Poker is, simply put, great fodder for films. The stakes, the drama and the tension all lend themselves perfectly to the big screen, especially where great actors who can communicate the often-unspoken tides pushing and pulling their way around the table are involved. Molly’s Game and Rounders are two of the all-time greats. Can one of them claim the title?
Molly’s Game, for its part, is an adaptation of the autobiography by disgraced ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom. It’s written by Hollywood darling Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Moneyball, The Newsroom, The Social Network) and is also the writer’s first turn in the director’s chair.
One thing it most certainly has going for it is that it’s based on (or at least ‘inspired by’) a true story. Bloom is a former elite freestyle skier who once hoped to compete at the Winter Olympics – someone used to (and driven towards) succeeding. She’s introduced to the world of high stakes poker by her bully of a boss and realises pretty quickly that if she wants to succeed there she needs to become the ultimate (unattainable) accessory – a blur of curves and hair shine with an unimpeachable smile. She does so with aplomb, entering a big money world of business leaders and Hollywood big-wigs, running the most exclusive poker rooms first in Los Angeles and then in New York City.
Which takes us to a second advantage of Molly’s Game – there’s a definite frisson knowing that, even if they’re not named in the film, among the players in Molly’s games were the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire. We find our way into that world via Molly as she watches and learns, picking up the language and rituals of the game and googling googling googling until she (and we) are fully inaugurated in the poker world.
Rounders, meanwhile, offers a very different vision of the world of poker.
First released two decades ago, Rounders features and all-star cast of actors who were still, in many cases, on their way up – Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro and Martin Landau.
Directed by John Dahl and written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, it follows a (so so) young Damon as he gets drawn back into a world of high stakes poker that he thought he’d while trying to clear the debts of his friend of dubious Worm, played with flair by Norton.
Rounders was one of the films, along with Good Will Hunting, that elevated Damon to stardom, but that’s neither here nor there when you’re talking about its chops as a poker film.
What makes Rounders a landmark picture is the way it showed the world of poker to an audience that had only ever seen it in old Westerns, drawing out the energy and the tension that those on the inside already knew set it apart from other card games. We get to see the game as one of skill, going into the intricacies of games in the film in a way that contrasts many poker scenes in the films that came before it. Rounders really sold the game in a way that films only depicting crazy run outs, cheating and exaggerated melodrama never could.
Like Molly’s Game, one of Rounders’ great strengths is the vein of truth running through its heart. The script was based on the real-life experiences of writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien and was run through with technical jargon and realistic (if very dramatic) depictions of the game. In short, it felt real, and viewers responded to that, whether they knew the game or not.
Of course, it’s that realism that makes it the vehicle for some of the greatest poker quotes of all time. This is the film that brought us “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, you are the sucker“.
It also inspired a lot of people to take poker up, from enthusiastic amateurs right up to some of the biggest names in the game. Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu and Hevad Khan are along the pros playing today who cite this as the thing that got them fired up about the game.
The climax of rounders was actually lifted straight out of real life – in 1988 Johnny Chan’s defence of his WSOP title against Erik Seidel was so impressive and dramatic that it just had to be immortalised on screen.
When it comes down to it, it’s this focus on the granularity of poker that makes it the better film for true players. Molly’s Game, for all its flashy editing, amazing script and star performances, is really a story about entrepreneurship and power. Rounders, meanwhile, is a game about how it feels to sit at the table and play a hand of one of the greatest games on Earth.