Rounders, and the Role of Exaggeration in Cinema

Poker doesn’t need any embellishment or fictionalization to make it exciting. There are plenty of true stories about the game that provide thrills without violating the laws of nature or asking listeners to suspend their disbelief. This is the nature of the game: the degree of chance involved and the psychological aspect provide plenty of excitement.

This brings us to a criticism I’ve heard leveled against Rounders, that the abilities of skilled poker players are made out to be superhuman. In one scene, the protagonist is able to correctly guess the cards all the players at a table are holding based purely on their expressions. This is, of course, impossible. Poker players are often able to get an idea of how good an opponent’s hand may be based on their mannerisms, but they won’t be able to identify the exact cards everyone is holding. If we’re considering Rounders as some sort of hyper-realistic poker documentary then this might be a reasonable criticism, but it’s unreasonable to view it in this light. Rounders is not attempting to provide an accurate look into the life of a backroom poker player. It is attempting to tell us the story of a man leaving a path that he feels is appropriate for one that he feels he is meant for. The exaggerations of his abilities only serve to demonstrate how some people may be built for certain roles, that they have a calling that they are gifted in and must follow in order to avoid some sort of cosmic wrong. Look at the film in this way, and the inaccuracies become an intentional directorial decision that emphasizes the importance of following one’s calling rather than a cheap way to gain thrills.

Well acted and skillfully directed, Rounders is a fantastic drama whether you’re a World Series of Poker finalist or someone who has never played. It’s certainly worth your time.

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