After he loses his law school tuition in a poker game, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) takes offense when his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) suggests he may have a gambling problem. To a “rounder” (someone who plays poker for a living), the game of poker is not a gamble at all and actually has very little to do with the hand your dealt. It’s all about playing your opponent. Acclaimed noir director John Dahl has Mike quote every card player short of Kenny Rogers to equate this philosophy to life in Rounders, a slick but compelling look at the underworld of professional poker.
After Mike has lost everything he vows to stop playing and concentrate on his law studies. Thankfully this terribly mundane existence is summed up with a title card that reads “nine months later” and we quickly realize Mike is about to fall off the wagon. The impetus for this stumble from grace is the release from prison of his best friend and card buddy Les “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton). Worm is such a good friend that he spends every waking hour doing everything he can to ruin Mike’s life. Mike is able to read an opponent’s bluff a mile away, but his best friend’s consistent string of lies and missteps somehow elude him. As soon as Worm enters the picture Mike’s girlfriend and his law studies fly out the window and Mike gets in financial trouble vouching for Worm’s considerable debts. Ironically, here’s where Kenny Rogers’ advice would have come in handy. Mike, however, doesn’t know when to walk away nor when to run, so in order to avoid the painful alternative, he and Worm go on a marathon poker spree in order to come up with $15,000 in five days.
Built around the strong lead performance of Matt Damon, Rounders sports an all star cast consisting of Edward Norton as the pesky Worm, John Turturro as The Knish, and John Malkovich as Tommy KGB, an Oreo munching Russian mobster with one of the most “annoy-yink accenz een feelum heestory.” It’s the confident performance of Damon as the compulsive competitor, however, that gives the film its energy. Meanwhile, Dahl does a good job creating an atmosphere not unlike the pool hall classic The Hustler as these poker legends populate a world entirely separate from ours, only surfacing to “feed” upon unsuspecting suckers. The cards fly fast, the unique lingo of the game zips by, but the audience never loses sight of what’s really happening, because it all has little to do with what’s on the card table.
Although it ultimately concentrates too much on the cards and not enough on the characters, Rounders does a terrific job mystifying the game you and your Friday night buddies thought you knew pretty well. It turns out there’s more to poker than Kenny Rogers would have you believe after all.