Retro Review: Rounders
Martin Landau passed away this month. This gave me the perfect excuse to write a review for a movie diamond I watched enough times to know by heart. While Rounders has cool in spades, it sometimes gets clubbed by inaccuracies.
Martin Landau was an iconic actor, and quite a busy one at that. While we hope to get to some movies where Landau was the lead, it is the busy season for new movies, and we’re booked solid. As such, we will kick off our retrospective with a movie where he plays support to an ascending star in Matt Damon. Rounders was a slicker than goose-shit movie about professional poker.
Poker, much like Matt Damon, was a powder keg primed to explode into the mainstream. Rounders gives you a sense for how intoxicating the mano-a-mano world of high stakes poker can be. It does, however, oversell its premise. While the movie will give you a gambler’s high, any emulation of the content is a guaranteed way to end up a busted out rail-bird.
Take it from me. I used to play for a living.
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a reformed “rounder”: a professional high stakes poker player. Now a law school student, Mike uses his skill at reading people to make his way through a courtroom. His past catches up with him when his old friend Worm (Ed Norton) comes around looking to exploit Mike’s skills to pay off some loan sharks. Sucked back into the world of casinos and back-room tournaments, Mike risks letting the new world he created fall apart. He also risks his life, as Worm is an inveterate cheat, and Worm’s Russian bookie “Teddy KGB” (John Malkovich) is a rather nasty customer.
The Birth of Cool
This movie just oozes style. From glitz and glam to grit and grime, we get a whirlwind tour of the nascent poker scene. Before the World Series of Poker exploded onto TV, most poker pros played high stakes table games and invite only micro tournaments. The movie whisks you between all of these locales, as Mike and Worm have a lot of money to make, and not a whole lot of time do it. From the lights and sounds of Vegas to the smokey rooms of the local Moose Club, the sense of time and place in this movie is excellent.
The movie is also chock-a-block with acting talent. In addition to everyone I’ve already listed, John Turturro, Famke Jansen, Lenny Clark, and Martin Landau round out the cast. Everyone is a caricature, but the only one that is cranked up to eleven is Malkovich’s Teddy KGB. And that’s a good thing. Malkovich is a walking quote factory. Incidentally the quickest way to tell you had a fish on your hook at a poker table after Rounders came out was is if you heard someone in a bad Russian accent talk about being “veery un-syatisfiiiide”.
The only character that doesn’t blow you away in this movie is Martin Landau’s. This movie was following on the coat tails of Good Will Hunting. The mentor-protege aspect of that film was masterful, and to get cast in that role here was bad timing. Landau is serviceable in his role, but Robin Williams was the WSOP to Landau’s penny-ante.
If you can’t spot the sucker at the table….
My only real gripe with Rounders was the sensationalism of poker play. Rounders feels more like The Prestige or Now You See Me in presentation. It takes a germ of truth and grows out this melodramatic interpretation. High level poker players are not psychics or human polygraph machines. They’re more like computers with a lot of RAM.
A significant amount of poker pros came from the baccarat scene. As such they made their bones by being very analytical and having an insane memory for odds and probabilities. When poker became the best way to make money, they transitioned, keeping all of those skills while adding in the ability to memorize past plays in past hands for future expectations. A good “read” isn’t figuring out that you lick an oreo when you have a good hand. Generally, a read is remembering whether you bet, fold, or raise; what position you do it in; and what percentage of the pot your bets tend to be in relation to the hands you eventually show. Watching hand after hand for clues can be a boring slog, as I can attest.
While the basic gist of non-tournament poker play in presented well, the over-reliance on Mike’s preternatural psychological skills is kinda bunk. I also bristled at the table full of Vegas pros just shooting the shit at a live table. No way would a bunch of sharks just get raked to death shifting stacks back and forth while waiting for a mark. Unless the house was in on the scam, and I have to doubt they were. Lastly, while the film has a feel good end, don’t be fooled: Mike McDermott has a gambling addiction. And Landau’s father figure doesn’t exactly do an AA job of helping him out.
But I digress. Bitching about technicalities in a movie that isn’t a documentary is a bit asinine. Every other aspects of Rounders goes all in on the entertainment. Damon is charming in that Will Hunting-smartest ass in the room kind of way. John Malkovich steals every scene he’s in. The drama is tight, and the personal moments are just good enough to not be a distraction. Rounders is a favorite of mine, and has aged well. Speaking of aging…
Addendum: Shark Sightings
Lest you think the rounders disappeared when the Poker boom busted, they’re still swimming. But most of the more mathematically proficient pros are stalking new prey: Fantasy Sports Betting. Draft Kings and FanDuel have brought new fish into the betting pond, and the guppies are getting eaten alive. Picking a good line-up is all analytics, and it’s an even easier game for the baccarat crowd to transition into than Texas Hold’em was. So when you set your line-up, have fun. But if you’re looking to shoot the moon, stick to the lottery. The only sharks in those waters are the State Governments.