The explosion in popularity of poker is often tied to three key moments. There was the advent of online poker, which provided a safe environment for those scared of the ˜underground’ reputation of the game. This combined with the amateur player Chris Moneymaker beating all the pros in the main event of the World Series of Poker, proving that anyone could win the big one. But before both of these, it was the cultural impact of a low budget drama that focused on the world of No Limit Texas Holdem, but presented as an aspirational sport rather than a vice. It legitimized the game in some peoples’ eyes and made it cool once again. The year was 1998 and the film, as any poker player will tell you, was Rounders.
Mike (Matt Damon) is a law student who grew up playing poker. One night he takes his entire savings to play in a high stakes poker game against shifty Russian-American Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). After a crippling loss, he leaves potless and staring at a life of hard work ahead. He agrees never to play poker again and begins concentrating on his studies. The reappearance of his childhood friend Worm (Edward Norton) from prison, leads to Mike falling back into the habit of playing poker. Then after discovering that Worm owes a lot of people a lot of money, the two find themselves desperately trying to make the required money in only 24 hours while Mike’s life falls apart in the process.
Rounders is a rather unique film in that it portrays a classical film trope of an addiction as a positive thing. If Mike were an alcoholic, or a drug addict, you would not expect him to ˜win’ at the end by rediscovering his love of a dry martini, or by finding a particularly special bag of weed, yet because the film sets out to prove that poker and by extension poker players, are cool it plays more like a sports film. After suffering a devastating loss, the protagonist must overcome the odds, rediscover his faith in the game and himself and topple the evil antagonist. You could easily replace poker with any other sport and it would work equally well.
In Damon and Norton Rounders has two very likable central characters whose company is enjoyable. Even when Worm is at his most frustrating there is still something innately watchable in his behaviour. In poker terms he is ˜loose-aggressive’ to Mike’s ˜passive-aggressive.’ It’s a shame then that there is not as much originality shown in the narrative as there is in John Dahl’s presentation and stylistic choices.
In terms of cultural significance, especially in the poker community, Rounders may well be the most quoted, memorable and influential film of all time. Go to any large scale event and just listen to the way players talk to each other and you soon realise that it could have been lifted straight out of Rounders and it often is. Phrases like If you can’t spot the sucker at the table in the first half hour, you ARE the sucker and don’t splash the pot are as commonplace as check or raise.
When the cool surface is stripped away, it is a basic, by-the-numbers sports drama and while it may have a niche audience of rabid poker fans, it does not hold the same mythical levels of quality that some might have attributed to it. A solid, well-acted thriller with plenty of quotable lines for budding poker players, Rounders has made its way to cult classic territory.