“Rounders” is far and away the most stressful movie I have ever seen. The tightly wound caper of law student and aspiring poker pro Mike McDermott, played by a young and devilish Matt Damon (“Downsizing”), is as compelling as it is excruciating. There is a case to be made that the film’s ceaseless momentum and satisfying payoffs are the result of quirky characters and strong storytelling. However, there is a potentially more worthwhile reason “Rounders” still holds up so well: its understanding of the actual mechanics of poker.
For this final installment of my series on poker hands in movies, I’ll take a look at how “Rounders” takes advantage of the logic of poker to sharpen its story and characters. While the previous films I discussed, “Maverick” and “Casino Royale,” missed the mark in their poker games, “Rounders” is far more reliable. It’s a poker movie that refuses to hold a viewer’s hand, clearly constructed by screenwriters (David Levien and Brian Koppelman, “Billions”) who understand the card game and its enigmatic draw. It would be one thing for “Rounders” to simply employ reasonable card game behavior. But the reason I find it so entertaining on repeat viewings is that it actually uses poker to shape its narrative.
First, let’s take a look at the film’s first big hand and one of its most upsetting moments. On a confident streak, Mike ventures to The Chesterfield, a seedy, noirish hideout run by Russian mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, “Velvet Buzzsaw”). In what starts out as a modest pot, Mike hits a full house, nines full of aces. After he and Teddy eventually shove, the latter flips his higher full house, aces full of nines. Not only is this a realistic hand I have been ruined by and which has ruined plenty of others in poker, but it’s one that allows Mike’s judgment to feel reasonable and foolish at the same time. He was there along with us the whole time, explaining his methodology in reading Teddy, squeezing maximum money out of him. As a result of this believable set-up, the expression Damon wears upon the realization of his defeat (and loss of $30,000) is utterly heart-sinking.
The movie’s first game serves more than one purpose. It does a decent job of convincing a viewer of Mike’s gambling chops while also taking a large swing at his confidence as a player. Everything after this bad beat is the painfully tense process of Mike being lured back into the game, building back up that confidence and putting it to the test.
One of the film’s less believable but thoroughly entertaining scenes is the infamous judges’ game, which is something of an institution at Mike’s law school. When Mike drops off a few papers for a professor, he can’t help but insert himself into the game. It’s not totally clear what game the judges are playing, though it seems to involve community cards, multiple rounds of betting and a low limit. After only a few moments, Mike is able to read every judge’s hand and wagers for a summer clerkship with Judge Marinachi. “Well, you were looking for that third three, but you forgot that Professor Green folded it on fourth street and now you’re representing that you have it. The DA made his two pair but he knows they’re no good. Judge Kaplan was trying to squeeze out a diamond flush but he came up short, and Mr. Eisen is futilely hoping that his queens are going to stand up. So like I said, the Dean’s bet is $20,” he says with admirable confidence.
On all accounts, this moment makes no sense. It’s impossible, even for a seasoned poker professional, to simply glance at a group of strangers and read their hands back to them. And yet, every time I rewatch it, I don’t care. The calm boldness of Damon’s line-reading is so captivating that it covers up the general ridiculousness of the situation. The scene certainly breaks the laws of reality that govern the rest of the film. It’s a cheat, and I’m OK with it, simply because it’s so rare for this movie to cut corners. When it actually happens, it’s so smoothly rendered that I can suspend my disbelief.
While I can look past the improbability of the judges’ game read, the biggest flaw of “Rounders” is the tell of its villain, KGB. The hustling mobster should by all means have every part of his body language under control. Still, he can’t refrain from munching on a tray of Oreos that invariably sits next to his chip stack. From the very beginning of the movie, we see him take apart the Oreos, cookie from creme, and either eat them or discard them. And when Mike finally realizes this was Teddy’s tell all along during the final game, we can’t help but wonder why he — or anyone else — never noticed. After admitting he knows Teddy’s tell, he rips apart the mobster’s aggression in a run that is so satisfying it makes up for the stress of everything before.
The reason that this obvious tell stands out so unavoidably in “Rounders” is that the movie is otherwise subtle with its gameplay. Like I said, “Rounders” takes no time to explain the complexities of Texas Hold’em. So when it drops on the audience a piece of information as glaring as Teddy’s Oreo tell, we can’t help but feel like it was unearned.
While I can’t vouch for every poker movie I’ve mentioned on this series, I say without a doubt that “Rounders” is my favorite poker movie. As a nostalgic capsule of the ’90s and a story that plays by realistic poker outcomes, I return to it frequently to learn something new each time. “Rounders” above all demonstrates that for poker to succeed in storytelling, it must at a minimum abide by the way the game is really played, and at best, use the emotional swings to develop character.