The New Cult Canon: Rounders

The New Cult Canon: Rounders

"What's the difference between a large cheese pizza and a professional poker player? A large cheese pizza can feed a family of four." —Five-time World Series Of Poker bracelet-winner Chris Ferguson

A thought: Has there been a more influential film in the last 10 or 12 years than Rounders? The question sounds ridiculous on its face, since there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about its neo-noir trappings (familiar from other John Dahl films, like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction) or its story about the powerful and sometimes destructive bonds of friendship. And yet how many movies can claim to have lit the fuse on a multi-billion-dollar industry? There's been some chicken-or-the-egg argument about how the "poker boom" started, but little argument over when: The 2003 World Series Of Poker, when an accountant from Tennessee by the magical name of Chris Moneymaker won first prize in the main event, to the tune of $2.5 million. Unlike the poker legends who won the event in the past—your Doyle Brunsons and Stu Ungars—Moneymaker was an amateur, playing his first live poker tournament, after having qualified via a $39 online satellite tournament. And with his doughy features and aw-shucks demeanor in the face of improbable victory, Moneymaker sent a message to every beer-swilling, hockey-shirt-donning, low-stakes home-game champion in the country: With a few lucky turns of the cards, this could be you.

Moneymaker cited Rounders as a primary source of inspiration—he even contributed to the DVD commentary track featuring the Ferguson joke above—and it's a touchstone for everyone in the poker world. Players are inspired by it in the same way hungry young brokers and executives are inspired by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, but without the irony. Log onto any online poker site, and you'll find endless usernames and/or avatars referencing Teddy KGB, the Russian mobster and card shark played by a deliciously hammy John Malkovich, or "grinders," a term given to players who doggedly scrape out a living in the game. (Side note to Internet poker players: You always want to sit at a table with someone with a Rounders-inspired name. They're usually fish. Also, you'll want to get in a time machine and travel back about four years, before the U.S. government cracked down on online gaming, back when the poker boom was driving novice players and their bottomless credit-card limits to the Internet by the tens of thousands. Good times, good times.) Beyond the Rocky-like inspirational finale, which pits a young comer against Malkovich's high-stakes shark, Rounders lets viewers lounge in the cool ambience of smoke-filled underground clubs and insider lingo, and indulge in the fantasy of raking in monster pots and bluffing the great Johnny Chan with rags. It's a recruitment film for would-be degenerates.

Several films about the poker world have been made recently, plus many more where a poker game figures prominently, but authenticity is hard to come by. Even The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen, once the gold standard of poker movies, ends with an utterly preposterous hand where a full house, aces over tens, goes down to a straight flush. (The book Big Deal: A Years As A Professional Poker Player, calculates the odds of these two hands happening at once at over 300 billion to 1.) Just recently, the James Bond redux Casino Royale featured a similar but even more ridiculous scenario where four players face up to a $125 million pot with a flush, a full house, a higher full house, and a straight flush. In both cases, the audience is supposed to be awed by the high quality of play, but what they're actually witnessing is as improbable as a Mega Millions lottery winner getting struck by lightning. Twice.

By contrast, here's the first poker game in Rounders, where fresh-faced law student Matt Damon stakes his entire $30,000 bankroll in a big hand against Malkovich:

The genius of the hand is that 1) it could happen, and has happened to anyone who's played the game for any significant length of time, and 2) it's a hand where a person could plausibly lose all his money. The ins and outs have been a common discussion among poker players: Would it have been possible to get away from it? (Probably not, most agree, but Phil Hellmuth thinks that Damon's character could have limited the damage.) What do you think of Malkovich's decision to cold-call the pre-flop raise with AA, which could lead to potential disaster if his opponent flops two pair? How about Damon's decision to overbet top two pair after the flop, counting on an aggressive player like Malkovich to read his hand as weak? And how about when both of them hit their full houses on the turn and check? For once, here's a poker movie that understands—and, through superb use of voiceover narration, communicates—how good players think through hands, and how such a simple game can be bound up in complex psychology and stratagems. Conventional wisdom says that a card game isn't exciting enough to be captivating onscreen, so the solution is to highlight the money (like Casino Royale's nine-figure haul) and divorce the game from reality. Rounders proves that it doesn't have to be that dumbed-down.

