Rounders has become known as one of the definitive films depicting poker, and more specifically, the underground poker scene in New York City and Atlantic City. The drama/crime film follows the journey of Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, who is torn between a settled life with his partner Jo and pursuing law, and the adrenaline-pumping life of professional poker.
Though Mike is aiming for the settled life, thanks in part to his partner, the film begins with Mike losing his whole $30,000 stake in a poker game against Russian-American mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Mike vows to quit the game forever, but the very next day he finds himself meeting his freshly released friend “Worm” at the prison gates, leading to a poker game that very night.
Worm owes a lot of nasty people a lot of money, and in a (pretty stupid) move to support his friend, Mike agrees to become his co-guarantor, taking on the immense responsibility of helping Worm to get out of debt and possibly avoid being killed by gangsters. Their way to make the money: poker! What else?
Mike is established as a supreme poker player pretty early on, with a scene in which he walks into a room where a group of judges are playing and names all of their hands. It’s not a realistic moment, but it does firmly cement the idea that the lead character actually knows what he is doing at the tables. His law mentor, Professor Petrovsky, lends him $10,000 to kick-start his bankroll, and much of the rest of the film follows the journey of Mike and Worm as they travel through the poker underground to meet all kinds of crazy people.
The format of Rounders is quite prescribed. Mike is quickly identified as a “hero” character and, despite some tensions and thrills along the way, the viewer never really gets the impression that Mike will end the journey a loser. He is going to make it somehow, despite losing everything in the process.
Thankfully, the predictable screenplay is held together by solid acting from Damon and Edward Norton, along with an entire cast of rising Hollywood stars. Witty dialogues and humor make up somewhat for a lack of dramatic occurrences, though it is clear that Rounders doesn’t quite hit its potential for action and suspense.
Poker is also depicted in a way that is less than realistic at times, with an overinflated sense that compulsive gaming could end in anything other than tears. When compared to more serious films, Rounders is very “Hollywood” in its approach, favoring excitement and a positive outcome over tragedy and despair.
Despite this somewhat unrealistic approach, the directors have clearly done their homework when it comes to the game itself, and the viewer who enjoys poker can pick up on references, hands, and plays that they could expect to see in any casino or home game. Rounders avoids the mistakes of the recent James Bond film Casino Royal, which focuses exclusively on the big showdowns.
The characters in the film also give us glimpses of the cliché personalities of poker players. Mike likes to play well to win, relying on his technical knowledge and hand-reading abilities. Worm likes a good hustle and thrives off the risk and impulse of the game. Joey Knish, on the other hand, is a typical nit who has spent 15 years grinding a living by folding his hands and only playing the best cards.
All in all, Rounders provides solid entertainment framed in a plot that holds itself together well and carried by capable and compelling actors that bring the story to life. It might not be the most accurate depiction of the lives of professional poker players or the consequences of compulsive gaming at nosebleed stakes, but it is a very watchable film that will appeal to poker players, fans, and a general audience.