Released in 1998, Rounders tells a gritty tale of back-room poker, friendship and redemption. Featuring a cast of talented actors from several generations of film, the story takes us on the journey of Mike and 'Worm' as they regain their friendship, fight for their lives and play cards.
The movie revolves around the game of Texas Hold 'Em. The film does an admirable job in explaining the play-by-play of each hand, going as far as describing common poker terms.
Mike McDermott is in law school. He's funding his education by playing poker in back rooms around New York City. Low stakes games (ie games for lower amounts of money), in which he shines as a skilful player, almost guarantee him enough of a profit to stay in school. However, Mike is too talented to stay in low stakes games for very long and early in the movie Mike challenges a Russian mobster named Teddy KGB to a high-stakes game. Mike loses his entire bankroll, his tuition for law school.
Redemption is possible though. Knish, a poker connection and friend finds him a regular job as a deliveryman. Mike's girlfriend is there to support him as well. However, she has a condition for the future of their relationship: no more poker.
Life appears to be moving smoothly until Mike's best friend 'Worm' is released from prison. Mike feels it is his responsibility as a good friend to bring his friend a good time after being incarcerated. However, for Worm a good time means winning at poker. Defying his girlfriend's demand of poker abstinence, Mike is convinced by Worm to enter a game that is a sure-fire win.
All it takes is that one game for Mike to get the gambling buzz. This triggers a downward spiral for him and Worm. Soon after they play together, Mike's girlfriend learns of his relapse and leaves him. His ventures into poker also keep him from his responsibilities at law school. As Mike racks up his own domestic troubles, Worm faces more dangerous issues. He is confronted by his old lackey, Grama. When Worm went to prison, he owed a lot of money around town. Grama purchased Worm's IOUs and now intends to collect on all of them himself. Grama's partner in this scheme is Teddy KGB, the same Russian mobster who won Mike's school fund from him earlier in the film.
The only way for Mike and Worm to generate enough money in the short amount of time is by playing poker. Starting with a local club, the Chesterfield, Mike and Worm try to generate enough income to pay back Grama. Worm has always won his games because he is a 'mechanic', a cheat who is able to control his shuffle and deal from the bottom of the deck. Mike, who relies purely on his skill, is reluctant to allow Worm to cheat. Mike starts attending games without Worm and is soon winning in small games throughout the city. But the individual needs of the two men are so great that they eventually risk partnering up and accepting a game with some off-duty police officers. Mike holds his own and manages to win a succession of rounds steadily. However, an impatient Worm can't hold himself back. He joins the game and soon begins dealing from the bottom of the pack. The police officers are veteran players and quickly realise what is happening. They beat up the two card sharks and take all their money.
Penniless, and with time running out, Mike turns to his old, trusted tutor, Professor Petrovsky. The Professor reminds Mike that sometimes the thing we would love to do is not the thing laid out for us by our loved ones. Mike confesses his money woes to the professor and explains that he can no longer afford to attend school. The Professor is understanding and offers help in the form of a stake - just enough money to allow Mike to buy his way into the one game big enough to save Worm and himself - a rematch game against Teddy KGB...
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon)
A talented card player with a rough around the edges past. Mike is a 'good guy', honourable and trying to do his best. Law school for Mike seems a way to improve himself and prove to himself and the world that he can win at something society finds respectable and worthy.
Released in 1998, Matt Damon found himself on a bit of a hot streak. His two previous movies were Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), which Damon co-scripted with his close friend and fellow actor Ben Affleck, and for which they won an Academy Award, and Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). Matt is well known for his good looks, his everyman appeal and his frequent collaborations with Ben Affleck.
