Revisiting Rounders 20 Years On
If someone asked you to name the most iconic poker movie of all time, there’s only one answer you could come up with: Rounders. This 1998 classic that starred Matt Damon, Jon Landau, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, Edward Norton and John Turturro opened the fascinating world of high-stakes poker to the movie-going public. The film follows Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, a former poker prodigy turned law graduate drawn back into high-stakes poker games, as he tries to clear the debts of his best friend, Worm (Norton).
“If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.”
John Malkovich may have got the brunt of the criticism for his (somewhat hilarious) scenery-chewing portrayal of Russian mob boss Teddy KGB, but all that aside, Rounders still does a fantastic job of portraying everything that’s in play in the discipline of high-stakes poker, even 20 years on. Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien immersed themselves in the underground New York poker scene in preparation for the film, even playing at the legendary Mayfair Club games. As such, the film litters with witty dialogue like the line above throughout the movie, all of which comes from the real world of poker.
A Legacy Built to Last
Whether it’s the post-Rounders effect, the Moneymaker effect that would come five years later or more than likely, a combination of the two, poker as a discipline has transformed significantly from the way it was in the movie. It’s now a multibillion-dollar global industry that encompasses online and offline activities. Professional poker players meet in the most glamorous locations on Earth to compete for prestigious trophies while beginner players can now download apps and games onto their mobile phones to play real games of poker on the go. Would the public have quite the voracious appetite for poker without what Vanessa Rousso believes is “the best poker movie ever made”? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to see a correlation between the two.
The movie has also gone on to have a similar lasting effect on the careers of its now high-profile stars. Rounders may have flopped at the box office, but it propelled the then-up-and-comers Matt Damon, Edward Norton and Gretchen Mol into the spotlight. Damon is, of course, now one of Hollywood’s top leading male actors, starring in the Bourne franchise and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Norton would follow his role up with the unparalleled one in Fight Club before going on to star in The Illusionist, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Red Dragon, among others. A few years after its release, Mol would be cast as the titular character in the breakout movie The Notorious Bettie Page and has since enjoyed a varied career working in both film and television as well as being a vocal supporter of the Me Too movement .
Movies have drastically improved in quality since the late 90s, but somehow, Rounders still manages to hold up against the test of time. As far as gritty realism goes, we’ll leave it to poker pro Phil Gordon to have the final word: “only Rounders captures the energy and tension in the game. And that’s why it stands as the best poker movie ever made.”