Rounders: The Intersection of Law and Poker
by Ken Swift
One can hardly turn on the
television these days without turning to a televised poker game.
Other than shows about forensic investigators, they are the
most prevalent programs (a show where crime scene investigators
play poker seems inevitable). High-stakes poker is a game that
has always attracted lawyers, perhaps because many of the skills
of a good lawyer are transferable to the poker table: quick calculations,
decisive decision-making, and the ability to "read"
another human being. And many top poker players have legal backgrounds,
perhaps epitomized by patent lawyer (now former patent lawyer)
Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, who won $5 million as the
2004 World Series of Poker champion.
was perhaps not surprising then that the 1998 movie Rounders
- which certainly helped to propel the interest in poker - included
a legal subplot. At the start of the film, set in New York City,
the lead character, Michael McDermott (played by Matt Damon),
is a "rounder", someone who makes a living by playing
in lower stakes poker in. After he loses his full bankroll ($30,000)
to a Russian card room operator nicknamed Teddy KGB (played by
John Malkovich), McDermott gives up poker to attend law school
and appease his girlfriend. While McDermott, of course, returns
to playing cards (ostensibly to help a friend pay off a debt
to the Russian) and has the requisite finale high-stakes game
against Teddy KGB, it is McDermott's role as a law student and
his relationship with one of his law professors that provide
non-stereotypical portraits new and experienced legal professionals.
Most media portrayals of law
students and new lawyers show them to be boundless optimists
with a single-minded determination to seek justice. The reality,
however, is that many people enter law school either because
they haven't found anything else to do or to please someone else.
Here, it is clear that McDermott's heart is not in law school
but, his high stake poker dreams having been dashed, he seems
to have no other alternative. He misses meetings with his moot
court team and shows up unprepared for the moot court hearing.
Despite this, McDermott's live-in girlfriend and fellow law
student is pleased by his abstinence from poker, yet keeps an
ever vigilant eye on his comings and goings. Her fears are soon
realized as the release from prison of McDermott's best friend
soon leads him back to the poker table.
On the other hand, most media
portrayals of experienced lawyers show them to be either disillusioned
(Paul Newman in The Verdict), egomaniacal attorneys who
treat the law as a vehicle for personal gain rather than justice
(Robert Duvall in A Civil Action or Gene Hackman in The
Firm) or curmudgeonly law professors (Kingsfield). Here,
McDermott forms a bond with Abe Petrovsky, an aging law professor
played by Martin Landau. Petrovsky does not fit the stereotype.
Instead, in response to McDermott's question about what led him
to the law, Petrovsky speaks of the disappointment his family
felt when he decided to discontinue his rabbinical studies, and
then speaks of the law as his "life's work." Landau's
excellent performance convincingly conveys an uncommon sense
of passion and honor about spending a life studying and teaching
law. Professor Petrovsky appears to have a genuine concern for
McDermott and, presumably, his other students as well. However,
one plot point that is more implausible than anything seen on
Star Wars or Star Trek occurs when McDermott asks
his professor to loan him $10,000 to help pay off a friend's
gambling debt, and the professor agrees. One would presume that
Petrovsky had a line of debt-ridden students waiting at his office
by early next morning.
The film even offers career
guidance for law students. In one scene, McDermott delivers
some research to Petrovsky's office and walks in on a poker game
between Petrovsky and a group of judges and lawyers (a scene
which requires any law professor to suspend animation because
the professor is gambling in his office and the office itself
is at least three times normal size). McDermott gains the inside
track on a summer clerkship with one of the judges by successfully
reading what cards each player is holding by watching body language.
Yet another networking tool for enterprising law students!
While Rounders is primarily
a part coming-of-age/part look at the poker underground, it's
law student/law professor subplot provides a refreshing change
from the usual film portrayals.
Posted October 10, 2005