By Marc S. Sanders

Recently, I watched The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen and it reminded me how much I enjoy a good poker movie, and I don’t even play cards.  Shortly thereafter, I took it upon myself to watch Rounders directed by John Dahl.  A few things occurred to me.  Poker movies do not acknowledge an organization called Gamblers Anonymous.  I guess to do so would be too much of a downer when the real suspense lies in the close ups of these talented players trying to read and outplay one another across the table.  Addictions become all too real and movies are not about reality but rather enhanced reality.

Rounders explores a seedy underground world of poker in modern day New York City.  Its community is made up of guys with names like Teddy KGB (aka The Mad Russian with ties to the mob), Joey “Knish,” and Worm.  There’s also a heavy who conveniently comes in to collect debts, and his affectionate name is Gramma.  These guys are portrayed by an outstanding cast of actors; respectively John Malkovich, John Turturro and Edward Norton.  Gramma is Michael Rispoli looking squat but all muscle under a derby hat while residing in his brothel of hookers who work for him.  All of these characters couldn’t be any more different.  The only thing they have in common is the game.  Gramma is the destiny that follows you after the game.  The other thing they have in common is the storytelling device of mentor, both good and bad. 

Knish maintains a conservative career approach to poker that allows him to pay his bills and alimony, and has groomed a baby faced “rounder” known as Mike McDermott.  He doesn’t look like he belongs with these shadowy figures but maybe that’s why he’s so good at the table.  KGB is the devil that’s not in disguise.  He’s the Oreo chomping Russian psycho with an appropriate, yet overly laid on Bolshevik accent. Worm is Mike’s pal who won’t let up to entice his childhood friend to keep the juice going because poker, honest or more importantly shady, is all that matters. 

Matt Damon is Mike in one of his most underappreciated roles.  Mike looks like a law student with a promising career.  I said he looks like that.  The film however shows that Mike is not a law student at all.  At least he shouldn’t be.  Early on in the film, Mike’s britches get too big for him and he loses everything such as his tuition money and rent and anything else he’d been saving up for.  Knish offers to help him get back in the game, but Mike swears off poker like someone who perhaps would swear off fatty foods.  I guess it’s not an addiction that is taking over his livelihood such as with his devoted law school student  girlfriend Jo, played by Gretchen Mol.  In Rounders, law school and love are the inconvenience.  Not poker.

Nine months go by and Mike picks up his childhood best friend, Worm, played with exceptional sleaze by Edward Norton.  Mike resists Worm’s advances to get back in the neighborhood games where they were masters at the hustle.  Worm is desperate and eager to play because it’s all he wants to do and he has an acknowledged drive to simply self-destruct in endless debt.  Mike’s devotion to Worm is tough for him to compromise and pretty soon his personal vouch for his friend gets them both into trouble where binge gaming is their only option.

The step-by-step play of the story is predictable here.  We know there’ll be one big game at the end with a monster win.  Mike will face set backs along the way.  He’ll have mentor moments and arguments with Jo.  But so what.  Look at the actors this film has to offer, and follow along with a great script of dialogue too. 

Rounders came out in 1998 when Matt Damon was surprising the world with his original script Good Will Hunting.  This movie is one of the first films where he got top billing and his name above the title.  He has so many good scenes because many of them play like duets.  Damon vs Malkovich.  Damon with Turturro.  Damon with, and sometimes against, Norton. 

My favorite pairings are the scenes he shares with Martin Landau who plays Mike’s law professor, Abe Petrovsky.  Landau personally touched me as the son of Jewish immigrants where each generation went on to Rabbinical school.  Petrovsky describes for his law student, Mike, that through his own personal experience that our destiny chooses us.  Often, we don’t choose what we have to become.  The Petrovsky character was raised in the Jewish orthodox community where I also had experience while attending Yeshiva for ten years.  I knew this man that Landau so accurately portrays.   Beyond my review, I have to share that this character spoke to me and reunited me with the Rabbis who taught me in elementary school. Personally, Petrovsky assured me that it was okay that I did not follow in the footsteps of my teachings at Yeshiva.  It wasn’t for me, much like law school is not for Mike.  Mike has a talent for something else.  Still, it’s a very risky talent.  Rounders would like to tell you that everything in life is worth taking risks.

I’m not sure I agree with the philosophy of Rounders.  Gambling can easily turn into a terrible addiction.  My father played all the games at the casinos on occasion, but he never stayed very long and he only went infrequently like when he was on a business trip.  He always told me that he would not be sure he’d be able to stop if he took up the game.  I knew exactly what he was talking about which is why I never even opted to learn.  I know my limitations.  Rounders doesn’t focus on limitations, though.  Limitations are for nerds, I guess.  Rounders is all about searching for strategy to improve your game.  It’s movie money.  So, there’s only pretend risk as Mike aspires to beat the best of the underground, come out alive from the violations of his pal and then move on to Vegas where he’ll give it a shot at the World Series of Poker.

There’s one other aspect I admire about Dahl’s film.  I looked for it on this most recent viewing and I’m telling you I couldn’t see it anywhere.  Dahl never, ever shows you the full hands of the players.  Either you see only a part of the river of a Texas Hold ‘Em game or you see the pair of cards the players hold, but never both in any round of the various card playing.  Dahl’s approach like the Mike’s philosophy is not so much playing the cards as it is to show the players play against each other.  The ticks and expressions they give like how they smoke or drink or even how they eat Oreo cookies out of their poker chip rack.  It’s very effective compared to other poker scenes in films like The Sting or even Casino Royale.  With a fine tuned script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, it is fair to say that anyone knows what hand beats a flush or two pair or whatever.  More importantly, what matters is what read is ultimately gonna win you the table.  Rounders is all about winning the table, not the hand.

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