Lester 'Worm' Murphy (Edward Norton)
A degenerate gambler and crook. Worm escaped previous troubles by going to prison. Though he is paroled by the penal system, his creditors were not as forgiving. Needy and amoral, in contrast to Mike's comparatively stable morality, Worm seeks out the relative safety of friendship with Mike. Unfortunately, Worm's personal troubles ensnare Mike.Edward Norton has made a career of playing challenging roles: In Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) he played a young man diagnosed with mental illness who finds himself arrested and charged with the brutal murder of a priest; for Everybody Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996), he sang an impressive rendition of 'Just You, Just Me'; American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) saw him cast as a neo-Nazi looking for redemption so that he can help his younger brother from making the same mistakes he made; and he played the narrator in Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) opposite Brad Pitt. Edward is best known for his ability to transform into his character, a chameleon both in the way his emotions take on the characteristics of whoever he plays, and his body transforms - particularly in American History X.
Joey Knish (John Turturro)
Joey is a small time professional card player. He is a mentor to Mike. He has no illusions about what he does or who he is. Knish has no desire to raise above his level, rather he realises the dangers in losing what he worked so hard to achieve.
John Turtorro is an unusual actor, best-known for his frequent work with Spike Lee and the Coen brothers.
Teddy KGB (John Malkovich)
Teddy is a Russian mobster who runs a high stakes poker room. He is ruthless but fair. He has no need to cheat, as all the games and all the schemes tilt to his advantage. A talented poker player with an enormous bankroll, he knows that sooner or later, he will win.
John Malkovich has emerged as one of the greatest American actors of his generation since leaving Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. (of which he is a founding member). Specialising in characters that are often an unsettling combination of cultured and creepy, he was both the star and the subject of Spike Jonze's surreal comedy Being John Malkovich.
Petra, the manager of the Chesterfield (Famke Jansen)
A small role as the beautiful woman running the Chesterfield, Petra has a crush on Mike. Though the feelings are not emotionally reciprocated, Mike does feel a physical attraction to Petra. However, Mike's good-guy nature wins out again and Petra is let down gently.
Former professional model Famke Jansen has made a number of small films but struck it big playing Dr Jean Grey in the X-Men (Bryan Singer, 200 / 2003) film series.
Jo, Mike's girlfriend (Gretchen Mol)
Jo fears for Mike. She knows he can be successful as a lawyer. She loves him and wants them to find happiness, but she cannot overcome her fear of his gambling. She sees poker as a game of chance, not skill. Eventually she leave because of a broken promise, but comes to realise that she may have been wrong to make Mike try and change his nature.
Gretchen Mol has appeared in several critically-acclaimed films such as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997) and Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999).
Professor Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau)
The professor finds a kinship with Mike. As a boy Abe's family wanted him to be a rabbi. There is no other career option for him. He is a talented Talmudic scholar and the choice seemed natural. However, he didn't 'see God' when he studied his religion. His love is for the law, even though his family shunned him for becoming a law professor.
Martin Landau's first major film role was as a thug in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1958). His career seems to have been in two halves; in the 1960s and '70s, he became a household name thanks to his starring roles in peak-time TV shows Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999; in more recent years, he's appeared in feature films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989) - for which he was Oscar-nominated - Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), which bagged him the 1994 Best Supporting Actor Academy award.
Grama (Michael Rispoli)
Grama was once Worm's lackey, but has risen to become Teddy KGB's lackey. Getting revenge against Worm is Grama's priority. He would prefer his own justice of violence to getting all Worm's money. In the end, getting the money instead of revenge, Grama is defeated.
Michael Rispoli has appeared in several films and television series, notably The Sopranos where he played Tony Soprano's friend, Jack Aprile, before the character died of cancer. Michael also appeared with Edward Norton and Robin Williams in 2002's dark comedy disaster Death to Smoochy (Danny DeVito, 2002).
Real-life Poker and the Stars
After the movie was filmed, Matt Damon and Edward Norton entered the 1998 World Series of Poker. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein funded the trip in what was widely regarded as a publicity stunt. Competing against many professional players, Damon held his own before losing, but Norton lost early on. Reportedly Damon is now a serious fan of Tournament Poker.