“Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”
It’s one of the all-time great lines in poker films (if not in all films, full stop). It’s also one of the many hooks that has made Rounders perhaps the most iconic and influential poker film of all time.
Originally released two decades ago in what was a very different world for poker, Rounders starred Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro and Martin Landau. Written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman and directed by John Dahl, it follows a young Damon as he gets sucked back into the world of high stakes poker while trying to clear the debts of his less scrupulous friend Worm, played by Norton.
The most influential poker film ever?
It didn’t set the box office on fire, nor did it fare particularly well with critics, but Rounders helped launch poker into the mainstream and, like many of the most influential poker books, ignited the passion of many a dedicated player still involved with the game today.
“Rounders brought a lot of celebrities into the game and created a lot of interest in poker over the years,” Gavin Griffin of Team PokerStars Pro says. “I still hear people quoting the movie at the table and talking about how it got them interested in poker in the first place.”
Pros who count Rounders as one of the things that first got them into poker include the likes of Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu and Hevad Khan. Many agree that the film and WSOP broadcasting were the two factors that really led to the poker boom that we’ve seen in the 20 years since Rounders was first released.
A window into the world of high stakes poker
As much as anything, Rounders opened a window into the world of poker, depicting the energy and the tension that players already knew ran through it. The game is depicted as one of skill, in contrast with many of the poker scenes in the films that came before it. That sold the game in a way that films only depicting crazy run outs, cheating and exaggerated melodrama never could.
It helps, of course, that writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien had both spent time deeply immersed in the world of poker. They came up with the idea for the film after playing poker at the Mayfair club, the New York underground game that launched the likes of poker celebrities Eric Seidel and Howard Lederer.
Koppelman has said he basically spent two years living at the club, learning the ropes and soaking up the atmosphere. It shows, and the writers’ intimate knowledge of the game oozes off the screen in details like the jargon and emotional nuance of the games.
That authenticity didn’t just sell the script to audiences – it sold it to the film’s stellar cast, too. “It was the rare kind of a thing, just fully formed,” said Edward Norton. “You’re salivating to say the lines.”
Rounders doesn’t just sell the glamour of poker, though. It shows the failures, too – more authenticity for fans to chew on, with the highs underscored and sweetened by the lows.
The Hollywood legacy
Since Rounders Matt Damon’s career has skyrocketed to make him one of Hollywood’s top leading men. He’s starred in the Ocean’s Trilogy, the Bourne franchise, the critically acclaimed Invictus and Ridley Scott’s The Martian to name just a few highlights on a stellar resume. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has one of the most recognisable faces on the planet.
Edward Norton, meanwhile, has made his name as a character actor starring in the likes of Fight Club, Red Dragon, 25th Hour, Kingdom of Heaven, The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Highlights for Gretchen Mol since Rounders include Celebrity, The Thirteenth Floor, The Notorious Bettie Page (in which she played the title character), 3:10 to Yuma and Manchester by the Sea.
The film’s greatest legacy, however, is surely for the game of poker itself. As Vanessa Rousso has said, “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.”