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Film / Rounders

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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, Edward Norton as Worm, and John Malkovich as Russian gangster Teddy KGB. This movie has become a cult classic, especially because of the current popularity of Texas Hold 'Em-style poker.

Mike McDermott once had dreams of winning the World Series of Poker, but instead lost spectacularly while trying to raise the funds he needed to travel to Las Vegas. Now a talented law student, he seeks to improve his lot in life without going back to his gambling days—but then his childhood friend Worm shows up, owing a substantial debt and asking Mike to help him out. Can Mike help out his oldest friend without getting drawn back into the life? Or will the thrill of the game beat out his attempt to go straight?

Rounders contains examples of:

  • Alliterative Name: Mike McDermott
  • Big Applesauce: New York City is apparently full of underground poker games, legal and illegal.
  • Big Brother Mentor: 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, 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.
  • Book Ends: Mike starts and ends with "three stacks of high society" ($30,000). Lampshaded in his ending narration when he says he's back to where he started.
  • Boring, but Practical: Knish's playstyle is very safe, 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.
  • The Cameo: World Series of Poker champion Johnny Chan plays himself in a flashback.
  • 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 be plausibly playing fair.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: Subverted. One of them doesn't want to cheat, the other guy cheats for the both of them, they get caught.
  • 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.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Worm's cheating sabotages Mike's efforts to play straight and win, even though both of them are talented enough to play fair and make plenty of money.
  • Didn't Think This Through: It looks like Mike is going to get hit by this trope during the game against Teddy KGB at the climax; he had won enough to pay off Worm's debt and still have half of what he needed to pay back to Petrovsky left over, only to have the poker game he lost at the beginning of the film rubbed in his face, making him opt to continue playing, and wind up one hand away from losing everything again.
  • Evil Debt Collector: Grama uses threats and violence to collect.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: The final hand from the 1988 World Series of Poker, which Mike watches on VHS in the middle of the movie, foreshadows his final hand against Teddy KGB at the end. Though there are a few differences in gameplay, both hands feature a player flopping the nut straight, slow-playing, and getting their opponent to go all-in.
  • Gambling Brawl: Worm attempts to cheat a bunch of cops in a game, and ends up getting both him and Mike violently beaten.
  • Hate Sink: Lester "Worm" Murphy is a liar, a cheat, a Dirty Coward and a toxic friend.
  • I Owe You My Life: Why Mike goes out of his way to help Worm instead of leaving him to rot. Aside from being childhood friends, Worm took the fall when a betting scam they planned got exposed.
  • Informed Attribute: When they first meet on screen, Grama is implied by Worm to have been his dumb lackey in the past, before Worm went to jail. However, Grama behaves in such an opposite way - he's smart, savvy, tough as nails and a dangerous threat - that it's difficult to envision him as ever having worked for Worm.
  • Insistent Terminology: Worm wasn't printing those (counterfeit) credit cards, he was "distributing". It's different!
  • Intentional Mess Making: Teddy KGB aims to unnerve his opponent by spilling his chips into the pot haphazardly. Mike asks Teddy not to "splash the pot," but Teddy persists in this messy betting, because he's an arrogant Jerkass.
  • 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.
  • Layman's Terms: Generally puts more effort into the poker gameplay than most movies, but still often strays into simplified, exaggerated circumstances to add extra drama for the viewer who might not be as well versed in specifics and will respond best to more dramatic circumstances.
    • The first hand of the movie where Mike loses his entire bankroll features Teddy KGB betting nearly three times the pot on the river with his full house. Bets of this size are almost never seen, especially among good players. Probably done so Mike would have the right amount of chips left to make a reasonable-sized all-in raise.
    • The hand between Mike and Johnny Chan that occurred before the events of the movie took place at a limit game with bets of three hundred and six hundred dollars. As told, after Mike's re-re-re-raise of Chan pre-flop, the size of the pot would be about 2,625 dollars, and Chan would need to put in 300 dollars more to continue in the hand. Meaning he is getting close to nine-to-one on a call. It makes no sense to fold in those circumstances, and even an amateur would be aware of that, much less a world-champion with millions of dollars. Obviously done so Mike can have a moment where he outplays a professional to feed his confidence.
    • The first hand of Mike's heads up game against KGB. With blinds of fifty and one hundred, Mike open-raises to one thousand with kings, a ten big blind open that only a novice would even consider doing. Equally bizarre is KGB's re-raise to five thousand, which represents half his stack, and then folding to Mike's shove. There is no hand that KGB should be putting half his chips in with pre-flop that he isn't willing to go all the way with, and him doing so is a complete game theory disaster.
    • KGB again shows his propensity for obscene over-bets in the final hand of the game. His flop bet of two thousand into four hundred, whatever he actually has, is bizarre and not something a good player would ever be expected to do.
  • Loan Shark: Worm had accumulated several fairly small poker debts before going to jail. His former partner, Grama, sensing an opportunity for a good score, goes around and buys off all Worm's creditors, meaning that Worm now has one big debt to him. Grama states at least once that he's more than willing to use the traditional loan-shark "collection methods", but the real threat to Worm — and by extension, Mike — is fellow poker player and underground poker club owner Teddy KGB, who is called KGB because of his strong connections to the Russian mob. Turns out that Teddy provided the money for Grama's business venture, figuring they'd both make a nice profit from the interest.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Echo: Worm dismisses Mike's mentor Knish by saying "He sees all the angles, but he never has the fuckin' stones to play one." Later, when Mike asks Knish for a huge loan and Knish (understandably) refuses, Mike says the same line right to Knish's face. Worm's influence has been rubbing off on Mike.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Worm and Mike get beaten to a pulp 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 he can't leave behind the gambling lifestyle, and she's not prepared to follow him into that life.
  • 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 the 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.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Grama gives Worm and Mike 5 days to collect $15,000 to pay Worm's debt. Mike spends 3 days without sleep rounding and cleaning out various games around New York. Then he loses it all on day 3 when Worm is caught cheating.
  • Sherlock Scan: Mike, when reading the table at his law school professor's poker game, correctly reads each and every person at the table, 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 in a flashback.)
  • 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.
  • 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: Worm to Mike, but it's played with. They grew up together and Mike always looks out for Worm like a brother, but Worm's cheating and unscrupulous nature nearly gets Mike killed in the end. But Mike goes back to his dream of playing in the World Series of Poker in the end of the movie, which is presented as, if not a positive thing, at least an inevitability for him. Worm brought Mike back into "rounding," but Mike ultimately chooses to stay there. Like Mike's law professor tells him, you can't go against your nature.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Teddy and his Oreos.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Teddy KGB throws out his Oreos and messily splashes his chips after Mike exposes his Tell. Then he 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 pretend to be strangers 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 and getting the both of them beaten to a pulp.