John Dahl's Rounders journeyed into movie theaters in 1998. Matt Damon and Edward Norton star as a pair of young poker players, plying their trade in the underground gambling clubs of New York City. Here are 21 Rounders movie trivia items and interesting facts...
1. Rounders owes its origins to screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien. As the story goes, Koppelman had just visited his first private poker club in New York City, where he had lost all of his $750 bankroll. At around 2:30 in the morning, an excited Koppelman phoned his friend, David Levien, relating his experiences in theunderground club and telling him, “We have to write a movie about this.” The Rounders script then made the rounds to various agents, where it was eventually discovered in a slush pile in the office of producer Ted Demme, who brought it to the attention of Miramax Films.
2. Budgeted at $12 million, Rounders was filmed from December 1997 to February 1998 under the direction of John Dahl. Dahl's previous credits included Red Rock West (1993), The Last Seduction (1994) and Unforgettable (1996). Dahl had begun his Hollywood film career as a storyboard artist.
3. Matt Damon plays Mike McDermott and Edward Norton appears as his pal Lester "Worm" Murphy. Both Damon and McDermott attended a kind of mini card boot camp prior to filming, with professional poker players serving as their coaches. It was street magician David Blaine – a wizard with a deck of cards – who taught Edward Norton various card handling techniques, including "card boomeranging." Watch as Norton tosses cards in the air, having them magically return to his hand.
4. Martin Landau plays Professor Abe Petrovsky. During filming Landau regaled Edward Norton with stories from his early days in acting, which included working with the likes of James Dean and Steve McQueen.
5. John Malkovich appears as Teddy KGB, the Russian poker champ. The consummate professional, Malkovich acquired his convincing accent by having a Russian woman read his lines first. He then mimicked her accent, resulting in such memorable lines as “Kid’s got alli-gator blood.”
6. Non-actors appearing in Rounders include Vernon Jordan Jr., a close confidant of former President Bill Clinton, who plays a judge; renowned professional poker player Johnny Chan, who appears as himself, and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who appear as poker players at Atlantic City. Don't blink, as you might miss the latter.
7. Michael Rispoli plays the vicious loan shark Grama. The setting for his office was filmed in New York City's Chinatown.
8. The scene that never was: Grama shoves Worm's face into a urinal and makes him eat a urinal cake. Director John Dahl axed this scene, duly informing the screenwriters that no movie star – Edward Norton in this case – would agree to such humiliation on camera.
9. Edward Norton as Worm blows off some steam at Billy's Topless Bar. Located at 23rd and 6th Avenue in New York City, Billy's has since passed into history.
10. Worm Murphy serves time at the fictional Baldinger Correctional Facility. Rahway Prison in New Jersey was used for exterior filming.
11. The Russian Turkish Steam Baths scene, where Mike visits Joey Knish (John Turturro) in order to secure a $15,000 loan, was filmed in Brooklyn.
12. Edward Norton voices the line "She crossed her legs too fast." That should sound familiar, as it was borrowed from Jack Nicholson's J.J. "Jake"Gittes in Chinatown (1974).
13. Rounders' theme song is "Baby, I'm a Big Star Now" by Counting Crows. It was brought to the soundtrack by associate producer Tracy Falco.
14. The wrap party for Rounders, which celebrated the end of filming, was held at Nell's in New York City.
15. Chesterfield's is the name of the exclusive underground poker club in which Mike and Teddy KGB engage in their titanic duel of No Limit Texas Hold 'Em. Mike wins the match with a "nut straight" – all spades with an ace high kicker. His haul: $60,000.
16. There's no mistaking Rounders as a gambling flick, as the movie opens in Mike McDermott's apartment, where the young law student can be glimpsed gathering money from various hiding places. Also on hand are various poker books, including Caro's Poker Tells and Super System.
17. Grama gives Mike and Worm five days to repay a loan of $15,000, after which he "starts breaking things."
18. In order to repay Grama the loan shark, Mike and Worm hit the road. Worm says he knows of a hot game populated by "municipal workers" at an Elk's Club in Binghampton, New York. Here they play 20-40 stud, with the "municipal workers" discovering that Worm has been manipulating the deck. The angry workers – off-duty state cops! – begin beating the hell out of Mike and Worm, confiscating their cash and tossing them out into the street.
19. Rounders was first seen at the Venice Film Festival in Italy on September 4, 1998. Seven days later it was released in the United States. Reported Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle (9/11/98) in a thumbs-down review titled Rounders Deals Out a Mediocre Hand: "'Rounders' has intelligence and atmosphere. It shows us the seedy world of poker clubs and high-stakes gamblers, and it should have been the poker equivalent of 'The Hustler.' But it suffers from iron-poor blood. No energy. It just lies there."
20. Both Matt Damon and Edward Norton were invited to play in the 1998 World Series of Poker. Damon went all in with two kings, only to lose to the legendary Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, who ended Damon's Series run with two aces.
21. Rounders proved to be a financial success, grossing $22,905,674 at the American box office. Rounders 2, directed by John Dahl, is now in development and slated for a possible 2012 release, with Matt Damon and Edward Norton reprising their original roles.
“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 as Mike McDermott
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.