Matt Damon and Edward Norton in Rounders (1998)

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Brian Koppelman, David Levien Create Rounders

The genesis for Rounders began with Brian Koppelman, who had garnered the idea following his first visit to a private poker club in New York City. After blowing his $750 bankroll, an excited Koppelman phoned his friend, David Levien, at 2:30 in the morning, pointedly telling him, “We have to write a movie about this.”

Lacking representation, the subsequent Koppelman/Levien screenplay made the agency rounds, always coming back, rejected, with comments like “overwritten,” “this doesn’t work” and “unbelievable.” Retrieved from a slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts by eventual associate producer Tracy Falco, the script was finally brought to the attention of producer Ted Demme and Miramax International Films.

Matt Damon and Edward Norton Head Rounders Cast

Matt Damon (Mike McDermott) and Edward Norton (Lester “Worm” Murphy) head the cast. Other players include John Malkovich (Teddy KGB), Gretchen Mol (Jo), John Turturro (Joey Knish), Martin Landau (Abe Petrovsky), Michael Rispoli (Grama), Paul Cicero (Russian Thug), Famke Janssen (Petra) and Ray Iannicelli (Kenny).

John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) directed while Christopher Young created the hip music score.

Rounders Filmed in New York City

Budgeted at $12 million, Rounders was filmed from December 1997 to February 1998. Prior to going in front of the cameras, the principal cast members immersed themselves in a kind of poker boot camp, using professional players as coaches and advisors.

Michael Scelza served as overall poker technical consultant. David Blaine, the famous “street magician,” personally coached Edward Norton on card handling tricks, including “card boomeranging” – tossing a card into the air and having it return to the thrower’s hand.

Filming locations included New York’s Chinatown, the site of Grama’s loan sharking business; the now-defunct Billy’s Topless Bar; the Russian Turkish Steam Baths in Brooklyn; and New Jersey’s Rahway Prison, whose exteriors served as the fictional Baldinger Correctional Facility.

Rounders and Texas Hold ‘Em

Mike McDermott is a “rounder,” one who frequents New York City’s underground poker clubs. When Mike runs afoul of a vicious loan shark named Grama to the tune of $15,000, the young law student and his ex-con partner, Worm Murphy, embark on a five-day poker odyssey in order to raise the needed cash.

Rounders has become the unofficial Hollywood anthem of poker. The featured pursuit is No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em – the showcase event at the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas – with Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich as its deadly practitioners.

The movie is loaded with gambling action and suspense. One of the best scenes takes place at an Elk’s Club in Binghamton, where Damon and Norton are caught cheating in a game with “municipal workers.” The furious off-duty state cops bloody the pair, confiscate their money and toss them out the door.

The climactic scene pitting Damon versus John Malkovich in an all-out Heads Up Texas Hold ‘Em duel is exciting. Malkovich’s curious way of eating an Oreo cookie becomes a “tell,” thus enabling Damon to even the score against his Russian adversary.

Rounders Release, Reviews, Best Line, DVD

  • Release date: September 11, 1998.
  • “Rounders sees compulsive gambling as a lark – as long as it’s not your money,” opined Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (9/11/98).
  • Best line: “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.” – Matt Damon.
  • Rounders Collector’s Edition (Miramax, 2004).

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