The poker-themed movie Rounders kicked off a global poker boom that was realized through the World Poker Tour six-max final table telecasts on the Travel Channel along with Chris Moneymaker’s improbable victory at the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
If you were around the poker scene in the mid-2000s, Rounders was “must watch” material for any aspiring pro looking to turn a profit at the live or virtual felts. Many a pro invoked the spirit of Mike McDermott in his or her quest for poker fame. Yet as time has passed, the cult classic now points to several key flaws that would have caused McDermott’s success to fade following Black Friday.
Quick Take on Mike McDermott and Rounders
Before we get into the 5 Important Poker Lessons you may have missed from Rounders, let’s take a brief look at how the life of Mike McDermott (portrayed by Matt Damon) might have unfolded during the glory days of the poker boom.
Subjectively speaking, I personally believe good ol’ Mikey would’ve killed it with the three stacks of high society he went to Las Vegas with following his epic Oreo cookie battle against Teddy KGB.
Mike had an unquenchable thirst for poker tournament success, and it is likely he would have quickly found precisely that — along with the fame and trappings that many poker tournament pros circa 2005 would discover. I really think McDermott could have won a coveted World Series of Poker bracelet, made many new friends, and boosted his poker bankroll significantly in a relatively short amount of time.
But Mike would have struggled when the industry began its decline. And when the United States poker world came crashing down on that fateful Friday, our star protagonist could have pointed to the following 5 Important Poker Lessons from Rounders that he did not pick up on.
Rounders Lesson #5: Lying to Your Partner is Not Cool
At the beginning of Rounders, Mike convinces himself the time is right to put it all on the line at an underground card game and loses his entire bankroll playing above his means. He then forges an agreement with his romantic partner Jo — played by Hollywood actress Gretchen Mo — that he will focus on his law school activities and leave the game of poker behind.
Of course that doesn’t last more than a few months. And of course our famous poker buddy is free to live his life how he chooses. It’s his decision… but here’s what you may not have picked up about that life choice.
Not being forthright with a loved one (while continuing to benefit from his or her presence) is just another form of usury. If pursuing a certain lifestyle is so important to you — and admittedly it was for many poker pros during the boom — then blatantly lying to your partner is not the correct line to take.
It arbitrarily takes the decision-making power away from your loved ones, and places you in the position of assuming those around you will share your vision, or at the very least tolerate it. Jo wasn’t having any of that, and promptly exited Mike’s life when respect for her individualism became forfeit. Good for her.
Rounders Lesson #4: The Truck Route Makes Demands of You, Too
While Mike pondered his future on a street corner in a seedy industrial neighborhood alongside his poker pal Joey Knish, the “backup plan” was already in place. For sure, these lifeline opportunities are available to those who forget the “cardinal rule” of professional gambling, but you shouldn’t assume they’ll always be there waiting at one’s whim.
Beer delivery (or poker writing — which is regarded by some successful pros as the real-life “truck route” for long-forgotten poker players) has its own pros and cons that reward dedication and shun inactivity just like the #GrinderLife does.
Sooner or later, McDermott would have needed to provide increased benefit to his sponsor, even if that didn’t involve playing cards. Failure to adapt, innovate or generate value in any profession is a sure-fire way to get overtaken by the competition of that field. There’s something to be learned from appreciating any opportunity you get (even if you considered it to be beneath you at some point in the past), and throw yourself into it with gusto and a desire to achieve.
Rounders Lesson #3: Scumbag Friends Equal False Comfort
When Lester The Worm “caught a hanger” in that famous Sheriff’s Game, Mike suddenly found himself out of options to rectify a very pressing predicament (which it can be argued was mostly Worm’s fault to begin with). As with many real-life poker pros who were taken to the cleaners by their inconsiderate, con-men scumbag buddies during the golden age of poker, there were plenty of signs before that Sevens Full hand that Lester was bad news.
Yet Mikey found some sort of unhealthy comfort in Worm’s company — much to his own detriment. And as much as I’d like to believe that McDermott meant what he said near the end of Rounders (that he considered himself and Lester to be “even”) the temptations of the poker boom would have been too much success for our Hero to not want to “pay back” even more goodwill to the Villain.
So while Mike would have been awarded a gambler’s chance at success during his inevitable Vegas run, The Worm would have been fixing Card Roulette wagers, shaking down McDermott’s newfound buddies for loans, and ruining Mike’s name all over Sin City. Misery may love company, but one is better off bearing the brunt of miserable decisions rather than seeking out false comfort from a cohort who eats, sleeps and breathes that so-called miserable life.
Rounders Lesson #2: Destiny (Sometimes) Chooses Us
Legendary Hollywood actor Martin Landau passed away this year. He was beloved by his fans worldwide and an icon among professional poker players of the mid-2000s. The famous “Destiny Chooses Us” line he delivered to Mike provided justification for a good number of poker pros to “follow their hearts” when the global poker scene lifted off.
And who could argue with Professor Abe Petrovsky’s wisdom? He could have been right, but I’m not so sure that line included vouching for an insufferable loser just to pluck $10,000 in emergency bailout money from your last resort. Mike McDermott chose his own destiny when he conformed to The Worm’s view on getting ahead in the poker world. So despite McDermott’s youth, vigor and desire to avoid the results of his own decisions, his plea for a “quick fix” would have likely fallen on deaf ears in the post-boom poker era.
Regardless of whether a poker player believes in fate or not, there is an important lesson to be learned in taking responsibility for your own actions — something our Hero failed to do throughout the movie.
Rounders Lesson #1: Dreams Aren’t Built on Miracles
Like any large-field poker tournament winner, Mike McDermott parlayed a great run of cards and timely breaks into an epic night at the tables. In fact, one could say that Mikey’s heads-up victory against Teddy KGB was nothing short of miraculous considering the circumstances.
But that’s just it, dreams aren’t built on miracles… those life “heaters” don’t necessarily foretell or guarantee the realization of one’s poker dream. They (hopefully) arrive on a poker player’s doorstep when he or she is ready to assume full responsibility for an upcoming lifetime that will serve-up a hefty dose of both rewards and consequences.
This was lost on a lot of poker pros who did find “poker glory” at one moment in their careers, but who failed to realize that “playing a game for a living” comes with its own rules; it’s own set of ups and downs that accompany any profession.
So regardless of whether you’re a casual fan of the game or a modern day professional poker player, work on your leaks. Be discerning. Scrutinize your results and judge for yourself whether certain outcomes are based largely on skill or luck. Do that, and you just might find yourself ahead of the pack with ample confidence to build on your unique qualities in any pursuit or “dream” you choose to follow.
Best of luck at the tables!
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