Rounders is a 1998 film about the underground world of high-stakes poker. Directed by John Dahl and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, the movie follows two friends who need to quickly earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a huge debt. The term "rounder" refers to a person whose sole means of earning a living is by playing cards.
The movie opened to mixed reviews and made only a modest amount of money. However, with the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, Rounders has become a cult hit.
Young hotshot poker player Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) loses his entire bankroll of $30,000 in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB" (John Malkovich), a Russian Mobster, who runs an illegal underground poker room Mike frequents. Stunned by the loss he decides to concentrate on his law school studies, and makes a promise to his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Gretchen Mol), to not play cards anymore. Mike, having taken a part time job to make ends meet driving a delivery truck for a fellow rounder, Knish, (John Turturro) who also witnessed his loss to Teddy KGB, stops off on his way home to deliver papers to his law professor, Petrovsky (Martin Landau), who is playing poker with colleagues and several judges. Mike offers Petrovsky some tips and helps him win a hand. The other judges, fascinated by how Mike helped the professor win without even looking at their cards, demand that Mike explain how he read their hands blind, with one judge offering a possible clerkship if he could guess his cards. Bewildered by his strategy and cunning, they are all in consensus that he continue to play with them, where he reluctantly declines and goes home.
After arriving home late the next morning, he explains to Jo that he was at a judges' card game, but didn't actually play, much to her skepticism. Meanwhile, Mike's best friend and fellow "rounder" since childhood, Les "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton), is released from prison, and he talks Mike into resuming rounding. The morning after Mike and Worm win big at a fraternity house game, Jo discovers Mike's huge bankroll in his pants while he is in the shower and later confronts him about it. Mike admits to her that he is playing cards again, where she angrily walks away from him. Mike and Worm continue rounding as his law studies suffer.
While at a strip club one night, Worm is confronted by an old partner of his, Grama (Michael Rispoli). They end up in a fight over several debts Worm ran up prior to going to prison, and Grama tells him that he has started a partnership with Teddy KGB and bought up these debts, which amount to $25,000. Grama physically roughs up Worm before leaving the club.
Meanwhile, Mike meets Petrovsky at a bar to discuss his situation. Petrovsky has an affinity and respect for Mike's passion as a result of his own life, when his family disowned him after choosing to study law rather than become a rabbi. After leaving the bar, Mike returns home with Worm, who had just left the strip club, to find that Jo has packed everything and moved out. Worm consoles Mike and they decide to go to the Taj Mahal for the night to play poker, and it is there that Worm tells Mike of his debt.
The next day, Mike shows up late to, and clearly unprepared for, his role as lead counsel in a mock trial, which greatly aggravates his teammates in the case, particularly Jo. The two have a conversation which results in Jo leaving Mike for good. Later, he is shown watching the famous final hand from the 1987 World Series of Poker at home when a girl from a club that Worm had played at earlier arrives at Mike's house and tells him that Worm has been running up debt in Mike's name.
Mike proceeds to find and confront Worm about the issue of running from his debt. Mike then takes Worm to see Grama about his debts. Grama gives Worm 5 days to pay off $15,000 of the debt, and the meeting nearly escalates into another physical confrontation. When Mike backs Worm up, Grama puts the same amount of debt on him, as well.
Mike and Worm start rounding immediately in order to make up the debt. After playing for 64 hours straight, they have made up about $7,000 of the debt. They then proceed to drive to Binghamton to play in a game with state policemen and municipal workers. Mike starts winning immediately, but Worm then starts to play and is caught dealing off the bottom of the deck. Everyone in the room starts to savagely beat Worm and Mike and all of their profit is taken, with only one day to pay it off. Worm decides to leave town, while Mike attempts to find a loan to pay his debt.
Mike first goes to Knish, who turns him down. He then goes to Petrovsky, who is empathetic of the situation and loans him $10,000. In order to make up the rest of the debt, he returns to KGB's room to play against Teddy heads-up. Mike is able to win the remainder of his debt, plus an extra $5,000 to begin to repay Petrovsky, but is convinced to continue playing. He loses back some of that money as time begins to run out before he owes the debt.
On the final hand, Mike is dealt a 9 and an 8, and the flop is a 6, a 7, and a 10, giving Mike a straight. He continues to check to Teddy, allowing Teddy to bet all of his money over the course of the hand before Mike calls his final all-in bet and shows him the straight. Grama urges Teddy to take Mike out, but Teddy tells his men to pay Mike because he had won straight up. Mike leaves with enough money to pay his debts to Grama and Petrovsky, and gives him the same $30,000 he started with. He asks Jo to give Petrovsky his money, and the two part amicably. The final scene shows Mike in a taxicab to catch a flight to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.
Rounders began filming in December 1997 and was set mostly in New York, with the notable exception being that the law school scenes were filmed at Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey.
* Matt Damon as Mike McDermott * Edward Norton as Lester 'Worm' Murphy * John Turturro as Joey Knish * Gretchen Mol as Jo * John Malkovich as Teddy KGB * Famke Janssen as Petra * Michael Rispoli as Grama * Martin Landau as Abe Petrovsky
Rounders was released on September 11, 1998 in 2,176 theaters and grossed $8.5 million during its opening weekend. It went on to make $22.9 million domestically.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "Rounders sometimes has a noir look but it never has a noir feel, because it's not about losers (or at least it doesn't admit it is). It's essentially a sports picture, in which the talented hero wins, loses, faces disaster, and then is paired off one last time against the champ". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Though John Dahl's Rounders finally adds up to less than meets the eye, what does meet the eye (and ear) is mischievously entertaining". Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone said of John Malkovich's performance: "Of course, no one could guess the extent to which Malkovich is now capable of chewing scenery. He surpasses even his eyeballrolling as Cyrus the Virus in Con Air. Munching Oreo cookies, splashing the pot with chips (a poker no-no) and speaking with a Russian accent that defies deciphering ("Ho-kay, Meester sum of a beech"), Malkovich soars so far over the top, he's passing Pluto". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle said of Matt Damon's performance: "But Mike should supply the drive the film otherwise lacks, and Damon doesn't. We might believe he can play cards, but we don't believe he needs to do it, in the way, say, that the 12-year-old Mozart needed to write symphonies. He's not consumed with genius. He's a nice guy with a skill".
Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic, particularly among poker enthusiasts. In an interesting chicken or the egg situation, some speculate the film is directly responsible for the recent increase in the popularity of Texas hold 'em, while others believe that the substantial increase in the popularity of poker has nothing to do with the movie, but that same increase does have everything to do with the come-lately increase in the popularity of the film, so many years after its theatrical release.