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Rounders is a 1998 film about the underground world of high-stakes poker. Directed by John Dahl and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, the movie follows two friends who need to quickly earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a huge debt. The term "rounder" refers to a person whose sole means of earning a living is by playing cards.

The movie opened to mixed reviews and made only a modest amount of money. However, with the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, Rounders has become a cult hit.


Poker player Mike McDermott loses his entire bankroll of $30,000 in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB," a Russian Mobster, who runs an illegal underground poker room. Mike decides to concentrate on his law school studies and promises his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo not to gamble. Fellow rounder Knish offers a part-time job driving a delivery truck to make ends meet.

Mike delivers papers to his law professor, Petrovsky, who is playing poker with several judges. Watching their reactions, Mike pushes in a big raise for Petrovsky. The judges ask how Mike can raise without knowing their hands. Mike offers to tell each player what they're holding in exchange for a clerkship for Judge Marinacci. He guesses correctly each hand and they fold, only to learn that Petrovsky held a busted straight. Judge Marinacci vows to put Mike on the short list for the clerkship.

Mike goes to pick up his best friend and the rounder who taught him to play, Les "Worm" Murphy, being released from prison. Worm asks to be taken directly to a game and Mike stakes him to $220. Mike returns and joins the game, pretending to be a stranger to Worm. They win big.

Mike arrives home late. Jo wants assurance that Mike didn't play cards. He lies. Jo finds a "gangster roll" of bills in his pocket. When she confronts him, Mike admits that he felt alive at the game.

Mike's studies suffer as he helps Worm pay down a debt accrued before prison. Worm is confronted by an old partner, Grama. He is not only in debt to Grama but to Grama's bankroller, Teddy KGB. With interest, Worm owes $25,000.

Mike meets Petrovsky at a bar to discuss his classwork. Petrovsky admires his passion for cards. Mike returns home to find Worm waiting, bruised by Grama. At the apartment, Jo has taken her belongings and moved out.

Worm suggests they go to Atlantic Citymarker to play poker. He informs Mike of his debt with Grama, but doesn't mention Teddy KGB.

The next day, Mike shows up late and unprepared for his role as lead counsel in a moot court hearing. His classmates, including Jo, are aggravated. Alone at home, Mike watches the final hand from the 1988 World Series of Poker, where Johnny Chan checks and traps Erik Seidel into going all-in against a better hand.

Petra, a friend from the local poker club, tells Mike of a debt he owes due to the money Worm's been borrowing under his name. He pays what he can. She tries to kiss him, but Mike pulls away. When she leaves, Mike throws a glass against a wall.

He finds Worm hiding at a church as he did when they were kids. Mike insists they go see Grama about getting the debt paid off. Grama gives five days to pay off the remaining $15,000. Mike vouches for Worm and promises the money will be paid on time.

Mike and Worm find games they can work but Mike won't let Worm play, concerned that he will cheat. After 64 hours of play and only $7,000 earned, Worm mentions a "municipal workers" game in Binghamton where they could earn them the rest of the money. The workers turn out to be off-duty police officers.

Mike gets into the game and Worm promises not to return until the next morning. Mike wins pots legitimately and his stack grows with each passing hour. But suddenly Worm shows up and takes a seat at the table.

Mike acts as though the two are strangers. An officer notices Worm dealing off the bottom of the deck and the two are accused as cheaters, even though Mike was trying to play straight. The officers beat them both, take their money and toss them out.

Worm suggests they go on the run. He admits the money is owed to Teddy KGB. Mike drives back alone, willing to face the consequences himself.

Grama refuses to grant Mike more time. He tries to get a loan from Knish, but is refused. A desperate Mike explains the situation to Petrovsky, who is sympathetic. Petrovsky lends what he can spare, $10,000. Mike uses the money to play one-on-one against Teddy KGB.

In a quick match, Mike doubles his money and is able to pay off Worm's debt with $5,000 left to pay off part of his debt to Petrovsky. Teddy KGB, however, goads Mike into returning to the table.

Mike proceeds to lose most of the money before him. Teddy KGB mocks him and Grama is poised to carry out the physical threat against Mike.

On a final hand, Mike is dealt a 9 and an 8, and the flop is a 6, a 7, and a 10, giving him a straight. Remembering the final hand of the 1988 World Series, he checks and then calls Teddy's bets, enduring repeated taunts. Mike calls his final all-in bet and shows him the straight. Grama is furious but Teddy accepts his defeat.

Mike leaves with enough money to pay his debts. Plus he now has the same $30,000 he started with. He comes across Jo and the two part amicably. Mike takes off to catch a flight to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.


Rounders began filming in December 1997 and was set mostly in New York, with the notable exceptions being that the law school scenes were filmed at Rutgersmarker Law School in Newark, New Jerseymarker and the State Trooper poker game and parking lot scenes which were taped at B.P.O Elks Lodge on Spruce Avenue in Ridgefield Park, New Jerseymarker.

Featured cast


Rounders was released on September 11, 1998 in 2,176 theaters and grossed $8.5 million during its opening weekend. It went on to make $22.9 million domestically.

Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote: "Rounders sometimes has a noir look but it never has a noir feel, because it's not about losers (or at least it doesn't admit it is). It's essentially a sports picture, in which the talented hero wins, loses, faces disaster, and then is paired off one last time against the champ". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: "Though John Dahl's Rounders finally adds up to less than meets the eye, what does meet the eye (and ear) is mischievously entertaining". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The card playing is well-staged, and even those who don't know a Texas hold-'em ("the Cadillac of poker") from a Texas hoedown will get a vicarious charge out of the action". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Norton, cast in what might have once been the Sean Penn role (hideous shirts, screw-you attitude), gives Worm a shifty, amphetamine soul and a pleasing alacrity ... Norton's performance never really goes anywhere, but that's okay, since the story is just an excuse to lead the characters from one poker table to the next".

Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone said of John Malkovich's performance: "Of course, no one could guess the extent to which Malkovich is now capable of chewing scenery. He surpasses even his eyeballrolling as Cyrus the Virus in Con Air. Munching Oreo cookies, splashing the pot with chips (a poker no-no) and speaking with a Russian accent that defies deciphering ("Ho-kay, Meester sum of a beech"), Malkovich soars so far over the top, he's passing Pluto". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle said of Damon's performance: "Mike should supply the drive the film otherwise lacks, and Damon doesn't. We might believe he can play cards, but we don't believe he needs to do it, in the way, say, that the 12-year-old Mozart needed to write symphonies. He's not consumed with genius. He's a nice guy with a skill". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, "The main problem with Rounders is that the movie never quite knows what it is about: What is the moral ante?"

Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has a following, particularly among poker enthusiasts.In an interesting chicken or the egg situation, some speculate the film is directly responsible for the recent increase in the popularity of Texas hold 'em, while others believe that the substantial increase in the popularity of poker has nothing to do with the movie, but that same increase does have everything to do with the come-lately increase in the popularity of the film, so many years after its theatrical release.

There are pro poker players today who credit the movie for getting them into the game. The film drew in recent successful players such as Hevad Khan, Gavin Griffin and Dutch Boyd.

One of the best descriptions of the movie's influence comes from pro player Vanessa Rousso: "There have been lots of movies that have included poker, but only Rounders really captures the energy and tension in the game. And that's why it stands as the best poker movie ever made."


Ideas for a sequel are in the works.

Rounders 2 (2012) is currently categorized as in development on IMDB.


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