Rounders at 20: A tribute to a film that went “all in” on drama

At the back end of last year, a film featuring one of Matt Damon’s most impressive big screen performances celebrated the 20 th anniversary of its release. The 1998 movie Rounders, directed by John Dahl, may not have been an immediate success at the box office, but it certainly developed a long-term cult following. In fact, Rounders appeared to be something of a flop on release day. The film, which cost around $12 million to create, grossed only $8.45 million during its first weekend and only $22.9 million by the end of its cinema run, two months after its September release. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes only gave the movie an average 65% rating.

However, once the film was released on home video, it would become an inspiration for many around the world. The film’s studio released its home video with expert timing, shortly after Chris Moneymaker scooped the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, sparking the so-called “Poker Boom”, both online and offline. In many ways, the anniversary of Rounders symbolises the anniversary of the modern-day game of poker as we now know it. Many of the world’s leading poker professionals have admitted that Rounders kick-started their passion for the card game, in ways that new releases such as Molly’s Game simply couldn’t dream of.

Chris Moneymaker in action at the tables with plenty of chips in hand. Photo by World Poker Tour, CC BY-ND 2.0

In fact, Chris Moneymaker, the man who sparked the more-than-passing interest in poker among amateurs worldwide, admitted that he had never played Texas Hold’em poker prior to watching Rounders. So, one could argue that without Rounders there would be no “Moneymaker Effect” and the poker industry would be in a far different place in 2019.

Rounders helped make poker seem “cool” again. The game suddenly had a glamorous connection to Hollywood, with the likes of Damon and Edward Norton from the Rounders cast also signing up to the World Series of Poker Main Event to play for real with some of the ‘godfathers’ of the game, such as Doyle Brunson. In fact, Matt Damon was knocked out of the 2003 Main Event by Brunson.

The movie itself was an adrenaline-filled 90 minutes, with plenty of drama and tension to keep you hooked. Matt Damon plays a college law student called Mike McDermott, who harbours a lifelong aspiration to play poker for a living in Las Vegas with his “three stacks of high society”. That dream could have become a reality far sooner for Mike had it not been for his friendship with the troublesome Worm, played by Edward Norton. Worm’s self-destructive personality gets him in hot water with the seedy underbelly of the local community, namely Teddy KGB, played by the unmistakable John Malkovich. Mike is regularly forced to bail Worm out of some tight scrapes, and in doing so also lands himself in plenty of hot water financially too. However, the piece de resistance for Mike is his eventual heads-up showdown with Teddy KGB, winning back all of his losses with some ingenious poker skills.

So, given that poker’s reputation remains alive and kicking 20 years on from Rounders’ release, is there likely to be a sequel at long last? Not so, according to Damon himself. Damon recently featured on the highly popular Bill Simmons Podcast late last year and spoke at length about Rounders and its impact on Damon’s career and the poker industry.

Unfortunately, Damon believes that there is no market in Hollywood for another gambling movie like Rounders. He said that although “there was a DVD market” for such a sequel, this has since “evaporated”. Damon went on to suggest that if an on-demand streaming platform such as Amazon Prime or Netflix was not interested in bringing a Rounders follow-up to life on-screen, then the concept was dead in the water. Netflix is increasingly directing its own original films, with Dumplin, the latest Netflix exclusive to take the world by storm.

Rumours circulated throughout Hollywood that the now-disgraced director, Harvey Weinstein had mooted the possibility of creating a sequel to Rounders back in 2013. However, that obviously never transpired. The film’s script writers, David Levien and Brian Koppelman have previously intimated that a storyline for a prospective sequel has been “worked out”, and in a podcast with PokerNews the duo said in 2017 that it was simply a “matter of the companies who control the rights getting behind it and allowing it to happen”. We can but hope!