The main duel is Hold 'em, heads-up between the hero, played by Matt Damon, and the villain, a gambler played by John Malkovich. Speaking in a Russian accent honed like a circular saw, he pretty well steals the film.
Whether the general public will be able to follow the poker is another matter. This may not matter too much, because Matt Damon, the cardplayer's answer to Leonardo DiCaprio, who, you may remember, lost his stake on the Titanic, retains his pudgy, blond teeny-bopper looks throughout - despite being beaten up by vicious opponents. These periodic mishaps are all the fault of his con-man buddy Edward Norton, cast as a card mechanic. Ed believes suckers don't deserve to be allowed to keep their bankroll. Matt, who is a law student, would rather play it straight and win on his talent.
The story is in the well tried tradition of buddy-buddy movies. The two guys thrown together in Rounders are in love not with each other, or with adventure or romance, but with poker. The scriptwriters, who cased the game in Las Vegas, know their stuff. In a nice touch, the former world champion Johnny Chan puts in an appearance - generously allowing Matt to beat him out of a big one.
I sat next to Matt Damon in the press tournament at Binion's last May. He struck me as a likeable and modest young fellow, who handled all the attention - half a dozen camera crews at the World Championship - very well. Unfortunately in the main event, holding pocket kings, he came up against the former world champion Doyle Brunson holding pocket aces. That's how it goes in real life.
In the movie Damon is a player who loves the game for its own sake. The tension of the film lies in a series of set-pieces - tough games in New York spielers and tourist action in Atlantic City. The poker is so well photographed, you can forgive the cliches. Of course Matt gets into debt, with the wrong guys, and is faced with the ultimatum - pay-up or else. Of course he has trouble with his girl-friend - he has to go on playing to pay off his debts. "In the game of life, women are the rake", is one of movies' neat one-liners. So what if he loses the girl? He wins the game.