Monday, November 21, 2011

Back ’Round to Rounders

Mike McDermott retrieves money from a copy of Mike Caro's 'Poker Tells' in 'Rounders'We discussed Rounders today in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, rounding off our unit of films. Just a couple more weeks left in the semester, during which time the students will pick a particular film in which poker is prominent and write an essay analyzing the film and its use of poker.

I’ve mentioned before here how I’ve always been kind of lukewarm about Rounders. But with each viewing I’m growing to appreciate it a little more, I think. It works especially well here at the end of the semester, bringing together all sorts of themes and ideas we’ve been reading about and discussing for the past three months.

It’s clear from those opening shots of classic poker strategy books like Mike Caro’s Poker Tells and Doyle Brunson’s Super/System that the film was made by people with a keen understanding and appreciation of the history of poker. Indeed, the script is peppered with many familiar, much-repeated lines from the two-plus century-long story of the game. Some of these are passed along by Mike McDermott in his voice-over narration with attribution, while others are uttered by characters without stopping to identify sources.

That “allusive” quality of the film makes it especially fun to watch and talk about at the end of the course, after we’ve read Cowboys Full by James McManus, The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez, and many other essays and stories.

Mike McDermott retrieves money from a copy of 'Super/System' in 'Rounders'We’ve already read Doyle’s characterization of hold’em as “the Cadillac of poker” more than once by now.

We’ve seen reference to Amarillo Slim Preston several times, too -- even watched him and Doyle and others in a video in class -- and so recognize the reference when Mike quotes him talking about being able to “shear a sheep many times, but you can skin him only once” (noting how Worm never seemed to have learned that lesson).

We hear Teddy KGB complain about Mike having “alligator blood” at the end of the film, and we remember Johnny Moss saying the same thing about Stu Ungar at the 1981 WSOP near the end of The Biggest Game in Town.

And so on. References to the World Series of Poker resonate, too, since we have already discussed its central place in poker culture at present. And even situations the characters find themselves in throughout the film are mostly recognizable to us by now, having read those histories, short stories, Jesse May’s novel Shut Up and Deal, and watched other films including The Cincinnati Kid and California Split.

All of which is to say that while I still wouldn’t put Rounders at the tippy top of my list of poker movies -- or anywhere close to the top of a list of best movies, poker or otherwise -- I am enjoying certain aspects of David Levien and Brian Koppelman’s script more and more. And I especially like the way the film kind of encapsulates so many themes one finds in an extended survey of the culture and history of poker in America.

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