounders” was, how it showed the gritty poker underground of New York City in a way that made it seem both terrifying and super cool.

All of that is true. But for my money, it is the argument between Mike and Jo that turns “Rounders” into one of the three foundational pillars — along with the advent of the hole-card cam and the 2003 WSOP victory of everyman Chris Moneymaker — for America’s turn-of-the-century poker boom.

Damon says the thing every wannabe Doyle Brunson wishes he had the presence to say when faced with doubters:

Mike: “Why does this still seem like gambling to you? I mean why do you think the same five guys make it to the Final Table at the World Series of Poker every single year? What are they, the luckiest guys in Las Vegas? It’s a skill game, Jo.”

Jo: “Great. So why’d you have to lie to me?”

Mike: “Because I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

Jo: “Understand what?”

Mike: “Last night, I sat down at this card table. I felt alive for the first time since I got busted at KGB, OK?” 

Jo: “You just told me you felt alive for the first time at a f**king card table. What’s that supposed to make me understand?”

A first for gambling on film

Jo stalks off in a huff before Mike can reply, but the viewers of a certain ilk know the answer. In fact, for perhaps the very first time in the history of cinematic gambling, the viewers of a certain ilk are validated by a movie character. Mike is a law student with a gorgeous, even fun-loving — she was OK with him partying, remember! — law student girlfriend poised by the end of the movie to throw all of that away because his truest, deepest passion is poker.

In virtually every other movie about gambling before and since, all of that is a setup for tragedy, a cautionary tale about the price of addiction.

Not “Rounders.” “Rounders” is basically “Rocky” on a green felt. And it’s very satisfying that way, too, right down to the delicious moment that Malkovich’s eccentric Russian mobster character realizes his tell is how he eats Oreos. Never mind he’s supposed to be the best of the best of the New York poker underworld; our hero is able to unlock the mystery just in time to save the day before the goons can kick the stuffing out of him.

Poker as an essence of a man, not a vice

For “Rounders” to become the seminal film it is, it required this conversation and one other one between Mike and his law-school mentor, Abe Petrovsky, played by Martin Landau. The prof sees Mike’s brilliant poker mind and senses the moral internal struggle his protégé feels over whether to stay on the “respectable” path of becoming a lawyer or heading to Vegas to play at the Mirage.

Petrovsky tells a story about how his parents disowned him because he shucked his family’s tradition of men becoming rabbis to instead go into the law. As a result, his father never spoke to him again.

Petrovsky: “I mean, I felt deeply inside that it was what I was born to do.”

Mike: “If you had to do it all over again, would you make the same choices?”

Petrovsky: “What choice? The last thing I took from the Yeshiva was, we can’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us.”

Think about that. A major movie, with top-shelf stars, offers a message that being a poker player could be as fundamental to a person’s essence as being a lawyer or being gay or any other calling or piece of one’s identity.

Just what poker needed, exactly when it needed it

Rocky didn’t need to convince Adrian that his dream of being a boxing champ was legitimate, even noble. Principal Tami Taylor (aka Mrs. Coach) never needed persuading in “Friday Night Lights” that football was a good idea for her students. In “Hoosier” and “The Bad News Bears,” nobody needs to tell the parents that basketball or baseball is wholesome and redeeming.

But poker needed “Rounders.”

The great film critic Roger Ebert saw this. In his review on Sept. 11, 1998, long before lines from this film fell from the lips of a thousand poker stars who took it as their inspiration, Ebert wrote:

“’Rounders’ cheerfully buys into compulsive gambling. The hero gambles away his tuition money, his girlfriend, his law degree and nearly his life, and at the end he’s still a happy gambler. If this movie were about alcoholism, the hero would regain consciousness after the DTs and order another double. Most gambling movies are dire warnings; this one is a recruiting poster. … Since the genre insists on a victory at the end, the movie has to be in favor of poker; you don’t see Rocky deciding to retire because of brain damage.”

Never mind that in “Rocky V,” which came out eight years earlier, Rocky actually does retire because of brain damage.

Ebert’s prescient point stands. The movie is “in favor of poker.”

But “Rounders” also does one other intriguing thing: It makes good poker players seem, shall I say it, honest and hardworking?

It comes down hard on Edward Norton’s character, who cheats. It has empathy for John Turturro’s character, who grinds out a living without taking any big, glamorous swings, because his north star isn’t Vegas stardom and riches but paying his mortgage and feeding his children.

And, most notably, at the moment when we think Mike could be in physical danger after demolishing Malkovich’s stack, the understandably enraged Russian mobster nonetheless orders his goons to stand down. “He beat me,” he announces in his syrupy, absurdist Russian accent. “Straight up. Pay him.”

A movie that plays its cards just right

So, 25 years later, does “Rounders,” which now streams on Paramount Plus, hold up as both a movie and a poker movie?

Sure. The card action feels real, the pithy axioms about the gambling and poker life still ring true. The pre-Internet of it all feels charming and accurate, too. Set in any other time, with a million blogs and hole cards and cell phones and apps, it would have lost its edgy and sense of suspense. Maybe that’s why they never bothered with a sequel, even as Damon himself has said he’d do it.

“Rounders” actually did pretty badly at the box office. It made a mere $22.9 million, lasted in theaters for three weeks and got blistered by bad reviews. But that come-from-behind fate, too, only enhanced its popularity among the people who would build it into a cult classic.

The movie plays its cards just right in more ways than one. First-time screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien anticipated a day when audiences would see a guy quitting law school and giving up his woman for a life at the tables in Vegas as a reasonable, calculated, be-true-to-thyself choice.

Twenty-five years later, everyone gambles and everyone wishes they could make a living at it.

No wonder “Rounders” still resonates.

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Photo by Associated Press (Damon); illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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