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, risking his entire $30,000 bankroll while playing Texas hold 'em at an underground poker room, ran by Teddy "KGB" (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster. Distracted by his dreams of playing in Vegas, an overconfident Mike loses his entire bankroll in a hand against KGB when Mike goes all-in and KGB instantly calls the bet (Mike's full house of 9's over Aces loses to KGB's higher full house of Aces over 9's). Shaken and distraught, Mike decides to quit poker and decides to concentrate on law school, while promising his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he will no longer play. Mentor and fellow rounder Joey Knish (John Turturro) offers to stake Mike to help rebuild his bankroll; Mike declines and instead accepts a part-time job driving a delivery truck for Knish 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 that believes he can win playing straight, Worm is a hustler who often cheats to win and is unapologetic about it. Mike learns that Worm owes an outstanding debt that he incurred before his incarceration. In order to help Worm, Mike sets Worm up with a variety of poker games to play in across town, while Mike reluctantly plays in one game, which interferes with Mike's studies and hurts his relationship with Jo. Mike sets Worm up at the Chesterfield Club, in order to build a bankroll to pay his debt, and allows Worm to play on Mike's credit. Worm borrows $2,000 on Mike's credit and eventually wins $8,000; however, as he's cashing out, Worm takes the full $10,000 (including the $2,000 borrowed on Mike's credit), which begins a tab on Mike's name, accruing interest. Later, Worm runs into Grama (Michael Rispoli), a former colleague and a dangerous pimp, at a strip club. Worm finds out that Grama bought up his outstanding debt and that Worm now owes $25,000 directly to Grama. Worm dismisses Grama's power, until Grama reveals that he is working with KGB to collect the debt. After a brief hassle from Worm, Grama takes the $10,000 from Worm before beating him up and threatening to do more if Worm does not pay the rest in a timely matter. As a result of Mike returning to his poker lifestyle and friends, and worried that Mike will lose everything a second time, Jo ends her relationship with Mike, refusing to go through that turmoil again.

Mike and Worm get into an argument when Mike finds out from Petra (Famke Janssen), one of the workers at the Chesterfield, that Worm has been playing at the Chesterfield often under Mike's credit, which results in Worm going on a losing streak and getting Mike into a $6,000 debt. While in Atlantic City, Mike also finds out from Worm about Worm's remaining $15,000 debt to Grama. Mike and Worm go to Grama's to negotiate Worm's debt. Mike tries to get Grama to give Worm leniency on the time to pay the debt, with Mike proposing that Worm pay $5,000 a week with the "juice" (interest) running until the debt is paid, calling it a "business decision" on Grama's part. Grama begins to consider Mike's proposal; however, when Grama begins to belittle Worm, an offended Worm mouths off, which results in an angry Grama giving Worm and Mike (who has now vouched for Worm) five days to pay the remaining $15,000 on the debt or face serious harm. Mike angrily reprimands Worm for allowing his ego to get the best of him and putting the both of them at risk. Mike decides to help Worm pay off his debt, with the plan being Worm scouts out games for Mike to play at and win. Worm wants to cheat to do it, but Mike insists on winning it straight at several card games around New York City.

Mike begins to go on a run over several locations around town, winning several big pots and eventually the two make $7,200 in three days, needing to double that amount in 48 hours to pay the debt. Mike goes with Worm to an out-of-town game hosted by a group of New York State Troopers, where Mike plays in. At one point during the game, Mike is up $4,200 and almost having the full $15,000 where Worm eventually arrives and plays in Mike's game, with Worm base-dealing to give Mike the advantage to win . Eventually, Worm is caught base-dealing by one of the officers at the table when Worm catches a "hanger". When it is discovered that Worm's tactics benefitted Mike's hand, they are both beaten and relieved of their entire bankroll. Mike and Worm begin arguing outside, with Mike chastising Worm for Worm's stubborn insistence to always gain an edge to win while Worm reminds Mike that Mike's noble style of play to play smart and to win straight up also resulted in Mike losing his bankroll in one hand. Mike asks Worm to talk to Grama to get him out of the debt; however, Worm comes clean and advises Mike that Grama is working for KGB. Fully aware that their lives are in danger, Worm decides to flee; however, Mike decides to go back into the city to face the consequences and square the debt, cutting ties with Worm.

Mike decides to return to New York to deal with his situation. He meets with Grama to try and get an extension on the deadline. Grama reprimands Mike for vouching for Worm in the first place. Mike chastises Grama for working with KGB. Grama advises Mike to either take it up with KGB, pay the remaining amount, or face a potentially fatal fate. Mike tries to ask Knish for the money, before Knish refuses out of principle. Mike tells a story to Knish about a time in Atlantic City where Mike beat Johnny Chan in a hand of poker, which resulted in Mike making a run at KGB's place in the beginning of the movie. Remembering an earlier conversation Mike has with his law school professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), Mike goes to Petrovsky's office to ask for the money as a loan. Unable to give Mike the full $15,000, Petrovsky give Mike $10,000 to help him get out of trouble. Mike cashes the check from Petrovsky, and challenges KGB to a second game of heads-up, No-Limit Texas Hold'em for the remaining amount, with winter-take-all stakes, which KGB accepts. Mike beats KGB in the first session, winning $20,000. As Mike is content with his winnings, he decides to leave when KGB summons Grama to collect the $15,000 to square the debt. KGB offers Mike to let his winnings "ride" and continue playing. With enough money to pay off his and Worm's debt and half of the $10,000 loan from Petrovsky, Mike decides to leave the game. As he is about to leave, KGB taunts Mike, pointing out that KGB is still up $20,000 that Mike lost previously in the first game, goading Mike to continue.

Mike hesitates; then decides to continue playing, doubling the blinds at the risk of losing a second time, and possibly his life, to Grama and KGB. As the night wears on, Mike is on the verge of losing to KGB. While in a hand, he spots a tell, a repeated behavior that allows him to know the value of KGB's hand (which is discovered to be the Oreo's that KGB eats as he's playing). Mike folds a hand, stating that KGB has a better winning hand. A befuddled KGB is irate that Mike folded the hand that KGB should've won and gotten paid for. Furious that Mike folded that hand and Mike potentially discovered his tell, KGB angrily tosses the Oreo's and begins to play on "tilt", visibly shaken that Mike has now gotten the best of him. KGB becomes frustrated that Mike won't be defeated and that Mike is getting the better of him. In the final hand, KGB taunts Mike as Mike slow-plays his hand (8 and 9 of spades) and allows a boastful KGB to emotionally bet and eventually go all-in. Mike calls, revealing that Mike flopped a nut straight (6 to the 10) to defeat KGB. KGB angrily throws a tantrum and becomes unhinged at the way Mike played him in the second game, trapping KGB into a mistake. Grama urges KGB to continue; however, completely rattled, KGB states that he is done for the night. When KGB's goons go to beat up Mike, KGB calls them off, and allows Mike to leave with his winnings.

Mike narrarates that he won over $60,000 as a result of the second game with KGB. Mike settles the remaining $15,000 of Worm's debt (calling his personal issue with Worm now "even"), he pays back $6,000 to the Chesterfield, repays the $10,000 loan to Petrovsky, and restores his original bankroll of "three stacks of high society." Mike drops out of law school, says goodbye to Jo, and leaves New York headed for Las Vegas with dreams of winning the World Series of Poker.




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. 

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