Twenty-five years ago, Matt Damon and Edward Norton changed your life forever when they graced the silver screen as Mike McDermott and Lester Murphy – better known as ‘Worm’ – in Rounders.
While the movie didn’t exactly crush at the box office – it finished with the 76th largest domestic box office of 1989 at $22.9 million – it framed poker, and specifically Texas Hold’em, as a game where young people could use their smarts and wits to make money. It helped glorify the underground poker scene in New York City. Sometime during that run in theaters, Chris Moneymaker saw the movie and that sparked his interest in poker, five years before he would go on to win the World Series of Poker Main Event.
The movie ends with McDermott, after playing the highest stakes poker of his life, hailing a New York City yellow cab to Kennedy airport so he can head to Las Vegas and – presumably – play the World Series of Poker Main Event. McDermott’s monologue closes the movie as The Counting Crows’ I’m A Big Star Now plays and the credits roll.
Since then, poker fans have been clamoring for a Rounders sequel. What happened to McDermott after he got to Las Vegas? Whatever became of Worm? It’s been teased multiple times over the years but has never quite come to fruition.
Earlier this year, Damon and longtime pal Ben Affleck hinted that they had begun working on the project. In the days when Rounders co-writer Brian Koppelman was active on Twitter, he frequently hosted Ask Me Anythings, but fans so frequently prodded him for an update on Rounders 2 that he basically made it a rule that he wouldn’t answer if asked.
The time for a sequel may have passed. The key characters would all be 50 or older. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some amazing stories to be told. Taking a page out of the Disney model, the Rounders Cinematic Universe (RCU) is overflowing with opportunities. Following Mike after his arrival in Las Vegas or Jo as she goes on to a career working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York might not work now, but there’s still an as-yet undiscovered trove of stories to be told in the prequels.
KNISH – Feature Film
When things went bad for Mike in the opening minutes of Rounders, Joey Knish was ready to help, first offering a stake and then offering the comfort of a regular paycheck via “the truck”.
Set in 1973, and starring Giorgio Cantarini (Gladiator, Life Is Beautiful) as Joey Knish, the movie opens with Knish seated at the counter of a New York deli on West 20th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue – only six blocks away from The Chesterfield.
Knish, just 22 years old, is watching the afternoon races from Saratoga. Moments before each race, some of the other elderly patrons place their wagers with Knish. He’s not the bettor, he’s the bookie and while he’s known to be a kind soul he’s not offering any discounted odds here. He’ll collect just enough from the pensioners here to pay for his dinner and put a little bit away for a business he’s hoping to start in the coming years.
Suddenly the deli’s phone rings. “Joey – it’s for you. Again.” Knish takes the receiver. It’s Amy, the manager at The Chesterfield.
“He’s on his way, Joey. He just called. Wants to play $20/$40,” Amy says.
“I’ve got two more races here and I’ll wander down. Lock up a seat,” Knish replies before hanging up.
Nearly 30 minutes later, after Mr. Prospector breezes to his fifth straight victory at Saratoga, Knish lays $10 on the counter and begins walking to his other office. For the past seven years, Knish has been playing regularly at The Chesterfield and a few other New York City clubs where poker, backgammon, chess, and gin rummy are all being played regularly. He plays most of the games offered and nearly the biggest stakes. He’s the youngest player in those games by a decade or more and he dreams of something bigger.
Knish wants to follow in the footsteps of Stu Ungar and become the second New Yorker to land in Las Vegas to battle and ultimately defeat the locals and the Texas road gamblers that take over Binion’s Horseshoe every May for the World Series of Poker so he can call himself World Champion. He’s biding his time now in these New York games, building his bankroll and honing his skills.
Knish makes his way through a set of doors and gives a knowing nod to Amy. Without saying anything he slides six $100 bills across the desk and collects a rack of chips. As he sits down, he stacks his chips neatly on the felt and places four more $100 bills behind them.
Over the next two hours, moviegoers are taken on a ride that includes Knish using a significant chunk of his bankroll to buy half of his uncle’s baked goods delivery route working his way to Las Vegas with a bankroll built to take on the world only to have it decimated by the hardened poker pros that saw him for nothing but a sucker.
The Degenerates of Dwight Englewood Prep – A three-season series
You don’t just pick up any friend on the day he gets out of prison, but you certainly pick up your BEST friend. The bond between Mike McDermott and ‘Worm’ goes back to their teens when they first met at Dwight Englewood Preparatory School in New Jersey.
