Rounders (film)


Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Dahl
Produced by Joel Stillerman
Ted Demme
Written by David Levien
Brian Koppelman
Starring Matt Damon
Edward Norton
John Turturro
Gretchen Mol
Famke Janssen
John Malkovich
Martin Landau
Music by Christopher Young
Cinematography Jean-Yves Escoffier
Edited by Scott Chestnut
Spanky Pictures
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release dates
Running time
120 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12 million[1]
Box office $22.9 million
(United States)[1]

Rounders is a 1998 American drama film about the underground world of high-stakes poker, directed by John Dahl, and starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. The film follows two friends who need to quickly earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a large debt. The term "rounder" refers to a person travelling around from city to city seeking high-stakes cash games.

Rounders opened to mixed reviews and earned only a modest box office. With the growing popularity of Texas hold 'em and other poker games, the film became a cult hit.


Gifted poker player and law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) dreams of playing in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and sitting next to his idol Johnny Chan. Unfortunately, Mike loses his entire $30,000 bankroll after being outplayed in a hand of Texas hold'em against Teddy "KGB" (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster who runs an illegal underground poker room. Shaken, Mike decides to concentrate on law school while promising his girlfriend and fellow law student Jo (Gretchen Mol) that he will not play poker anymore. Mentor and fellow rounder Joey Knish (John Turturro) offers McDermott a part-time job driving a delivery truck to make ends meet.

Time passes and Mike stays true to his promise. He focuses on school and work until his childhood friend Lester "Worm" Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison. While Mike is a card player, Worm is a hustler who often cheats to win. He also owes an outstanding debt accumulated before his incarceration. While Mike looks down on Worm's cheating, Mike was involved in the activity that got Worm imprisoned. Worm protected him from consequence so Mike is fiercely loyal and always willing to help him out. Worm's old business partner, Grama, has now partnered with Teddy KGB and bought up his outstanding debt. At Worm's influence, Mike is soon rounding again, which interferes with his studies and hurts his relationship with Jo.

Worm is given a five-day deadline to pay off his debt and Mike joins him in a furious race to earn the money. Worm wants to cheat to win, but Mike insists on playing the game straight. Playing in several card games in and around New York City, the two nearly make the $15,000 needed. Worm joins a game against Mike's recommendation out of town hosted by New York State Troopers. Worm then gets caught "base-dealing" (dealing favorable cards from the bottom of the deck). They are beaten up and their entire bankroll is taken. After this, Worm, not wanting to face his problems, decides to leave New York City, and he advises Mike to do the same.

Mike refuses to flee and instead, with the help of a $10,000 loan from his law school professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau), Mike challenges Teddy KGB to a second game of heads-up, No-Limit Texas Hold'em. Mike beats Teddy in the first session, and has enough money to pay off Worm's debt along with half of the $10,000 he'd borrowed from Petrovsky. As he is about to leave, KGB taunts Mike, and points out that Mike has only won back only some of his own money that he lost before. Mike hesitates before agreeing to play again, which would risk all of the money and possibly his life, as losing would leave him unable to pay Grama and KGB. As the night wears on, Mike is on the verge of losing all of his chips. Mike suddenly spots a tell, a repeated behavior that allows him to know the value of Teddy's hand. Teddy KGB is furious when he realizes this, and goes on "tilt", meaning he is playing very poorly. Mike, drawing on inspiration from an old poker video of the WSOP featuring Chan, seizes this opportunity, and outplays Teddy in the same manner as he was earlier for the rest of his chips.

Mike settles Worm's debt, repays the $10,000 loan from his law professor, and restores his original bankroll of "three stacks of high society." Mike drops out of law school, says goodbye to Jo, and makes his way to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker Main Event.




Principal photography for Rounders began in December 1997; it took place mostly in New York. Exceptions include the law school scenes (filmed at Rutgers School of Law-Newark) and the State Trooper poker game and parking lot scenes (filmed at the B.P.O Elks Lodge in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey).


Box office

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.[1]

Critical response

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".[3] 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".[4] 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".[5] 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".[6]

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".[7] 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".[8] 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?"[9]

Despite an unremarkable theatrical release, Rounders has a following, particularly among poker enthusiasts.[10] [10]

There are pro poker players who credit the film for getting them into the game.[11] The film drew in successful players such as Brian Rast, Hevad Khan, Gavin Griffin and Dutch Boyd. Vanessa Rousso has said of the film's influence: "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."[11]


  1. 1 2 3 "Rounders (1998)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved February 21, 2015.
  2. "Joel "Bagels" Rosenberg, aka Joey Knish, Passes Away". Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  3. Ebert, Roger (September 11, 1998). "Rounders review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  4. Maslin, Janet (September 11, 1998). "Knowing When to Hold 'em and Fold 'em but Just Not When to Run". New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  5. Wloszczyna, Susan (September 11, 1998). "Rounders hedges bets with Damon in the ante". USA Today. p. 11.
  6. Gleiberman, Owen (September 18, 1998). "Rounders review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 25, 2009.
  7. Travers, Peter (October 1, 1998). "Rounders review". Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  8. LaSalle, Mick (September 11, 1998). "Rounders Deals Out a Mediocre Hand". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  9. Lacey, Liam (September 11, 1998). "If they'd played their cards right, this could have been a winner". Globe and Mail. p. C7.
  10. 1 2 Tobias, Scott (October 30, 2008). "The New Cult Canon: Rounders". The Onion A.V. Club. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  11. 1 2 Polson, Sarah (March 4, 2009). "Pros discuss Rounders' impact on poker". Retrieved February 21, 2015.
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