In 2003, an amateur player by the improbable name of Chris Moneymaker won the main event in the World Series Of Poker, netting a prize of $2.5 million from an initial investment of less than 40 bucks. (He won his $10,000 seat by taking first place in an online satellite tournament.) Just three years later, no-limit Texas Hold ’Em—a relatively obscure game up to that point, played almost exclusively by professionals—was popular enough to serve as the third-act showpiece for the James Bond reboot, Casino Royale. Of course, it was still Movie Poker, predicated on combinations of hands so statistically unlikely that a real player could sit at the table for years on end without ever encountering them. In the final hand, Bond triumphs (spoiler!) by virtue of making a straight flush against an ordinary flush and two different full houses; merely switch his cards with villain Le Chiffre’s and no amount of rugged savoir faire would prevent nuclear annihilation, or whatever atrocity Le Chiffre was prepared to broker if he won. (It’s a MacGuffin, leave me alone.)
On the other hand, just five years before Moneymaker singlehandedly launched the poker boom, Rounders attempted to depict the game as it’s actually played by the denizens of New York’s various underground clubs. Having spent an unholy number of hours in such clubs myself, I can confirm that it’s far and away the most accurate poker movie ever made, though nowadays you’d have to show the joint being raided by cops or robbed at gunpoint within a few weeks of opening. (I was there when Playstation on 14th Street got busted. No fun whatsoever.) The game has evolved so dramatically since 1998 (or at least since 2003), however, that the moves screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman portray as brilliant now look downright antiquated. Consider the final hand between Matt Damon and John Malkovich, itself based on Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel’s final showdown at the 1988 WSOP.
Actually, let’s get Malkovich’s scenery chewing out of the way first. (He’s thrown away the Oreos, right before this scene begins, but is clearly still hungry.) Reportedly, Malkovich based this characterization on an actual Russian player known as Eddie KGB (renamed Teddy KGB for the movie), who really did have an accent thicker than congealed phlegm. But his super-sized performance is very much in the tradition of this sort of heads-up match, in which the villain always provides a colorful, splenetic counterpoint to the hero’s taciturn stillness—see also Edward G. Robinson as The Man vs. Steve McQueen as The Cincinnati Kid, or (to cite a different game) Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats vs. Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie in The Hustler. You need at least one player who’s a live wire, otherwise the audience is apt to fall asleep. (This is just as true when it comes to real poker on TV, which is why producers try to ensure the presence of a high-energy clown like Phil Laak or Mike “The Mouth” Matusow.)
Ironically, the mistake Rounders makes in this scene comes not from letting Malkovich run wild, but from allowing Damon just a little too much personality. Just before the clip begins, Damon spots Malkovich’s big “tell,” observing that he handles his Oreos a different way when he has an unbeatable hand than when he’s bluffing. (To the film’s sizable credit, this is never spelled out in dialogue.) In two decades of playing poker on a regular basis, I’ve never seen a physical tell that pronounced. But I see Damon’s tell all the time. When Malkovich bets $2,000 on the flop (the first three community cards, shared by both players), Damon says, “Okay, I’ll call the 2,000, I’ll gamble.” To any knowledgeable player, those words translate as, “Got me the joint, sucker.” Unless Damon is executing some sort of incredibly complex triple-reverse fakeout (of which there’s no other evidence in the scene), he’s just attempted to disguise great strength by feigning weakness, which is the level of deception employed by total rookies. And Malkovich apparently, and improbably, falls for it, asking, “You’re on a draw, Mike?”
More to the point, today a great player would try to sell that he’s drawing to the straight, as opposed to already sitting on it, by betting and raising, not by checking and calling. Rounders sets up Damon’s passive, give-him-enough-rope strategy by showing that Chan beat Seidel in ’88 using the same method, and it was probably still effective in ’98, especially against an overly agg-ree-essive player like Teddy KGB. Now, everybody with a basic, working knowledge of the game is agg-ree-essive, and repeatedly checking and then calling a big bet is tantamount to announcing that you have your opponent crushed. If Rounders were being made today, with the same eye toward accuracy, Damon would likely move all-in on the flop, hoping that Malkovich will assume that he has a hand like 9-7 (a pair plus an inside straight draw) and might call with as little as a pair of 10s. That move risks making him fold if in fact he has nothing, but if he has nothing, he’s not likely to bluff away his entire stack anyway. Especially if you note that his flop bet is $2,000 into a $400 pot. Anyone who calls that overbet is gonna be hard to chase away.
(Longish aside: Rounders makes it seem as if Chan’s victory over Seidel was due to unconventional genius, when in fact it was effectively what poker players call a “cooler”—a case in which there wasn’t much the losing hand could do to avoid going broke. In their final hand, shown twice in Rounders, Seidel holds queen-7 against Chan’s jack-9, and the flop comes queen-10-8, giving Seidel top pair and Chan a straight. In a heads-up match, with the forced bets as enormous as they are at a tournament’s final table, the player with top pair in this scenario is almost always going down in flames. Not only was Seidel not cleverly manipulated into losing all his chips, as Rounders suggests, he was arguably attempting to cleverly manipulate Chan into losing all his chips, assuming—as would be the case much more often than not—that his own pair of queens is the best hand. In other words, I don’t think it much mattered how Chan chose to play his straight. Even if he’d bet or raised at some point, rather than checking, I doubt Seidel was going anywhere.)
Interestingly, we never do see what Malkovich was holding. That he explodes in anger when Damon turns over his straight and cries, “He trap me!” implies that he had something fairly strong himself, and wasn’t merely attempting a triple-barrel bluff. But I admire Levien and Koppelman (and director John Dahl) for choosing not to reveal it, as it’s unlikely that the losing player would willingly expose his cards, thereby giving away free information about his tactics to a shrewd opponent. (By the same token, Damon really ought to have waited for Malkovich to turn his cards over—the rule is that the bettor shows first, then the caller—in order to gain that information. But it’s kind of a dick move when you know for certain you have the winner, and the character’s been well-established as a nice guy, so that rings true as well.) If I had to guess, I’d say that Malkovich had a set (three of a kind, with a pair in your hand matching one of the community cards), and was attempting exactly the sort of sophisticated modern-day feint—betting strong when you really are strong—that Damon would likely employ were the hand being played today. And if that’s the case, then, again, it doesn’t ultimately matter what either player does. All the money’s headed for the middle regardless. In my personal, often maddening experience, movie poker doesn’t get more realistic than that.