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  • Writer's pictureThomas Duncan

Rounders (1998)


Guest: Jesse Sertle (CineMadison member)


Cast:

  • John Dahl, Director

  • David Levien and Brian Koppelman, Writers

  • Christopher Young, Music

  • Matt Damon as Mike McDermott

  • Edward Norton as Lester "Worm" Murphy

  • John Malkovich as Teddy "KGB"

  • John Turturro as Joey Knish†

  • Famke Janssen as Petra

  • Murphy Guyer as Sergeant Detweiler

  • Michael Rispoli as Grama

  • Martin Landau as Judge Abe Petrovsky

  • Gretchen Mol as Jo

*Recognition:

  • Rounders was wide released on September 11, 1998.

  • On a budget of roughly $12 million, it would go on to make only $22.9 million domestically with no international releases to finish as the 90th highest grossing film of 1998.

  • Critics were mildly warm of the film at the time, but it became a cult classic during the Poker boom of the early 2000s as Poker specifically Texas Hold'em was widely televised across cable.

  • There are pro poker players who credit the film for getting them into the game. The film drew in successful players such as Brian Rast, Hevad Khan, Gavin Griffin, and Dutch Boyd. Vanessa Rousso has said of the film's influence: "There have been lots of movies that have included poker, but only Rounders really captures the energy and tension in the game. And that's why it stands as the best poker movie ever made."

  • Rounders currently holds a 64% among critics on RT, a 54 score on Metacritic, and a 3.5/5 on Letterboxd.

What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: Who you choose as your friends is as important as knowing your own career path.


Plot Summary: "Rounders" is a gripping drama that delves into the underground world of high-stakes poker in New York City. The film follows the story of Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a talented and passionate poker player who, after losing his entire bankroll in a high-stakes game, swears off gambling to focus on law school and a more conventional life.

However, when his childhood friend and reformed hustler, Worm (Edward Norton), is released from prison, Mike is drawn back into the world of underground poker to help Worm pay off his substantial debts. Mike finds himself navigating a treacherous world of deceit and betrayal in the pursuit of redemption. Along the way, he faces off against some of the city's most notorious card sharks, including Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), in a high-stakes poker showdown.


As the tension rises, Mike must use his wit, skill, and an unwavering determination to outplay his opponents and protect himself and those he cares about. "Rounders" is a thrilling exploration of the psychological and strategic elements of poker, the complexities of friendship, and the price one is willing to pay for a second chance at life.


Did You Know:

  • Matt Damon and Edward Norton played the $10,000 buy-in Texas Hold 'Em (No Limit) championship event at the 1998 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. During the first of four days, Matt Damon had pocket Kings and was knocked out by former world champion and poker legend Doyle Brunson who held pocket Aces.

  • Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman have cameos in the Atlantic City poker scene; they're two of the players used to illustrate giveaway tells.

  • Composer Christopher Young wrote two scores for this film. The first original score he wrote was a completely dramatic work that did not go over too well with the Weinsteins as well as director John Dahl. Young was then in a bind and was forced to write a second score, which was a jazz based score featuring a jazz combo orchestra as well as a quintet. Rather than lose and write a complete new score, Young reintegrated the original score with the jazz material which was met with approval by Dahl. The soundtrack released by Varese Sarabande at the time of the film's release features both elements of the score.

  • On the DVD commentary it's revealed that Edward Norton ad libbed a number of Worm's lines. Among them was, "She crossed her legs too fast," which is a quote from Chinatown (1974).

  • According to a Howard Stern Interview, the film is partially based on comedian/actor Norm MacDonald.

Best Performance: Matt Damon (Mike)/Edward Norton (Worm)

Best Secondary Performance: Edward Norton (Worm)/John Turturro (Knish)

Most Charismatic Award: John Malkovich (KGB)/Christopher Young (Score)

Best Scene:

  • Mike Loses Everything

  • Blind Read

  • Worm Gets Out

  • Taj Mahal

  • Knish Won't Help

  • Final Showdown

Favorite Scene: Final Showdown/Blind Read/Worm and Mike

Most Indelible Moment: Blind Read


In Memorium:

  • Richard Moll, 80, American actor (Night Court, House, Batman: The Animated Series)

  • Bobby Knight, 83, American Hall of Fame Basketball Coach (cameo appearance in Anger Management as himself), 3x National Championship Coach, 1984 USA Olympic Head Coach

  • Matthew Perry, 54, American-Canadian actor (Friends, The Whole Nine Yards)

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

Mike McDermott: Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.


Teddy KGB: [Referring to Mike after their final game] He beat me... Straight up... Pay him... Pay that man his money.


Mike McDermott: [Narrating while entering Teddy KGB's underground gambling parlor] In "Confessions of a Winning Poker Player," Jack King said, "Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career." It seems true to me, cause walking in here, I can hardly remember how I built my bankroll, but I can't stop thinking of how I lost it.


Mike McDermott: [Narrating a quote from a gambling maxim] You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.


Teddy KGB: [referring to Mike wining every hand by slow rolling him] No More! No! Not tonight! This son of bitch, all night he, "Check. Check. Check." He trap me!


Professor Petrovsky: The last thing I took away from the Yeshiva was this: we cant run from who we are, our destiny chooses us.


Teddy KGB: [to Mike] In my club, I will splash the pot whenever the fuck I please.


The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 5.33

Impact/Significance: 3.83

Novelty: 5.67

Classic-ness: 7

Rewatchability: 7.83

Audience Score: 8.45 (82% Google, 87% RT)

Total: 38.11


Remaining Questions:

  • What happens at the World Series of Poker?

  • Do Mike and Worm ever reconcile?

  • Is Malkovich's Russian accent in the movie worthy of the bad movie accent Hall of Fame alongside Tom Hanks in Catch Me if You Can and Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins?

  • If there was a sequel, which poker players would be featured?

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