Poker Strategy: The strategy of Rounders

Rounders is the best poker film ever made, but can it teach you any genuine poker strategy? We hit play to find out…

‘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.’ These are the opening words to the most iconic poker film ever. Released in 1998, just before the poker boom hit, Rounders almost certainly inspired many of today’s superstars to take up the game. And with an essential facet of winning poker – game selection – revealed right at the outset, is it any surprise? In fact, there’s so much strategy packed into the film’s two hours running time that it’s more like an instructional video, which teaches you how to play good poker, think about the game, and act around the table. Let’s take a closer look at the pearls of wisdom the main character Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) spouts throughout the film…

Mike makes his way to an underground poker den run by Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) Time: 1m 28s

THE ACTION

‘You play for a living,’ says Mike in the opening voiceover. ‘It’s like any other job. You don’t gamble – you grind it out… Get your money in when you have the best of it, protect it when you don’t – don’t give anything away. That’s how I’ve paid my way through half of law school.’

THE LESSON

There is legitimate money to be made at poker – if you stay disciplined. Most people unfamiliar with poker assume it’s just gambling (a notion perpetuated by most other poker films), but there is a skill edge, and if you’re good and work hard, you can make a living from the game.

McDermott talks to Joey Knish (John Turturro) at Teddy KGB’s Time: 3m 28s

THE ACTION

Mike has come to Teddy’s joint with ‘three stacks of high society’ – $30k – wanting to take a shot at the high stakes tables. Joey Knish, ‘a New York legend’, advises him to play an easier, lower stakes game that he knows he can beat. But Mike is tired of grinding and wants to roll up a stake and hit big. Not long after Mike loses his entire bankroll in a horrific cooler against Teddy – nines full of Aces beaten by slow-played Aces full.

THE LESSON

Play lower stakes games if the high stakes are too tough or you’re not rolled for them. Don’t risk so much of your bankroll that you’re giving up on pro table spots in the future if you lose.

Playing at Teddy KGB’s Time: 5m 5s

THE ACTION

After explaining the rules of hold’em, Mike introduces the concept of second-level thinking and then talks about how poker, particularly NLHE, is a high variance game. ‘A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt, and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him… Some people, pros even, won’t play no-limit – they can’t handle the swings.’

THE LESSON

Play the man, not the cards. Your cards are obviously important, but observing and acting on your opponents’ tendencies is paramount. Also, learn to accept the swings in poker. It doesn’t make sense to risk money and then be angry, upset, or surprised when you lose – you can’t win every time.

Mike gets back into action Time: 25m 50s

THE ACTION

Mike stops his car, contemplating joining Worm (Edward Norton) in a poker game – his first since he went busto. Mike: ‘In Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, “Few players recall big pots they have won…but every player can remember…the outstanding tough beats of his career.” Seems true to me.’

THE LESSON

The default mindset when it comes to poker is ‘great at poker, unlucky as hell’. Where randomness and skill are intertwined, everyone overrates themselves, with the result that 90% of poker players think they’re better than the other 90%.

Worm cheats at the Chesterfield Time: 35m 54s

THE ACTION

Mike gets word from Joey Knish that Worm is cheating at the Chesterfield poker club – using credit drawn in Mike’s name – and Mike races down there to pull him out of the game before he gets busted. On the way he recites the famous Amarillo Slim line: ‘You can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once’, adding that this is a lesson Worm has never bothered to learn.

THE LESSON

Cheating is bad. Worm just wants to make money, and is willing to do whatever it takes, insulting and cheating anyone who stands in his way, but he doesn’t realise there’s more money to be made playing the game ‘straight up’.

Mike argues with his girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) about poker Time: 40m 49s (among others)

THE ACTION

There are several scenes where Jo takes issue with Mike’s card-playing, treating him basically like an alcoholic falling off the wagon. Mike tries to argue that it’s a skill game, but all Jo can see is the $30k Mike lost in a game.

THE LESSON Some people don’t understand that there is skill to poker. And most of these people aren’t interested in having their attitudes changed, so don’t bother.

