Twenty years after Rounders’ release, the gambling narrative remains applicable in a world of post-20th-century hustlers. Written by the creative team behind Showtime’s Billions (Brian Koppelman and David Levien), John Dahl’s film captures the spirit of underground poker and the skillset needed for high stakes, face-to-face Texas Hold ‘Em competitions. In today’s world of FanDuel, DraftKings and legalized sports betting, Rounders’ lessons translate to daily fantasy sports (DFS) and even personal relationships. Listen (Rounders voice), there’s a difference between rolling the dice and rolling out well-developed analytical strategies.
For the casual gambler, Rounders’ narrative structure effectively connects the dots. Law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) has a beautiful, on-the-level girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), a best pal fresh out of the clink (Edward Norton), an underground connection (John Turturro), and a poker nemesis (John Malkovich). From the jump, Mike’s declarative narration lets the audience know this isn’t his first rodeo. (Note: it always helps to begin authoritative commentaries with “Listen”— just watch ESPN for 10 minutes.)
In Rounders, Mike immediately communicates the film’s entire premise with a powerhouse trifecta of memorable quotes:
“Listen, here’s the thing: If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”
“You don’t gamble. You grind it out.”
“If you’re too careful, your whole life can become a f**king grind.”
The morally righteous non-gambler might get the impression that Mike has a massive poker problem — a fair point, especially when he hustles for three consecutive days to literally survive (and save his best friend, too). Plus, in-the-know Jo doesn’t quite appreciate the context of her beau’s shenanigans. As Mike explains, though, he uses a methodical approach to not only read the occupants of a room, but to process crucial information that often goes unnoticed by others. After taking down a roomful of jurisprudential gents, Mike humblebrags to judge Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau), who seems perplexed by his young friend’s observant approach, saying, “I never knew you had to calculate so much at cards.”
It’s a strange comment coming from an accomplished and self-admittedly obsessive man. Then again, maybe Petrovsky is running his own game. And it’s that game of situational give-and-take that applies to 2018 daily fantasy sports and communicating the fundamentals.
Now that NFL DFS has commenced, consider this: In 2018, Mike would play “cash games” rather than GPPs (Guaranteed Prize Pools). Theoretically, he would build up his bankroll by focusing on double ups or 50/50s (cash games). Rather than trying to take down a GPP against 30,000 or more competitors, he’d focus on flipping his buy-in by reducing the risk. For an extra advantage, Mike would focus on Single Entry competitions, primarily to separate himself from the “sharks” who make a living by entering the maximum numbers of lineups with different variations (“hedging”), and to simultaneously reduce the field as a whole. The highest-paying $5 Single Entry on FanDuel typically has around 1,000 entries, which makes it much easier to slay the newbies and avoid the high-rollin’ rounders. In other words, a cash game strategy allows one to profit slowly instead of “tilting” like a maniac.
On FanDuel or DraftKings, someone like Mike obviously can’t read faces for the primary intel, and I’m not saying DFS is just like Texas Hold ‘Em. But one can still get the upper hand by gauging the field, analyzing the available information, and predicting ownership percentages — meaning many casual DFS players choose their favorite athletes and the most obvious picks. They don’t know any better. In Rounders, when Mike ultimately bamboozles his nemesis, Teddy KGB, after “flopping the nut straight,” he consistently checks KGB and pivots to the best value play. Down goes Teddy.
A 21st-century DFS rounder like Worm (Edward Norton) would use the same techniques, only he or she would be more interested in high payouts than doubling up. Whether it’s the NFL, NBA or MLB, Worm would avoid or “fade” the most popular players (“the chalk”) and pivot to the best value play. DFS rounders will also sneak in the occasional “punt” — a low-cost player who’s expected to perform well. On Sundays, the smart DFS player might fade Tom Brady and pivot to Russell Wilson. Or you pay down for Tyrod Taylor as a medium-punt and then pay up to grab Le’Veon Bell at RB. If you want to go full-punt, then seek out a low-cost playmaker who can bust one out, or who goes under the radar for whatever reason on game day. These decisions allow you to optimize your roster construction while remaining an outlier within the field. (Tip: the LineStar application is extremely helpful for comparative DFS analysis.)
Just as Mike watches VHS tapes of pros, the elite and most successful DFS players watch YouTube channels like RotoGrinders or join DFS groups to gather intel. But here’s the thing: The casual DFS player will often believe everything the so-called experts say. In reality, though, the talking heads are looking for an advantage like everybody else. And so, Rounders’ lessons come into play once again, as there are indeed opportunities to read the competition’s face in daily fantasy sports. If you’re smart like Mike, you’ll have already built up your bank roll in Single Entry double ups before deciding to swim with the sharks. Then, it’s a matter of deciding when to pounce. Even the DFS on-air versions of Teddy KGB can reveal a “tell.” Sometimes they’re too giddy, and they’re often too dismissive of certain value plays. Why? Because they want low ownership.
In Rounders, as well as in the DFS world, timing is crucial. It’s the little things. For Mike, he must be selective about who he associates with, and when, and where. For those looking to make a few bucks on DFS Sundays or during the NBA season, don’t minimize your opportunities by lazily missing contest deadlines and playing it too cool like Worm. The most crucial decisions are often made in the minutes before “lock.” Listen (Rounders voice): If you can’t manage your time to give yourself the best chance of winning, then you’re just feeding the sharks. Don’t do that.
“There’s cash, and there’s the trade.”
It’s not luck that drives Rounders’ narrative, it’s the concepts of preparation, opportunity, and accountability. Fade the chalk. Read the room. Fold or hang tough.