Rounders (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Dahl
Produced by Joel Stillerman
Ted Demme
Written by David Levien
Brian Koppelman
Music by Christopher Young
Cinematography Jean-Yves Escoffier
Edited by Scott Chestnut
Spanky Pictures
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date
Running time
121 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12 million[1]
Box office $22.9 million
(United States)[1]

Rounders is a 1998 American drama film about the underground world of high-stakes poker, directed by John Dahl and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. The story follows two friends who need to win at high-stakes poker to quickly pay off a large debt. The term "rounder" refers to a person traveling around from city to city seeking high-stakes card games.

Rounders opened to mixed reviews and earned only a modest box office. With the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, the film later became a cult hit.


Gifted poker player and law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) dreams of playing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. To do so, Mike moves up in stakes, losing his entire $30,000 bankroll in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB" (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster who runs an underground poker room. Shaken, Mike decides to concentrate on law school and promises his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he will no longer play poker. Mentor and fellow rounder Joey Knish (John Turturro) offers McDermott a part-time job driving a delivery truck to make ends meet.

Mike focuses on school and work until his childhood friend Lester "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison. While Mike is an honest card player, Worm is a hustler who often cheats to win. Mike learns that Worm owes an outstanding debt to Grama, a dangerous pimp, that he incurred before his incarceration. In order to help Worm, Mike quickly returns to playing poker, which interferes with his studies and hurts his relationship with Jo.

Worm is given five days to clear his debt. He wants to cheat to do it but Mike insists on winning it straight at several card games around New York City. They make nearly $15,000. Mike goes with Worm to an out-of-town game hosted by New York State Troopers where Worm is caught "base-dealing". They both get beaten up and their bankroll is taken. Worm decides to flee, leaving Mike responsible for the debt.

Mike decides to deal with his situation in New York City. After securing a $10,000 loan from his law school professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau) Mike challenges Teddy KGB to a second game of heads-up, No-Limit Texas Hold'em. Mike beats Teddy in the first session. There is enough money to pay off Worm's debt and half of the $10,000 loan. As he is about to leave, KGB taunts Mike, and points out that only part of the $30,000 that Mike has lost has been recovered.

Mike hesitates; then agrees to return to play. At risk is all of the money, and possibly his life, as losing would leave him unable to pay Grama. As the night wears on, Mike is on the verge of losing. Mike spots a tell, a repeated behavior that allows him to know the value of Teddy's hand. Teddy KGB is furious when he realizes this, and goes on "tilt", meaning he is playing very poorly. This lack of focus allows Mike to outplay Teddy and win everything.

Mike then settles Worm's debt, repays the $10,000 loan from his law professor, and restores his original bankroll of "three stacks of high society." Mike drops out of law school, says goodbye to Jo, and is on his way to Las Vegas with dreams of winning the World Series of Poker Main Event.




Principal photography for Rounders began in December 1997; it took place mostly in New York. Exceptions include the law school scenes (filmed at Rutgers School of Law-Newark) and the State Trooper poker game and parking lot scenes (filmed at the B.P.O Elks Lodge in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey).


Box office[edit]

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.[1]

Critical response[edit]

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."[3] 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."[4] USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote: "The card playing is well-staged, and even those who don't know a Texas hold-'em ('the Cadillac of poker') from a Texas hoedown will get a vicarious charge out of the action."[5] Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Norton, cast in what might have once been the Sean Penn role (hideous shirts, screw-you attitude), gives Worm a shifty, amphetamine soul and a pleasing alacrity ... Norton's performance never really goes anywhere, but that's okay, since the story is just an excuse to lead the characters from one poker table to the next."[6]

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."[7] In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle said of Damon's performance: "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."[8] In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote: "The main problem with Rounders is that the movie never quite knows what it is about: What is the moral ante?"[9]

Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has a following, particularly among poker enthusiasts.[10]

There are pro poker players who credit the film for getting them into the game.[11] 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."[11]


  1. ^ a b c "Rounders (1998)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved February 21, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Joel "Bagels" Rosenberg, aka Joey Knish, Passes Away". Retrieved May 4, 2016. 
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger (September 11, 1998). "Rounders review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved December 1, 2008. 
  4. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 11, 1998). "Knowing When to Hold 'em and Fold 'em but Just Not When to Run". The New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2008. 
  5. ^ Wloszczyna, Susan (September 11, 1998). "Rounders hedges bets with Damon in the ante". USA Today. p. 11. 
  6. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (September 18, 1998). "Rounders review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 25, 2009. 
  7. ^ Travers, Peter (October 1, 1998). "Rounders review". Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 1, 2008. 
  8. ^ LaSalle, Mick (September 11, 1998). "Rounders Deals Out a Mediocre Hand". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 1, 2008. 
  9. ^ Lacey, Liam (September 11, 1998). "If they'd played their cards right, this could have been a winner". Globe and Mail. p. C7. 
  10. ^ Tobias, Scott (October 30, 2008). "The New Cult Canon: Rounders". The Onion A.V. Club. Retrieved December 1, 2008. 
  11. ^ a b Polson, Sarah (March 4, 2009). "Pros discuss Rounders' impact on poker". Retrieved February 21, 2015. 

External links[edit]