For a quarter of a century, poker fans have been obsessed with the movie Rounders. To some extent, the film was so good that it has made any attempt to make another poker movie with different characters in look pale by comparison. Where Rounders is criticised is only in never coming back for more. Mike was able to walk away, and so too was the movie, goes the legend.
Unless you’ve read the film’s novelization, that is.
When Was the Rounders Novel Released?
Almost as old as the movie itself, was Kevin Canty’s creation, timed for its release to appeal to fans who had already seen the movie in cinemas an afterthought, doomed to exist in the shadows of the 1998 cinematic release or a brilliant book in its own right? And whatever happened to Mike McDermott at the end of the novel?
Let’s start with the release date. Timed to be available on September 11th, 1998 – ye, three years exctly before the World Trade Centers were attacked in New York – the Rounders novel came out to much less fanfare.
The 1998 movie Rounders, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and directed by John Dahl starred Matt Damon and Ed Norton, relied heavily on visual prompts. Poker is, by definition, a very watchable game because of the color that surrounds it; the players, the chips, the venues, the money. It’s a show and the film captured both the underground and razzamatazz elements of the game.
How is the Book Different to the Film?
Books, by comparison, are less visual, unless you’re still stuck on ones featuring pictures, in which case we don’t want to spoil what happens to Dr. Seuss later on. Generally speaking, and certainly in the case of Rounders: the novel, the story is more insular. Mike McDermott’s point of view is constant, whereas the film features many characters in a skilfully nuanced ensemble piece.
The novel makes you feel like you are Mike McDermott. A lot more intimate in tone, Kevin Canty’s book glides from scene to scene in broad step with the movie, but then provides a lot more of the narrative moments than Matt Damon voices in the film.
In the movie, we don’t see what happens to Mike between the scenes we are shown on screen, but in the novel, Canty’s prose fills in the gaps in an artful manner. In the book, we are in Knish’s truck with Mike for longer, we are standing in that empty apartment with Mike and we feel every punch at Binghampton, where Worm takes Mike to a game between ‘municipal workers’, or as they turn out to be, cops.
In the book, Worm drives an exhausted Mike there and the chapter is more viscerally violent. In the movie, of course, Mike drives, and while the book focuses on the physical impact on Mike and Worm, the movie packs more of a punch about dishonesty not paying, especially in front of cops. Here’s that famous scene in its full glory:
What Happens to Mike McDermott After He Went to Vegas?
In recent years, filmmakers Koppelman, Levien and Dahl have constantly batted off questions about the potential for Rounders II. In many film fans hearts, not knowing what happened to Mike at the end of the first movie leads to them wanting more. All they need to do is to pick up the novel, because the taxi ride to the airport is not the final scene in Kevin Canty’s version of the story.
As we left Mike in the film, he’d won his money back – and more – from Teddy KGB, a process that is explained a lot better in the book than it is on screen to be brutally honest. Following his Rocky-plays-cards style victory, Mike bids ex-girlfriend Jo farewell as he leaves New York for Las Vegas in a yellow cab. We know that Mike’s bankroll means he can enter the Main Event three times over, but what actually transpired?
In the closing pages of the book, the answer is revealed. Mike never saw Worm again and became a big winner at the game of poker, if not at life. While he got married, it ended badly and although he owns two houses, he never returned to New York and instead spends his time on the West Coast.
Having met a new girlfriend post-divorce, Mike survives a skin cancer scare brought on by too much of the high life, but his heart still beats for Jo and he is left to wonder whether leaving her in the Big Apple was the worst fold he ever made.
You should definitely read the book of Rounders, because the movie, in this case, only tells half the story. Kevin Canty’s style perfectly brings to life the inner workings of Mike’s mind as he grapples with the core problem in his life – accepting that he has a gift and that developing it is a conundrum he must solve, not run away from.
After all these years, it’s nice to know that Mike made a living playing the game he loves.