At the movies: Looking at Rounders, 20 years later

Matt Damon was smiling at the end of Rounders
Matt Damon was smiling at the end of Rounders

Rounders celebrates its 20th anniversary in the fall, but I’m not going to wait that long for my hat tip. It’s one of my favorite movies for all sorts of reasons — the characters, the dialogue, the subject matter, the collection of actors. With that, here are 20 snippets of the film and my side commentary, a respectful nod to a film that’s held up very well for two decades.

Is there some fantasy overlap here? A modest amount, I think. I’m not going to force it, but you’ll see a few parallel themes.

“Here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.”

A simple but poignant way to open, along with the elegant homage to classic poker books of the past. Heck, even the rolls of cash squirreled away is something many poker players can relate to. And there’s something about heading to a game in the middle of the night, when the significant other is asleep.

In a live fantasy auction, about two orbits (maybe an eyelash over 30 minutes) should give you a fair idea of who’s running what type of strategy, who’s chasing their bids or tossing-and-ducking, what type of room you’re engaged with. The opening quote from Rounders applies to our world, too.

“Joey Knish, a New York rounding legend.”

Knish was named after Bagel, a real-life NYC rounder and as solid a guy as you could meet in that cutthroat underworld. (I’ve met a bunch of poker players in my day. Maybe two of them I’d loan a dollar to.)

The only thing more intoxicating than the sound of chips splashing together is the sound of them being racked up. Even if you’re not the person racking, the sound sets off the instant dopamine rush.

“In a legal sense, can (freaking) Steinbrenner just move he Yankees? Does he have the (freaking) right to just move them?”

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t learn that yet?”

“No, we get to Steinebrenner in the third year.”

A shout out to Lenny Venito, a classic “that guy” who you might remember from the Sopranos (Murmur, one of Chris Maltosanti’s underlings). He also had a cameo in the Ice Juice crashes episode in the second year of Billions, perhaps the best episode of the season.

[Mike drops in on the judges game, reads everyone’s hand blind, encourages the professor to bully everyone out of the pot.]

I find it hard to believe this cold read is easily done, though co-writer Brian Koppelman insists he’s seen Phil Hellmuth do it. One of the problems with the setup of the scene is the game is limit poker; even if the professor bets the river, one of the other hands could look him up with just one more bet. The DA and his two pair might call just out of curiosity, with enough of a hand that stands as a bluff catcher.

But Rounders is a story about personalities and conflicts. Nitpicking the flow of the game is not the aim here.

[Mike picks up his old friend Worm, upon Worm’s release from prison.]

Here’s the key relationship and conflict of the film; Mike’s attempt to go straight, while Worm wants back on the grift as soon as possible. Although the first extended scene with Mike and Worm is harmless, catching-up stuff, the two will soon be at odds with their chosen paths.

[Mike and Worm head to the trust fund game, clean out the secret-handshake kids.]

As Mike points out, this game would probably be an easy clean no matter if he and Worm were cheating or not. The miraculous thing is that Worm knows precisely when a game is going on the second he gets released, but let’s not nitpick a plot device. It’s also a bit of a reach for Mike to instantly raise the second he gets dealt the split-pot guarantee card, the ace of spades, but given that he only has $100 to start with, maybe he wants to get going immediately.

Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career. 

This is just about universally true. Losing hurts more than winning feels good. Unless you nail a score that’s for a ridiculous sum of money, you’re probably caught up in this frame, like the rest of us.

“Amarillo Slim, the greatest proposition gambler of all time, held to his father’s maxim. You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once.”

This advice applies directly to fantasy trades. You’re looking for a long-term relationship. If you screw someone over, it’s going to be the last time you get anything done with them. Think about the big picture, the extended haul.

“Why does this still seem like gambling to you? . . . It’s a skill game, Jo!”

And yes, fantasy is a skill game, too (thank you, lobbyists). Let Gretchen Mol know that if you run into her on the street.

“I mean tight but aggressive. And I do mean aggressive. That’s your style, Professor.”

Mike’s urging his Professor to be a TAG at the tables, and it’s good advice for fantasy players. Selective, intelligent aggression is a solid FAAB playbook.

“I always told her she’d be a good card player. Know exactly when to release a shitty hand.”

One of the worst things you can do in fantasy is be afraid to cut someone, especially a player at the end of your depth chart. You can’t play scared, can’t be afraid to make a mistake. Doug Pederson and Nick Foles emphatically underscored this point over the last month.

“Ah, the 1988 World Series.”

If anyone finds their way into your appartment and can instantly recognize the 1988 World Series (in any sport) and then wants to stay, please, for the love of all holy, insist they stay.

[Constant smoking throughout the film.]

One of the reminders that this movie is 20 years old. You can’t smoke indoors much anymore, and amen to that. Interestingly, they wanted Worm to be a smoker for this role, but Ed Norton wouldn’t sign off on it.

“Man, you’re fixing to go down hard, and it’s almost like you want to.”

One of three classic debates with Mike and Worm, which get progressively more contentious. Mike is frustrated at the hot dog stand, significantly annoyed in the abandoned church, and at the end of his rope outside the Lodge.

The timing, pace, and tone of these exchanges is perfect. Mike feels he owes Worm for his earlier silence and wants to do right by his friend, but there comes a point it’s not worth it.

“No time for a (freaking nap).”

“I know what you need.”

I’ve paid for a professional shave once in my life. It was pricy, but unquestionably worth it.

“You should have played those kings, Mike.”

How awesome is Worm? He’s just been directly responsible for getting Mike busted and beaten up, and his first comment essentially is “we should have cheated even more than we did.” Worm until the end.

The extended argument is the best scene of the film, Worm and Mike directly challenging the other’s world view, realizing that their relationship may have finally run its course, understanding that loyalty is not a forever thing.

“I’ll see you when I see you.”

Worm’s second-to-last line. Co-writer Brian Koppelman nods to it at the end of Ocean’s 13.

“At least you’re rounding again, right? You’re gonna thank me for that someday.”

Classic Worm. He’s basically ruined Mike’s life in countless ways, but he acts like he’s done him a favor. (And who knows, maybe he has? Let’s see if they ever make Rounders 2, and how Mike McD winds up.)

[Professor loans Mike 10K in the middle of the night.]

The best professor I ever had invited me to his football pool and his poker game, but he never loaned me any money. Maybe I should have had the nerve to ask.

[After a 6-7-T rainbow flop]

“You’re on a draw, Mike? Go away.”

A curious comment from KGB given how uneventful and dry that flop is. There’s no flush draw. The only draws Mike could have are hands that are garbage before the flop. Of course, Mike’s already flopped the nuts. KGB probably has a good ten, maybe Ace-Ten, maybe an overpair. Even aces is possible.

[Two of clubs on the turn.]

The classic brick. Anytime I want a miss on the turn, I’m always thinking “something like the two of clubs would be nice.”  A low, unconnected card.

And you know what happens from here. Mike’s straight holds up; KGB tilt-bets the rest of his chips, but takes the loss like a man. Mike pays back all of his debts, has a final word with Jo, gets back to the 30K he started the film with. And now he heads to Vegas, with a legitimate shot at doing some damage in the Main Event — the Moneymaker Effect hadn’t caught on yet.

I’d wish everyone good luck this year, but we know it’s not about that in our game.

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