Four of the main stars of Rounders, from left to right: John Turturro, Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich. Source: Rounders via Facebook.
Rounders celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, with John Dahl’s movie shining a light on the underground world of high-stakes poker with more drama and nuance than similar films have achieved. This has ensured that Rounders’ legacy has been keenly felt in the poker industry in subsequent decades, with many professionals citing the movie as one of their biggest influences. While its financial take was modest, Rounders can boast a long-lasting influence on poker fans and casual observers alike.
Strong hand for the director
Having such a sterling cast at his disposal certainly made Dahl’s life easier. Matt Damon and Edward Norton starred in the two main roles, with Damon fresh from his career-defining role in Good Will Hunting and Norton about to experience his own with 1999’s Fight Club. Rounders caught Damon and Norton at the peak of their powers, with the duo ably supported by a supporting cast deep with talent. The story takes a typical theme for a movie centered on casino action, with Damon's and Norton’s characters needing to win big at the poker table in order to pay off a debt.
Where Rounders distinguishes itself is in its gripping depiction of intense poker action. Roger Ebert compared Rounders to an archetypal sport movie, with its usual mixture of adversity and elation, but its interpretation of poker action is far from typical. Rounders struggled to win at the high stakes of the box office (perhaps a result of the confusing name of the film – a ‘rounder’ is an individual who travels between cities in search of high-stake card games), but it hit home with aspiring poker professionals.
Many pro poker players, such as Emile Petit, have spoken about how watching Rounders was one of the biggest inspirations in encouraging them to take up poker, with Petit going on to enjoy success in high-stakes no limit holdem tournaments. The drama of Rounders attracted many new players to the world of professional poker, with the movie providing the perfect insight into the language of the game and the skills required. It is one thing knowing what it means to fold and to raise, but Rounders was also effective in demonstrating that there is a perfect time to do so.
Here are two lessons that are especially relevant to aspiring poker players.
1. A game of skill
Card games are often depicted in popular media as completely dictated by luck, but Rounders’ more technical approach to poker demonstrated that the most skillful player will often prevail. This reinforces the need for developing careful strategies when preparing to pull up a seat at a poker table.
When things don’t go so well for Damon’s character, he acknowledges that his misfortune was a consequence of a poorly conceived strategy. Rounders intelligently demonstrates the value of skill in successful poker playing, so it is no surprise that many analytical minds watching the film were prompted to investigate further into the game.
Turturro’s character offers salient advice to Damon about managing risk and bankroll, lessons that should be prominent in the mind of all poker players. In a rich analysis of the movie, The AV Club notes how Damon has to weigh up the prudent advice of John Turturro's character and the riskier approach of Norton's. Damon ultimately balances the two, using a conservative approach to safeguard the bankroll but operating ruthlessly and considerably when the opportunity presents itself.
2. Learning the language
Rounders seeks to find a balance between saturating the poker scenes with unfamiliar terminology and providing a realistic depiction of the game. Dahl largely succeeds in achieving this balance, with Rounders offering a far more nuanced and sensible depiction of poker in comparison to the absurdity of high-stake scenes in Casino Royale and The Cincinnati Kid.
Aspiring poker players can watch the tactical battle between Damon and Malkovich’s characters, seeing the emotional response and considering the value of each move. The specific language of poker can be intimidating to a newcomer unfamiliar with words like ‘flop’ and ‘flush’, but Rounders introduces terms in a way that doesn’t talk down to the audience while still demonstrating an accurate and gritty portrayal of a high-stakes poker game.
There are also lessons to be learned from Rounders for those who are not necessarily seeking to hone their poker skills.
3. Poker can be for anyone
This is not so much about the characters displayed in the film, although we do see an eclectic group of individuals pulling up seats at various poker tables, but rather about the star power that the cast boasts. By signing on hot property Matt Damon and Edward Norton to a movie about poker, a game that didn’t previously receive a great deal of exposure in big movies, Rounders proved to a generation that the card game should be held up with the same esteem as traditional sports.
Having Damon and Norton spout the technical terminology was instrumental in making poker seem far more approachable and attractive. While James Bond has gone some way in the movie world to making casino games appear glamorous, Rounders did this in a more relatable manner but with the same star power.
If people thought that poker was uncool before seeing Rounders, then their opinion would likely have been altered by the presence of Damon and Norton. The duo even entered the 1998 iteration of the World Series of Poker to demonstrate their commitment to the game. This movie opened many people’s eyes to the world of poker; even if they weren't attracted to take up poker as a new skill, it created a deeper appreciation of the diverse crowd that the game can attract.
4. Going over the top in style
John Malkovich’s character is one of the most memorable elements of the film, with Teddy KGB an instantly engaging adversary as a result of his idiosyncrasies and Malkovich’s full-throttle performance. Many have commented on how Malkovich’s portrayal sparks confusion when it comes to cinematic critique, with the actor’s choices and the questionable Russian accent making Teddy the most exaggerated element of a movie that otherwise stays true to depicting genuine poker action.
This has led some to call Malkovich’s performance a tour-de-force of quirky brilliance, while others found his bizarre traits unsettling and ineffective. One thing is for certain: Malkovich demonstrates how you can go over the top with style. Some have suggested that director Dahl may have given Malkovich free rein of the character, with the actor clearly relishing the creative freedom. Even if an audience member remained immune to the thrill of the poker game, they are unlikely to forget Malkovich’s performance any time soon.
Regardless of whether it is viewed as an effective performance or too over the top, Malkovich’s character provides the perfect counterbalance to the otherwise quiet intensity of the poker action. His mannerisms and quotable dialogue demonstrate how individuals can go over the top with style, irrespective of the setting.
Despite the initial lukewarm response, the impact of Rounders on the world of poker cannot be overstated. Whether inspiring some of the finest poker professionals or giving non-fans a deeper appreciation of the skills required, Rounders' legacy lives on after two decades.