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Rounders

****
1998

‘…perhaps the most influential of modern poker dramas…’

With Oscar Isaac’s starring role in The Card Counter out now, it feels only appropriate to look back at John Dahl’s Rounders –– perhaps the most influential of modern poker dramas. When Rounders was released, Matt Damon had just broken through with his Good Will Hunting turn and Edward Norton was on the cusp of his own breakout in American History X. And in this cult-classic card drama, we discovered just how good they could be –– and how compelling poker could be in modern film.

This film depicts the gambling journey of a young poker maestro named Mike McDermott (Damon), who nearly surrenders the game for the sake of his relationship. When childhood friend Worm (Norton) gets out of prison however, he lures Mike back into the poker world. We see Worm getting in over his head with various gambling debts, often on Mike’s name. Mike is forced to play in high-stakes games to settle the debts — reluctantly diving back into his true passion in the process. Ultimately, Mike squares off with an old rival named Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) in a series of games that can clear Worm’s debts and leave Mike with the money he needs to pursue his ultimate dream of playing the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Rounders is not a perfect film; it’s somewhat repetitive and the script, as a Time Out review put it, feels utterly predictable. But it helped to advance the careers of several star actors, and established the notion that an indie card flick could be a success –– paving the way in some respects for the likes of Mississippi Grind and The Card Counter to come. The legacy of Rounders, however, took the form of a spike in poker interest the early-2000s. Chris Moneymaker, whose amateur-to-champion rise sparked the “poker boom” and inspired droves to join the amateur ranks, has directly attributed his love for the game to this movie. Today, that impact has subsided somewhat, because in the U.S. in particular, poker has been partially outlawed. That said, there are still opportunities to play poker online, and there’s some legal progress being made toward more poker regulation. It could be that the impact of Rounders in this respect will outlast even a decade of legal prohibition.

Whether or not that’s the case, the film will always be beloved by its fans, and by legions who got into poker in its aftermath. Plus, there have been whispers of a sequel. Mike (Damon) asks at one point, “If you had to do it all over again, knowing what would happen, would you make the same choice?” Ask that question in terms of a sequel, and I think we know our answer.

Specially penned for film-authority.com

by Jennifer Birch

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  1. Ooh a guest presenter. Bonjour Jennifer! The only one of these card movies you’ve done that I am going to be seeing is Mississippipippy Grind, that one appeals more than the others from your reviews.

  2. Poker has been outlawed because of the attendant gambling that goes along with it. Sometimes I wonder if poker, and other games of skill/chance, are more of a vehicle to let people gamble than because they actually enjoy the game.

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