We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse. These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them.
The Film: Rounders (1998)
Who’s The Man? Mike McDermott
What Makes Him a Reel Man?
There are few activities more indelible to the y-chromosomal experience than the playing of poker. While no longer a game solely relegated to our sex, tossing the occasional card is still considered a rite of male passage. Only baseball and the infrequent prostate exam register higher on the list of activities that remind us that we are men. The image of a dark, smoky room populated by a green, felt table covered in mountains of chips and pairs of hairy arms coveting and protecting their winnings is one all men can respect if not embrace. And while our fathers and grandfathers are often credited as our poker mentors, sometimes the movies can provide the additional tutelage needed to make us masters of the game. To wit, I present Mike McDermott.
Mike is a law student with an incredible talent for cards. In fact, poker bankrolled much of his education. One night, he decides to stop operating as a small-timer and take a shot at the big payoff. He sits down at an underground poker club run by Teddy KGB, a man connected all the way to the top of the Russian mob, for the highest stakes game in town. He takes a bad beat and loses everything; retiring from the game. But Mike is a rounder, a professional card player whose love for the rush prevents him from remaining retired. Along the path to redemption, Mike teaches us everything we need to know about poker. Here’s the McDermott guide to cards…
Rule 1: Texas Hold’em is the Cadillac of Pokers
While Mike plays many different types of poker during the course of the film, he subscribes to Doyle Brunson’s maxim that Texas Hold’em is the only pure form of poker left. This version involves each player being dealt two hole cards, which can be combined with any of five community cards dealt over the next three rounds of betting to make the best five-card hand. The film’s inciting action as well as its climax occurs around a Texas Hold’em table. This is a game wherein the best hand on the table can change with the turn of a single card; making an imperative of rule #2…
Rule 2: Don’t Play the Cards, Play the Man
Since so much can change with each new community card that falls, the game becomes all about reading your opponent. Inexperienced players will “wear their tells like signs around their necks” so the game becomes an experiment in social psychological. Watch for nervous ticks, a hand over a mouth, or, in the case of KGB, the manner in which your opponent eats his Oreo cookies. When you spot the tell, make no indication that you have done so. The longer they don’t know you know, the more they will inadvertently pay out.
Rule 3: If You Can’t Spot the Sucker Within the First Half Hour, You Are the Sucker
Again much of poker, and especially Texas Hold’em, is knowing how to play the man and not the cards. But where this may sound like an innocent little read of your friends’ quirks, the serious poker player understands that there is no such thing as a friendly game. In fact, the general rule is “the nicer the guy, the poorer the card player.” Every table has a sucker, and it is “immoral to let a sucker keep his money.” So the guy who is being genuinely kind to everyone at the table, laughing at jokes and offering to refill the drinks, is not the threat. The guy who insists on putting you on a time limit for making a decision to call and splashing the pot (tossing his chips into the middle rather than stacking them neatly) is the one of whom to be wary.
Rule 4: Always Leave Yourself Outs
You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. The one rule that went unheeded by Mike at the beginning of the film was the importance of leaving oneself outs. No matter how confident you may be in your prowess as a card sharp, no matter how sure you are that you have the best hand at the table, always be prepared for a bad beat and check bravado at the door. All you’re really looking to do is win one big hand every hour and protect your money when you don’t have a good hand. Mike was blinded from his usual adherence to this rule by the flipside of the maxim: “you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win much either.” Striking a balance between discipline and ambition is key.
The Man’s World
Mike exists in a world of much higher stakes than most of us are used to. He plays cards to earn a living and no other lifestyle is acceptable to him. Many of us have played in cash games; maybe even made some respectable green doing so. But few of us have risked our every last dollar for the thrill of the game. That being said, Mike’s general rules of poker can easily be applied to an informal house game or local tournament. I owe whatever cash winnings I’ve garnered since college entirely to this film. Learning the mechanics, developing betting strategies, and identifying tells were all things I gleaned from Rounders. In fact, I will often “play the loser” whenever I feel I have a really strong hand—in order to draw out larger bets from my opponents—as a direct result of seeing Edward Norton do so to perfection in Rounders.
The Man Behind the Man
Matt Damon, thanks largely to his tenure as Jason Bourne and how proficiently he kicked ass during such time, is an actor of the utmost machismo. This however was not always the case and Rounders came about right as his star was starting to rise in Hollywood. The film was released by Miramax who, only a year before, had produced Damon’s breakout film Good Will Hunting. This is the film that established Damon as a talented dramatist but may not have earned him high marks on the manly scale. But Rounders provides such valuable lessons on one of manhood’s most basic components that Damon proved himself as a Reel Man long before he picked up a gun and lost his memory.
One Final Toast
Events in our lives often fall with the same chaotic randomness as the turn of a card. In these moments, we learn the most about ourselves as men. Rounders therefore offers lessons that transcend the card table and harbor more broad application. The trick is always leaving oneself outs and understanding the short memory and potential of the next hand. Deal us in.