Mike and Worm talk about Knish Time: 37m 1s

THE ACTION

Worm and Mike are standing on the street outside the Chester eld. Worm: ‘That f***ing Knish rat me out? C’mon, you gotta stop listening to that guy, man. I mean, he sees all the angles but he doesn’t have the balls to play one.’ Mike: ‘Hey, that guy hasn’t had to work in 15 years, Worm.’

THE LESSON

Don’t take unnecessary risks. Pick your spots, play your edge, and make the easy money. Otherwise, you’re just another degenerate gambler.

Mike has a drink with Professor Petrovsky (Martin Landau) Time: 44m 58s

THE ACTION

Mike shares a gin with his law professor and gives him some stud strategy tips. ‘Watch the players reacting to the cards…the faces tell you everything… You want to play premium hands. You only start with Jacks or better split, or nines or better wired, three high cards to a flush. If it’s good enough to call you’ve gotta be in there raising, all right? Tight, but aggressive, and I do mean aggressive.’

THE LESSON

Play tight-aggressive. The hand selection advice Mike gives Petrovsky is specific to Stud, but the style of play he suggests is good for every poker format.

Mike and Worm play at the Taj Time: 54m 4s

THE ACTION

Mike and Worm go to Atlantic City and end up on a table with a bunch of fellow New York regulars. Then a couple of tourists join the table. Mike: ‘They wear their tells like signs around their necks… If a fish acts strong, he’s bluffing. If he acts meek, he’s got a hand. It’s that simple.’

THE LESSON

Everyone has tells, and they usually follow the classic pattern: weak equals strong, strong equals weak. The natural human reaction is to cover up our reactions, and the easiest way of doing that is pretending we’re feeling the opposite. So if we’ve got a hand, we look weak to get action, and if we don’t, we try to look strong.

Mike goes back to New York to face Grama (Michael Rispoli) Time: 1h 24m

THE ACTION

Mike goes back to face the heat in New York while Worm does a runner. Mike: ‘Fold or hang tough. Call or raise the bet. These are decisions you make at the table. Sometimes the odds are stacked so clear there’s only one way to play it. Other times… it’s 6-to-5 or even money either way. Then it’s all about feel, what’s in your guts.’

THE LESSON

It’s not all about the numbers. Some decisions are easy, and with some you have to rely on your gut. When your gut can’t give you the answer, it might not even matter – close decisions are by their very nature the least important to get right.

Mike talks to Knish at the baths Time: 1h 28m

THE ACTION

Mike talks to Knish, who tells him his trouble with Teddy KGB is his own fault. Knish: ‘You little punk. I’m not playing for the thrill of f****ing victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, action or f****ing pipe dreams of winning the World Series on ESPN.’

THE LESSON

Every word that comes out of Knish reeks of wisdom based on years of playing poker for a living. You don’t play poker for pride. You don’t play to outplay the best in the world. If you’re serious about the game, you play first and foremost for money.

Mike goes back to Teddy KGB’s Time: 1h 34m

THE ACTION

Mike goes back to Teddy KGB’s to try to win back the money he owes. Mike: ‘I’ve often seen these people. These squares at the table. Short-stacked and long odds against, all their outs gone. One last card in the deck that can help them. I used to wonder how they could let themselves get into such bad shape, and how the hell they thought they could turn it around.’

THE LESSON

Don’t let yourself get too short. Mike is in deep crap at this point in the film – he owes ‘15 large’ to a scary Russian mobster. He’s the short stack. Of course, he’s implying that you should avoid getting so short in the first place – sound advice for any tournament.

Rounders > Super system?

When people first learn to play poker, they’re often pointed in the direction of book, but Rounders is arguably a better introduction to the game. Strategy books have lots of great advice on the specifics of how to play the cards, but there is little that teaches you how to think about poker, how to act around the poker table. There is no book that glamorises poker and then shows you the pitfalls of cheating. No article that distils the wisdom of decades of experience grinding live games and the dangers of exposing your bankroll. No video that shrugs its shoulders and says, ‘Hey, when a decision is tough, go with your gut’.

Rounders is a seminal film, and it’s no coincidence that those who say it’s one of their favourite films tend to be good poker players. Next time you watch it, don’t focus on the laughable poker scenes, listen to Knish or Mike expounding on good poker strategy, and learn.

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