Cult Classic ‘Rounders’ At 25: Would You Make The Same Choices?

Ruminations on Russians, Jeeps, cigars, and Gretchen Mol from a non-poker-playing fan of the film
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I don’t play poker, but I really dig Rounders, which was released in theaters exactly 25 years ago, on Sept. 11, 1998.

Well, actually, I have played poker, but not well. One of the co-founders of a virtuous underwear company was patient enough to allow me to sit with her once, basically showing me how to play Texas hold’em in the process. We weren’t playing for money. Had we been, and if I were forced to purchase boxer briefs instead of fork over fake greenbacks, I’d need a storage unit instead of a dresser to store all that linen.

So how could I, a non-poker player, love a movie about poker so much? Same reason why people who don’t really like baseball still appreciate Bull Durham: It’s about a whole lot more than the game itself. It’s about nothing less than the game of life.

Rounders was part of the reason for America’s poker boom. But it is an analog animal; there’s not so much as a mobile phone in the film. Instead, viewers are besieged with old television sets in basement poker clubs, perpetually tuned to boxing; straight-razor shaves at hole-in-the-wall Manhattan barbershops; ethnic bathhouses populated by shirtless, old men; a crummy law-school apartment that, unlike with most cinematic depictions of young, struggling New Yorkers, is actually a crummy little apartment; and Atlantic City as a thriving tourist destination with “Trump” emblazoned on at least one of its casinos.

From that description, it wouldn’t seem like the 25-year-old Rounders would age all that well. Oh, but it does. Let us count the ways …

Trump’s still Trumpin’

After Mike (Matt Damon’s character) allows himself to be fully pulled back into the world of serious poker, he and his ne’er-do-well playing partner, Worm (Edward Norton), take a trip to the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City to start building their bankroll.

Twenty-five years later, the Taj is no longer there, but Trump is more here than ever before, for better or for worse.

Gretchen Mol, forever an ‘It Girl’

Vanity Fair caught a lot of crap for putting fresh-faced actress Gretchen Mol, who stars as Damon’s whip-smart girlfriend, Jo, on its cover as “Hollywood’s Next ‘It’ Girl” just as Rounders rounded into theaters. The magazine responded 15 years later by saying it regretted the decision.

It should have stuck to its guns. By any objective analysis, Mol, now 50 and still sharp and stunning as ever, has enjoyed a stellar career, one that Damon — capable of carrying a movie but always more comfortable in a memorable supporting role — could surely appreciate.

Russians are bad

Each and every shady character in Rounders is either in the Russian mob or connected to it, and John Malkovich’s hilarious, scene-chewing turn as underground gambling boss Teddy KGB is as polarizing a performance as there is in the film. 

But history — Ukrainian invasion, anyone? —  has shown that Russians deserve to be mocked (if not worse) onscreen as often as possible. Whether they’re prone to Oreo addictions is best left to Malkovich’s imagination.

Old Jeep Cherokees never say die

When Worm is released from prison in upstate New York, Mike picks him up in a forest-green Jeep Cherokee. The car was probably new at the time, but that exact make and model can still be found everywhere (or at least on the roads of Seattle).

Cops can be really cool — until they’re not

With Worm setting up games against various and sundry suckers, Mike catches a heater and is well on his way to earning back the $15,000 Worm owes Teddy KGB when Worm breaks their pact by sitting down with Mike at a poker table full of police officers, who are initially very courteous and fun to play with. But when the cops get wise to the fact that Worm is dealing favorable cards to Mike from the bottom of the deck, they proceed to beat both men to within an inch of their lives and rob them of “every f**kin’ nickel,” as Mike so eloquently puts it.

People who are really into cigars are total d-bags

One of the games Worm sets up for Mike takes place in a cigar bar, where true aficionados of the tobacco-filled phalluses are rattling off various tasting notes with each puff. After cleaning them out, Mike sarcastically details how his winning hand must have tasted to them. Making fun of “cigar people” never, ever gets old.

Old guys are good for sage advice (and an occasional life-saving loan)

If there is a God, I imagine he’ll greet me at the pearly gates looking a lot like Martin Landau’s character (Judge Abe Petrovsky) in Rounders. Not only does Abe loan a flat-broke Mike the $10,000 that results in a literal life-saving night of poker at KGB’s club, but he slyly convinces Mike to give up his quest to become a lawyer and play poker for a living instead.

After Abe tells Mike that he refused to become a rabbi because he “never saw God” in the Talmud, Mike asks him, “If you had to do it all over again, would you make the same choices?”

“What choice?” replies Abe. “We can ’t run from who we are. Our destiny chooses us.”

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images


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