Watching ‘Rounders’ as Someone with Very Little Poker Experience

I've played five card draw and have never actually gambled -- let's see how this goes.

by Kali Tuttle

Rounders is about a poker genius, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), on a mission to regain the money he lost to Russian gangster, Teddy “KGB” (John Malkovich). The games are all about subtlety and attention to detail. You have to know what your opponents are holding while masking your hand.

When I think of playing cards, I’m thinking Uno and maybe a game of Gin or two. Every time I watch a movie or TV show with a poker game, my mind goes blank and all I can think is, “Is anyone actually going to eat the snacks on the table?”

I watched Rounders with a wide-eyed curiosity. You don’t necessarily need knowledge of poker to enjoy the film, but it sure helps. Take a look at some of the most iconic scenes through the eyes of someone who thinks a full house is a beloved 90s sitcom.

Mike Loses All His Money

Rounders begins with Mike getting in on a high-stakes poker game with KGB. He’s cocky and thinks he can beat the stoic Russian — he is wrong. Mike loses all his money in the game. He hits rock bottom and has to take a blue-collar job to make ends meet and pay for law school.

Matt Damon narrates Mike’s inner monologue, giving the audience some context for what’s happening. It’s helpful to see how Mike can almost perfectly guess what everyone’s hand is and what they’re thinking. However, I had trouble following along. I could see that Mike was trying to intimidate KGB, but it didn’t work.

I related to KGB in this scene because instead of focusing solely on the card game, he was eating Oreos. Finally, someone eats the food at the table in a movie poker game instead of just staring at the cards. This is the kind of poker player that deserves to take all of Mike’s savings.

The Judges’ Poker Game

One of the biggest poker games in town is the judges’ poker game. Here, the rich magistrates of the city gather to play cards and gamble their wealth. Mike’s professor is a part of this game, which allows him to enter the room when the judges are playing. He impresses them by guessing what each of their hands are and earning his professor a big pot.

This little stunt allows Mike to establish himself with the judges and the professor as an intelligent man. It’s this brilliance that later endears Mike enough to his professor for him to secure a $10,000 loan. It’s also one of the last straws for Mike and his girlfriend’s relationship.

I have no idea how Mike was able to figure out each of the judges’ cards. There’s a mathematical way of counting cards and remembering what was dealt before, but that may as well be a completely different language to me. I can’t even guess what someone’s last card is in Uno, which is why I lose a lot.

Worm and Mike Go Rounding

Mike’s best friend, Worm (Edward Norton), gets out of jail and immediately heads back to the poker tables to earn some money. He pressures Mike to join him, which he eventually does after wrecking his relationship with his girlfriend. With the two of them playing, the game changes.

Rather than Mike having to read everyone and fend for himself, he has a partner to help him out. Of course, Worm’s version of help involves some shady dealing. While in jail, he learned how to handle cards well and is fond of dealing off the bottom of the deck.

Being a fan of David Blaine’s card magic (like, huge fan), I know how good card handling can fool anyone. If you aren’t paying attention, someone could easily rig the deal and cheat the game. My only gripe with this in Rounders is that you have to set the cards up for this to work. I can’t figure out how Worm was able to set up the cards so that he and Mike got such good hands. I’m chalking this up to the fact that I have no idea how professional poker dealing is done.

Mike Beats KGB

When Mike re-challenges KGB to win back his money, he wins. It’s a game of wits, not luck. Mike knows what KGB is holding and is able to finally figure out his tell. With this information, he reads KGB like a book. He completes his character arc to regain the skill and prestige of being a great poker player.

Just like the first game of poker that started the film, I still have no idea what’s going on. KGB and Mike could have been playing with blank cards and I would have been none the wiser. I was still relating to KGB occasionally eating Oreos. After a while, I gave up listening to Matt Damon’s narration of what was happening and decided to focus purely on the facial expressions of the actors. That ended up being a great idea, as Rounders allowed both actors to flex their acting chops.

I was unsure if Mike had won the game until KGB became furious. I understood that Mike had gone all in and that he was trying to make KGB back out. It worked in the end and, though I may not have understood the situation as well I should have, it made for a satisfying ending for our hero.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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1 comment

Nick Kush September 19, 2023 - 8:22 pm

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