After Damon loses everything on one hand, Rounders picks up nine months later with him working graveyard shifts driving a delivery truck to pay for a respectable law-school education. He's sworn off poker forever, at the insistence of a girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) who could kindly be referred to as a bit of a nag. (Or, less kindly, by the following expression: "In the poker game of life, women are the rake.") When Damon reunites with his old buddy Worm (Edward Norton), a card mechanic and con artist newly released from his latest scam, the war for his soul is influenced by several different parties. Should he stick to the straight-and-narrow, graduate with a law degree and a plum clerkship, while settling down with the scold of his dreams? Or does he swear off buttoned-down legitimacy and follow the uncertain path that destiny appears to be laying out for him?

The chief catalyst for Damon's ascension (or perhaps descent) back into poker is Norton, who doesn't like to play any game straight-up when he can cheat his way to victory. Minutes before getting sprung from jail, he delights at winning cigarettes off of inmates just for the sport of it, no matter that he doesn't smoke. It isn't the payoff he's after, but the sense of danger and superiority he feels in pulling a fast one on somebody; he never passes up the opportunity to razz every low-level gangster and loan shark he encounters, despite the threat to his personal safety. Norton knows how to take people's money fair and square, just like Damon, but why suffer the swings that even the best players have to withstand when you tilt the table in your direction every time out? It's a short-sighted view: As Damon says via voiceover: "You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once."

If Norton is the devil on Damon's shoulder, then the angel is John Turturro, a grinder personified. Turturro hovers over Damon like a guilty conscience, a constant reminder that he should play within the limits of his abilities and his bankroll. The whole concept of taking a shot, as Damon does against Malkovich with his "three stacks of high society," is antithetical to Turturro, who plays cards with the dull practicality of a factory worker clocking in. To his mind, the only prudent course is to seek out the fish and reel them in; there's no point in sitting down with a table full of high-stakes professionals, just for the chance of proving himself against them. In this superb exchange, when Damon comes to him begging for some money to relieve a debt, Turturro makes his case:

Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman—who would tackle poker again, with vastly diminished returns, on the short-lived ESPN series Tilt—set up a stark philosophical contrast between Norton and Turturro, yet manage to split the difference. Damon cannily chooses Option C: Play the game straight and never stake your entire bankroll, yet take a calculated risk when the opportunity presents itself. It's a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proposition, and it speaks to the film's occasional lapses in purposefulness. Dahl is a superb creator of atmosphere, but sometimes his slow-burning style comes at the expense of dramatic urgency; it doesn't help that his lead character is by far (and deliberately) the least dynamic and unformed, twisting on the influence of several more colorful and persuasive voices. Yet there's something convincing about the film's studied noir inflections, too: In the end, Damon embraces a rogue's destiny, but Dahl and the screenwriters give him the space to give it very thoughtful consideration. One of the reasons that poker players like Rounders so much is that it legitimizes the notion that playing cards for a living isn't impulsive or stupid, but "like any other job." And don't even try to call it gambling.

Nevertheless, the lure of competition and money may ultimately be stronger in Rounders than the message to grind it out prudently. Being a consistent winner in poker requires a lot of discipline, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who doesn't thrill to the idea of putting a blustery thug like Teddy KGB on tilt, or picking up on the most blaringly obvious "tell" in poker history. (Malkovich's cartoonish performance has caught a lot of ridicule, but he and his hammy Russian accent make a five-course meal out of exclamations like "Nyet! Nyet!" and "Meesta Son-of-beeech!") Rounders has a lot of sound wisdom to impart about the game, from reading a table ("If you can't spot the sucker in the first half-hour of playing, then you are the sucker") to the reality of big swings ("from time to time, everyone goes bust") to the tacit collusion of strong players preying on weak ones. ("It's like the Nature Channel: You don't see piranhas eating each other, do you?") But it's likely the majority of poker newcomers inspired by Rounders watched Damon stick Malkovich for five times his original buy-in, and opened up their wallets in the hope of doing likewise. Cue the piranhas.

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Filed Under: Film

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