Rounders and the Gambler: Portrayals of Pathological Gambling in the Movies

Rounders and the Gambler: Portrayals of Pathological Gambling in the Movies
Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.

(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema 2008 Issue 3.)  

There are varied paths to gambling success:  through skill mastery; through patience and consistency; through cheating and clever trickery; and, through sheer luck.   In the movie Rounders(1998) we see examples of these first three methods of seeking gambling success.  The element of chance is better portrayed by James Caan in The Gambler (1974).

Rounders tells the story of New York City resident Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), who is paying for his law school tuition by winning at poker.  The movie begins with Mike’s losing his total savings, $30,000, on one poker hand to the Russian known as “Teddy KGB,” played beautifully by John Malkovitch.  Through voiceovers in the film, we hear Mike’s mind working as he constantly analyzes the other players.  We are shown that he has been training himself to play poker, such as reading the book Super System by poker legend Doyle Brunson. He has developed a skill in reading other players’ faces and behaviors, in knowing how they would react to his own actions.  In the world of poker, the skilled players are known to one another, each having a sense of the others’ skill levels.  As Mike points out, “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker”.  These players “make the rounds” to various high stakes games, hence their being called “rounders.”

Even for the most skilled players, however, poker remains a game of chance.  Having a good understanding of the odds of winning and playing conservatively can lead to success, but rarely to a big payoff.  Mike’s friend and poker mentor, Joey Knish (John Turturro), is such a player.  He pays his bills and supports his family by patience and consistency in poker play.  As in the Kenny Rogers’ song, he “knows when to hold them, knows when to fold them.”  Knish does not feel the lure of going for a big win and is as successful as he needs to be.  For him, poker playing is a source of extra income, nothing more.  He’s a realist.

In contrast, there is Mike’s friend, Worm (Edward Norton), who is released from prison and immediately returns to poker playing.  He’s not a technical player, nor is he patient and conservative.  Worm is a classic con man.  A card “mechanic,” he is skilled at sleight of hand and clever cheating.  Humorously, he has an ace tattooed on his forearm – an ace “up his sleeve.”  Worm is less affected by the money, or the loss thereof, than is Mike.  It is the sheer excitement of conning the other players.  The contrast between Worm and Mike is clear when they are playing poker with policemen.  Mike is winning through his technical skill; Worm joins the game and immediately starts to cheat, dealing from the bottom of the deck to ensure that Mike wins.  The subsequent physical beating they both suffer when Worm is caught is not enough to discourage either from future play, however.

Although Rounders does show some of the consequences of gambling debt, poker playing is presented as glamorous and exciting, an acceptable occupational choice.  Even the dean of the law school (Martin Landau) seems to be condoning Mike’s leaving law school to pursue poker playing, as he says, “We can’t run from who we are; our destiny chooses us.”

Whether it be destiny or psychopathology, those addicted to gambling are unable to stop their compulsive behavior.  A 1997 study by Harvard Medical School’s Division of Addictions estimated the prevalence rate of pathological gambling to be 1.1 percent among Americans and Canadians.  With the increased popularity of gambling in the United States, as exemplified by the frequent television broadcasts of the “World Series of Poker,” and the proliferation of online gambling websites, it is likely that the current rate is higher. 

Classified as an Impulse Control Disorder, a DSM-IV diagnosis of Pathological Gambling requires at least 5 of 10 typical behaviors (not better accounted for by Manic Disorder):  preoccupation with gambling and past wins/losses; tolerance, as shown by needing to take greater risk in order to reach the same level of excitement; withdrawal, irritability, restlessness when unable to gamble; using gambling as an escape to avoid thinking of one’s problems, or to deal with low mood; “chasing,” increasing the amount of the bet in order to win back losses; lying to hide the extent of the gambling activities; efforts to stop or cut down have failed; illegal acts may occur in order to fund the gambling activity; and, jeopardizing or losing significant relationships, jobs, or educational or career opportunities.

In the case of Mike in Rounders, it is not clear that he meets all the criteria for a Pathological Gambling diagnosis.  In his case, there seems to be less of an impulse disorder and more self-confidence in his skill.  The movie ends without our knowing how successful he was in his pursuit of the poker playing profession.

Axel Freed in The Gambler, on the other hand, illustrates all the DSM-IV criteria.  Axel is an English professor at a New York City college.  The movie opens with his repeatedly losing his bets in a private gambling room, culminating in $44,000 in debt.  We learn that he earns $1500 per month, so this is an overwhelming amount he owes.  Axel’s mother is a physician and she eventually gives him the money.  Instead of paying off the debt, he goes on a gambling spree, making increasingly risky bets in an effort to win back the loss.  He shows no fear when faced with the threat of physical harm if he cannot pay back his debt.  He tells his mother, “For $10,000 they break your arms, for 20 your legs, for 50 you get a whole new face.”

For him, gambling is not about winning, it’s about risk.  It is the risk of losing and its consequences that is exciting and reinforcing to him.  Indeed, the film ends with what, for most, would be a happy ending – his debt is erased and he no longer is at risk for harm.  But Axel is not happy; this does not provide the excitement that he needs.  So, he places himself in a situation where he gambles with his life, and wins.  His need has been satisfied, for now.

Both Rounders’s Worm and Axel also meet diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder.  Each fails to conform to social norms and lies with ease.  Both are impulsive, reckless, and irresponsible.  Neither shows remorse for his actions, as they both take advantage of others.  Their overall mood states differ, however.  Worm is always happy, excited; Axel appears to be dysthymic.  As in real life, pathological gamblers in the movies also have comorbid psychopathology.

In closing, both Rounders and The Gambler are exciting, suspenseful movies.  The characters are multifaceted and easily lend themselves to psychological analysis.  For a through review of gambling themes in the movies, see Turner, Fritz, and Zangeneh’s online article in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Gambling Issues at