Everyone comes to poker in their own way. For myself, it was at the knee of my family, playing penny ante games of Seven Card Stud over the kitchen table. Some others, believe it or not, don’t come to the game until they are older. Many in the game today were drawn to poker the old-fashioned way – through the cinematic portrayal that they saw in the movie Rounders.
20 years ago, a little film called Rounders premiered in theaters across the States of America. Made for a scant $12 million, the film starred a young Matt Damon, fresh off his Oscar-winning writing of the film Good Will Hunting, as Mike “Mike McD’’ McDermott, an excellent poker player and law student who is on hiatus from the game due to losing his bankroll in one of New York’s underground poker rooms. That hiatus is ended when his friend Lester “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton) is released from prison.
To make a long story short, the duo gets back into poker because of debts that “Worm” has run up previously to the very man who took Mike’s bankroll, the owner of the underground card room Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). Vouching for his friend, Mike and “Worm” try to make the money up and are doing well…until “Worm” muffs a card mechanic move (dealing off the bottom of the deck) while they are playing against a bunch of law enforcement officers. With no money, “Worm” goes on the run, but Mike stays back to attempt to make the $10K that is owed to Teddy.
As anyone in poker can tell you, Mike borrows money from his law school professor and goes mano y mano with his nemesis, Teddy KGB. Mike eventually learns the “tell” that Teddy KGB has and proceeds to take his initial stake back plus the money that KGB originally took from Mike. In the end, Mike abandons law school and heads for Las Vegas, with the dreams of the World Series of Poker dancing in his head.
When it was originally released, the movie flopped terribly. In its first weekend of release, it only made $8.5 million. All totaled, it made $22.9 million in its domestic release. But Rounders would find its niche in history as a cult classic, found by hundreds if not thousands of people through cable television and HBO, that catapulted it into renown as “the” poker movie.
But what if there had never been a Rounders? The course of poker history itself would have significantly changed.
Many Wouldn’t Have Come to the Game
There have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were brought to the game of poker because of Rounders. A short list of top professionals who have admitted that the film made them want to play the game include Brian Rast, Gavin Griffin and Dutch Boyd. Vanessa Rousso said in an interview that Rounders “captures the energy and tension in the game.” But there was one figure that, if there hadn’t been a Rounders, would have completely changed the history of poker.
Although the film was made in 1998, an accountant by the name of Chris Moneymaker watched it many times. He also credits the film with bringing his friends together for poker games, where he would hone his skills over the next five years. In 2003, Moneymaker would ride his love of the film – and a $40 satellite on the burgeoning online poker site PokerStars (which he actually would have rather won the cash) – to win poker’s greatest prize, a real life “Mike McD” come to life in the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Without Moneymaker, your 2003 World Champion could be Sam Farha or maybe even Phil Ivey, who was eliminated by Moneymaker short of the final table when Moneymaker hit a miracle Ace on the river to pick up a bigger boat than Ivey. Instead of a boom of interest in online poker, where Moneymaker earned his seat at the WSOP, you would have had a known pro taking down poker’s World Championship. And the world would have yawned collectively and the “poker boom” may not have happened at all.
No Books, No Magazines, No Media…
Without the success of Rounders, it is most likely that there wouldn’t have been the rush of media regarding poker that emerged over the last 20 years. There wouldn’t have been literally thousands of books written on the game, from strategy tomes to biographies of some of the best players in the game. While CardPlayer was around at that time, it and other magazines would not have had the boom in subscriptions they enjoyed. And there wouldn’t have been the litany of poker programming on television that emerged after Rounders, both on television, cable and on the silver screen (we’ll forgive Matt Savage for Lucky You!).
More than likely, the poker world as we know it wouldn’t have been half as big as it is today. The numbers that the WSOP has brought in – especially after Moneymaker’s improbable win – wouldn’t have even approached what we see today. And it can all be laid at the feet of a little film that went nowhere initially but became THE story for a community – Rounders.
There’s occasionally talk about a Rounders 2, but that would sully the name of the original (really, do we need to see “Mike McD” grinding it out on an online site and “Worm” trading in Bitcoin?). Did Caddyshack REALLY need Caddyshack 2? Did The Blues Brothers REALLY need Blues Brothers 2000? Sometimes it is best to leave the original alone, to let it stand on its own greatness and, in the case of Rounders, to be enshrined in the annals of history for its impact on millions of lives and an industry all at the same time.