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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Poker Motivations in Rounders
I posted recently about how I prefer ring games to tourneys. This post is partly a follow-up to those thoughts (hopefully a final one, since I feel I am beginning to beat the dead horse on this issue). However, my recent readings and thoughts on tourney frustration led to some other thoughts, and hey, that's the point of the whole blog thing. So here we go.

Several poker bloggers, myself included, have tackled the fundamental question of "why do I play poker?"

The three main answers seem to be:
  1. Profit
  2. Fun, Excitement, and the Thrill of the Gamble
  3. Competition; the Idea of Poker as Sport (the hardest part to describe, it encompasses the appeal of challenging oneself; improving one's game through competition; and striving against others to determine which player is best)
These three ideas are in very interrelated. For example, winning is both fun and profitable, and winning requires being willing to gamble, but only true competitors, serious about improving their game, win consistently.

These three themes are represented in the movie Rounders in the characters of Knish, Worm, and Mike McDermott.

Knish is the Grinder. The script basically beats you over the head with this one: "I'm not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, actions, or fucking pipe dreams of winning the World Series on ESPN."

Knish plays poker because for him it is a source of steady income. And Knish provides both stability and income (albeit a small one) to Mike: In the initial scene of the movie, after Mike loses $30,000 to Teddy KGB, Knish is there for support, and he helps Mike pay the bills by allowing him to drive his truck for a living. Later he boasts "I was giving you a living, Mike. Showing you the playbook I put together off my own beats."

While Mike thinks of driving Knish's truck as "humping a crappy job," it's clear that Knish did not force it on Mike. After Mike loses to KGB, Knish offers to stake him, but Mike says "I'd just throw it away." Unlike Mike's girlfriend, Knish accepts Mike as a poker player--he just believes that poker should be played a certain way: sensibly, conservatively, and for profit above all else. When it's clear to Knish that that is not why Mike is playing, he refuses to give Mike any money--"Nah, I give to ya I'm wasting it."

Worm is the Gambler. He represents the "fun and exciting" aspect of poker, although his role is not so obvious as Knish's.

This aspect of Worm's role in the movie is obscured by his cheating, which is emphasized throughout the film. Worm also talks a lot about how he'll do whatever it takes to win--"I see a mark, I take him down. . . That's the way I live." So on first viewing it seems that Worm is even more obsessed with winning than Mike is (since Mike won't cheat to win).

However, if you think about the plot of the film, Worm's cheating plays a very minor role. Sure, there's the great scene, one of my favorites in the film, where Worm gets caught bottom dealing in a room full of cops. They get beat up, and lose all the money they were trying to make to pay back Grandma and Teddy KGB.

But if Worm's such a winning (sometimes through cheating) poker player, why was he in debt to a gangster in the first place? Sure, there could be explanations outside of poker--maybe involving his briefly mentioend credit-card scam. But in a movie that's all about poker, let's assume that the explanation for Worm's debt is poker-related--that is, he was losing.

Worm as a losing player? Hmm . . . we do see Worm winning in prison, and against the frat boys in the mansion scene, and at the Chesterfield. But it's not hard to imagine Worm losing against better opponents. It would fit perfectly with Worm's character to assume that he's in debt because he was playing too much poker, for limits that were too high ("we gotta get in the bigger game"), and in too risky a manner.

Worm wins a lot, but not enough to have gotten out of debt before heading to prison. And Worm doesn't really care. He craves the action that poker provides--so much so that it becomes a destructive force in both his and Mike's lives.

If it seems like I'm painting Worm as more of a degenerate than "fun," I guess I am. Worm represents the "fun" element carried too far--but he still represents the "fun" element. How so? Because it is Worm who rekindles Mike's love of the game: "At least you're rounding again, right? You're gonna thank me for that someday."

Finally, Mike is the Competitor. Mike's realization of this is basically the point of the movie. Mike doesn't seem to care so much about the money he wins, nor does he seem to live for the "action" of it quite so much as Worm does. Mike's primary goal as a poker player is not to make money or enjoy himself--it is to be the best, period, even if that means taking big risks. In pursuit of his goal, Mike sits down with known sharks--namely, Teddy KGB and Johnny Chan (for one hand)--risks that disappoint Knish and impress Worm.

Interestingly, going back to Worm's cheating, it's pretty clear in the movie that Mike won't cheat, not because he feels cheating is wrong ("You know I have no problem with the way you help yourself"), but because he wants to prove he doesn't need to cheat to win.

Mike's desire to be the best is of course demonstarted at the end of the film with his decision to move to Las Vegas and play in the World Series of Poker. It's the World Series part that's most important. It would be one thing (and probably more realistic) if Mike just had the realization that "hey, I'm a really good poker player, and I want o move to Vegas and make aliving at it, law school be damned." But that's not what he does. He wants to play with the very best.

Mike as a Tourney Player

In ring games, you generally make money if there are players at the table who are worse than you; in tourneys, you generally don't make money unless you are among the best players in the tournament. I think of myself as a ring game player because I'd rather walk away a winner from a single table than try to beat out a out a field of hundreds for a larger prize. (Nor am I generally capable of the latter.) Of course I want to improve as a player, but I doubt I'll ever really be world-class, and I love poker anyway.

In realizing that I don't wholeheartedly share Mike's drive to take big risks and be the best, I also realized that Mike is, at heart, a tournament player. This is not say that all poker Competitors are tourney players, not hardly. I'm sure many ring game players play for the love of competition as much as for profit, just as many tourney players play largely for the profit motive. And tons of fun and "action" is to be found in both formats. However, the drive to not just be great, but to be the best and prove it, is a distinguishing characteristic of the tourney player.

So then I thought, well, if I'm not a tournament player like Mike, am I a grinder like Knish? I do try to follow Knish's advice to play smart and stick to beatable games--but in the movie, Knish represents the unexciting, un-fun side of poker. Then I got to thinking about whether I was at all like Worm, and I realized that the part of his character that I identify with most is his energetic, infectious enjoyment of the game. I identify with all 3 characters to different degrees, because all 3 represent a part of poker.

All of this still doesn't explain how Mike can spurn Petra's advances, though.

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