"Listen, here's the thing: If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker."
-- Opening line from the film Rounders, as spoken by Mike McDermott (Matt Damon)
Rounders was born too soon. When the film debuted in September of 1998, televised poker was a once-a-year, one-hour proposition on ESPN. Online gambling sites virtually didn't exist. College students were still gambling on sporting events or in fantasy leagues. And so Rounders, starring Damon as a law student whose real talent is poker, never became a zeitgeist film. It never did for poker what Saturday Night Fever did for disco.
The film, with an outstanding cast that also featured Edward Norton, John Malkovich, Martin Landau and John Turturro, opened to mixed reviews. On Good Morning America, critic Joel Siegel opined, "Good cast, but fold," whereas Roger Ebert wrote, "as a poker movie, it's knowledgeable and entertaining."
Ebert, a casual poker player himself, astutely observed that Rounders is anything but a cautionary tale. "If this movie was about alcoholism," he wrote, "the hero would regain consciousness after the DTs and order another double."
Although it was No. 1 the week it opened, Rounders only grossed $22.91 million at the box office. It didn't finish in the year's top 10 in grosses, which, considering that both Godzilla and Patch Adams did, is what poker players would call a "bad beat."
But this is the age of DVD. And on home video Rounders has found, if not a massive audience, then at least a fiercely loyal one among college-aged men. And why not? While the film's plot is rote, the characters and the feel of Jonathan Dahl's film is genuine.
The plot, in brief: Damon stakes his entire fortune to a No-Limit Hold 'em game against Malkovich's Russian Mafioso in hopes of earning enough money to go to Las Vegas. Instead, he loses $30,000 and promises his live-in girlfriend and fellow law-school student (played by Gretchen Mol), that he'll quit cold turkey. Then his old poker pal, Worm (Norton), is released from prison, and Damon finds himself being sucked back toward the green felt. "I feel like Buckner walking back into Shea," Damon says.
The characters are both well-defined and easily identifiable to anyone who's spent much time in a card room. There's Damon, standing at that Frostian "two roads diverged in a yellow road" spot in his existence. There's Worm (Norton) the evil half of this Butch & Sundance tandem, who says things like, "In the poker game of life, women are the rake, man. They are the [bleepin'] rake." There's Malkovich as the sinister Teddy KGB, a ruthless Russian player, and Turturro as Knish, the "grinder" who earns a steady but unspectacular living by playing prudent poker.
"It's not really about card playing," wrote Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter in his '98 review. "It's about talent, and whether you let it corrupt or liberate your character."
And yet Rounders is to poker what Big Night was to cooking: Serious devotees are more richly rewarded. There are the little things, such as McDermott studying video of the 1988 WSOP showdown between legends Johnny Chan and Eric Seidel -- studying it more rigorously than he ever does a law tome. There's Worm dismissing the luck aspect of poker: "Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every year? What, are they the luckiest guys in Vegas?"
There's the addiction, so powerful that while Damon cannot give up cards, he does possess the will power to spurn the advances of Famke Janssen. Is there a better example of poker's addictive potency than that?
"Rounders is the bible," says Danny, a junior at Indiana University.
"I watch that movie now," says his friend Andy, "and it means so much more to me than before I started playing."
"It's a helluva lot better than [ESPN's] Tilt," adds a third IU student, Scott.
With its sharp wit and a protagonist whom every college guy can identify with (that is, if that guy is a superior player with a girlfriend who resembles Gretchen Mol), Rounders has, in its DVD phase, become the film that launched a thousand chips.
"I watched Rounders on DVD my first semester freshman year," says John Stolzmann, "and for Christmas that year I asked for books about poker." Four years later Stolzmann earned $1.4 million, a sum even Mike McDermott might not fathom in a No-Limit tourney. Like McDermott, he dropped out of school and headed to Las Vegas.
David Williams, who dropped out of Southern Methodist after finishing second in the '04 World Series of Poker, also credits Rounders as being his introduction to No-Limit. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of college males have sat around in dorm rooms ingesting the film. Not a few of them have observed Damon's character (think Will Hunting having taken the LSAT and enrolled at Columbia Law) and imagined themselves in that role.
"I saw Rounders and I didn't think, This is a bad-ass movie," says Andy McClure, yet another college dropout who has done well for himself playing professionally. "I thought, This is a bad-ass future -- for me."
And so, seven years after its initial release, Rounders is more popular than ever. It may be the most influential recruiting film to hit college campuses since Top Gun.