Poker on Screen: The perfect opening scene of Rounders


poker-on-screen-the-perfect-opening-scene-of-roundersIf you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table…

        … then you’re watching the wrong movie.

Poker and the movies don’t naturally go together. While the game is dramatic to those of us who follow it with close scrutiny, the vagaries of variance and beauty of bet sizing don’t translate to the big screen. The drama of poker is then drawn out of the game by the emotional impact of hands, rather than the tense, intelligent build-up that characterises so many real-life poker pots.

With that caveat, it is a wonderful surprise when poker is represented well on screen, and few would argue that the closest representation to the reality as well as the romance in the game is in the 1998 movie, Rounders.

Matt Damon stars as the main protagonist, Mike McDermott, and in the opening scene of the film, Mike takes $30,000 in cash to Teddy ‘KGB’ in his private underground poker club. There, he meets a friend of his from the poker underworld, Joey Knish, who is a ‘rounder’ from the title of the movie, someone who grinds a career playing poker. Knish warns McDermott away from playing the game. But this is Mike, and we instantly love him.

What’s so clever about the scene is that it introduces us to our hero pitching himself against the character who is obviously the baddie from the end of the movie in the very first scene. We believe in McDermott when he’s at the felt, talking us through the hand where he’s going to clean out the man who goes all the way into the Russian mafia according to the excellent narration.

As McDermott is cleaned out in the hand, we delight in the moment before the denouement, where McDermott wholly believes that he’s on his way to Las Vegas.

I want him to think that I’m pondering a call,

              but all I’m really thinking about is Vegas and the fucking Mirage

Ignoring the harsh reality that even in 1998, $30,000 wasn’t a bad float for a tilt at the World Series of Poker (it would still buy you into the Main Event three times over to this day), the charm of the scene still resonates today.

They say that any great writer kicks off their film with their main character at crisis point. This is never writ larger in a poker sense than in Rounders, where the stage is set. Mike must earn it all back and come back to defeat Teddy ‘KGB’. The finale is almost announced to the audience in the first scene, yet we love it because we get to cheer McDermott on knowing what he has been through in that underground club. We know exactly the retribution that is needed for it to be turned around.

Rounders may never get the sequel fans clamour for – although who knows why when the original was so perfect – but it will always be a touchstone poker movie, and the opening scene is vital in the movie doing what it always does if you catch it on television. You want to know how the scene ends, and in poker, that’s only when all the chips go to the hero.