Film / Rounders
Take it down.

"Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."

Rounders (1998) is about the underground world of poker in New York City starring Matt Damon as Mike McDermott and Edward Norton as Worm and a bit part for John Malkovich as the Russian gangster Teddy KGB. This movie has become a cult classic, especially because of the current popularity of Texas Hold 'Em style poker.

The plot involves Edward Norton's character Worm being heavily in debt to gangsters, so how do they decide to pay off their debt? Why, by playing poker of course.

Rounders contains examples of:

  • Alliterative Name: Mike McDermott
  • Big Applesauce
  • Big Brother Mentor: Knish has shades of this. When Mike loses his bankroll to Teddy KGB at the start of the film, Knish sets him up with a part-time job to help make ends meet, and tries to school Mike on how to set himself up to get by in life, and essentially how not to gamble with more than he can afford to lose.
  • Boring, but Practical: Knish's playstyle perfectly exemplifies this, as he says when running down Mike for getting himself into so much trouble.
    Knish: "You did it to yourself. You had to put it all on the line for some Vegas pipedream."
    Mike: "Yeah, I took a risk. I took a risk. You, you see all the angles, you never have the fuckin' stones to play one."
    Knish: "Stones? You little punk. I'm not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, action, the fucking pipedreams of winning the World Series on ESPN."
  • Card Sharp: Mike's old buddy Lester "Worm" Murphy is really good at cheating in poker and not getting caught—up to a point. Mike notes that Lester's greed gives him away because he wins far too often to to appear to be plausibly playing fair.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: Subverted, one of them doesn't want to cheat, they get caught anyway.
  • Cyclic National Fascination: This film, along with the invention of the hole-card camera (which made it possible for Poker to truly become a spectator sport) and the rise of online poker sites, is credited with the sudden rise in popularity of Texas Hold 'Em Poker at the start of the 21st century.
  • Duel to the Death: Strongly implied in the climactic match, though only on Mike's side. If Mike failed to win enough to cover the debt, Grama was present to make his bones with Teddy's organization—and the most common way to do that was killing someone. He would have really preferred killing Worm, but was quite content to make his bones with Mike. When Teddy lost, he told his mooks to pay Mike off and let him go, leaving a disappointed Grama to flip a table and stalk off, bones ummade.
  • Evil Debt Collector: Grama.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: How do you know when a guy's recently been wiped out at the table? He's driving a delivery truck.
  • Fixing the Game: Lester just can't help himself. It's like Chronic Cheating Disorder.
  • Insistent Terminology: Worm wasn't printing those (counterfeit) credit cards, he was distributing. It's different!
  • Karma Houdini: Grama, who is a thoroughly mean and sadistic brute. In the end the only comeuppance he gets is that he's cheated out of killing Worm—but in exchange he (along with Teddy KGB) gets a share of about sixty thousand dollars, the money Worm owed plus interest.
  • Large Ham: Teddy KGB.
  • Meaningful Name: Lester "Worm" Murphy is a liar, a cheat, a coward a Poisonous Friend.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Worm and Mike catch one when they get caught cheating in a game against state troopers.
  • The Obstructive Love Interest: Subverted by Jo, who spends most of her screen time acting cold and distrustful towards Mike... however, she's entirely justified in fearing that he'll fall into his old habits, and they don't wind up together at the end of the film; even though Mike is back in the black, she correctly realizes that she's not cut out to deal with the ups and downs of the gambling lifestyle.
  • Old Friend: The basic relationship between Mike and Worm after Worm is released from prison.
  • Oh, Crap!: During the game against Teddy KGB at the beginning of the film, Mike loses everything when KGB draws a higher full house hand. Mike's narration, and the look on his face apply the trope; he knows he's lost even before KGB flips his cards over.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: After Mike ends up with winning hand at the end, KGB is pissed, but knows he lost fair. His mooks are on the verge of kicking the shit out of Mike, but KGB pulls them up short on their leashes and tells them to give Mike his money and let him go. Not only was this a case of Even Evil Has Standards, but when you look at the scene, the place was full of other people who'd suspended their games to come over and watch the showdown between KGB and Mike. KGB has to be pragmatic. It would be very bad for his underground poker game business if word got around that he lost fair and square, then refused to pay the man who won and let his mooks beat the shit out of him.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: Averted, as much as this can be averted in a poker movie. Skipping hours of uninteresting hands, any of the setups between Mike and Teddy at both the beginning and the end of the movie are entirely plausible and even expected in a night-long game of poker, which usually results in a total loss of stack for one player. That is, unless you know Teddy's Oreo tell.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Lester decides to cheat at poker in a room full of New York state cops. When he gets caught, the cops beat the shit out of him and Mike and take away all their winnings.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Lester is to Mike. They grew up together and Mike always looks out for Lester like a brother, but Lester's cheating and unscrupulous nature nearly gets Mike killed in the end.
  • Sherlock Scan: Mike, when reading the table at his law school professor's round, impressing everyone.
  • Stock Footage: From the World Series of Poker, specifically the 1988 main event's final hand between Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel. (Chan also makes a cameo.)
  • The Tell: Mike figures out in the film's climactic poker match that Teddy KGB's tell is linked to the Oreo cookies he always has: when he pulls apart a cookie but doesn't eat it, he has nothing and he's bluffing; when he does eat it, he really does have a winning hand. Mike, who needs to win quickly, then reveals the tell to Teddy to rattle him into making a bigger mistake.
  • The Mafiya: Teddy KGB has all the trappings of a vor v zakone, and looks to recruit Grama as one of his goons. If Mike loses his final poker game, Grama gets to make his bones - on Mike's body.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Teddy and his Oreos.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Teddy KGB really freaks out after experiencing a bad beat and losing the film's climactic poker match to Mike. Thankfully, he's honorable enough to recognize that he lost fair and square and he gives Mike his winnings rather than ordering his goons to beat Mike to a pulp.
  • We Do Not Know Each Other: Mike and Worm use this trope when they work together at the same poker table several times throughout the movie. This backfires in a major way during their final game, where Worm gets caught cheating when dealing a winning full house to Mike, thereby pissing off a room full of New York state cops.
  • What the Hell, Hero??: Mike gets hit with this from both Knish and Petrovsky when he tells them how much he's in debt for ($15,000).
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Teddy KGB is ostensibly Russian, but his accent appears to be an entity all its own. And yet it works.
  • Work Off the Debt
  • Worthy Opponent: When Mike beats Teddy KGB in the climactic poker game at the end of the movie, he treats Mike as this, knowing how honest Mike is compared to Worm.
    KGB: "He beat me. Straight up. Pay him. Pay that man his money."