With Charlie Plummer (Granite Flats, Wildflower) as a young Mike, and Jaeden Martell (Knives Out, Masters of Sex) as ‘Worm’, the three-season-long series follows them going from a pair of sore thumbs at the private school to inseparable friends known for being the go-to crew for all kinds of shenanigans on campus.
A first-season episode opens in the back of the library at Englewood Prep where Mike and Worm are holding court. A young man approaches.
“I heard you can get me some marijuana,” a geek-faced freshman whispers to Worm in the back of the school library.
“Marijuana?” Worms asks loudly, causing the freshman to panic while nobody else pays them any mind.
Mike sits at a desk across from Worm, reading a tattered copy of Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi by George Devol.
“It’ll be $25 for a dime bag,” Worm whispers back.
“Isn’t a dime bag supposed to be $10?” the freshman asks sheepishly.
“You’re not negotiating with me over the price of illicit drugs, are you?” Worm responds. The freshman shakes his head and counts out the four $5 bills he had collected from his buddies earlier and then adds a $5 bill of his own. Worm reaches into his jacket pocket and produces the product and exchanges it for the money.
The freshman walks away, bouncing.
“That’s the most expensive oregano in the world,” Mike says. “You’d better hope he doesn’t have a big brother who’s going to come looking for you.”
“If he had a big brother, he wouldn’t be buying weed from us, Mike.”
“Oregano. You sold him oregano. I’m a scholar, here learning about … Canada Bill Jones, apparently.”
Over the course of the series, Mike and Worm find themselves chasing bigger and more lucrative opportunities, in part for the financial windfall, but also simply for the thrill of seeing how far they can take things. They pass time each lunch hour playing Five Card Draw with some of the younger faculty, taking what little disposable income those teachers have.
One of the worst players in the game, a 23-year-old alum, turned out to be an assistant basketball coach at the school who finds himself owing Worm a significant chunk of money. The first season wraps with Worm being kicked out of school for single-handedly convincing the basketball team to throw a game that Worm had bet on.
Over the following seasons, Mike and Worm live together in the city while Mike goes to college and Worm begins to integrate himself into some of the underground poker rooms and gambling dens throughout the five boroughs. While both become winning poker players, Worm’s destiny chooses him as he racks up debt with a number of the Gotham citizens who populate those establishments. His eagerness to pay off that debt as quickly as possible leads him down a dark path.
The series wraps with Mike being accepted into the Fordham University School of Law while Worm is convicted of credit card fraud and sentenced to 18-24 months in prison.
Teddy KGB – Feature Film
Arguably the most iconic and endearing character from Rounders, Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, runs an underground club of his own – or maybe for the Russian mafia – and is also a talented and feared No Limit Hold’em player. In the opening scene of Rounders he beats Mike McDermott out of his entire $30,000 bankroll.
Set in 1953 New York City in the midst of a then record-smashing heat wave, the movie first introduces us to a 17-year-old Fyodor Alexiev, played by Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, It). Having spent the morning hours working as a stevedore at the docks in Brooklyn, he’s tired but young and his youthfulness has him walking to a local park where he’ll roll out his tattered paper chessboard and hand-carved makeshift chess pieces and wait for somebody to come along and play him for money. He’ll play late into the night as long as somebody sits across from him.
He’s not by no means a hustler though. He’s happy to take on all comers and, having arrived in New York City from Moscow only a year earlier, uses the games as an excuse to improve his English and pocket a few extra bucks. A man in his mid-thirties eventually asks him if he’s looking to play.
“Dah. Yes,” Fyodor says.
“Great. $2 a game?” the man asks. Fyodor nods in acceptance. “My name is Larry.”
Larry mishears him and calls him Theodore for the rest of the night. After losing three matches in a row, Larry decides to call it a night. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out $6 in bills and coins.
“Here you are. Hope to see you again, Teddy.”
They do see each other again and become friendly. Larry eventually invites “Teddy” to a gaming parlor in Brooklyn where he expands his horizons by playing backgammon, bridge, and gin rummy. One night he enters the club and notices five men he doesn’t recognize all playing a card game that he’s unfamiliar with. Comfortable and fearless, he strides over to the table.
“Vat is zis?” Teddy asks.
“Poker,” one of them replies without looking up. “We’re playing Five Card Draw.”
“How do you play?” Teddy continues.
Sensing an opportunity that seems too good to not take advantage, the man invites Teddy to join them. Teddy obliges.