Negreanu’s series on the Old School v. New School thought processes turned its eye to the silver screen this week, with an analysis of the climactic duel at the end of Rounders (1998). So if you haven’t seen the movie then: 1) do yourself a favor and go do that now, and 2) beware of spoilers.
In the series, Negreanu goes through old hands and compares the old way of thinking about poker with more up-to-date poker theory. These discussions are heavily influenced by his stint running sims and talking to GTO coaches during his time filling up Doug Polk’s money truck.
Rounders is a good choice for Negreanu’s series. The movie is a perfect time capsule of fin de siecle poker playing. The strategy is all fabulously pre-internet, with its 5x raises, and that moment when Mike McDermot considers folding kings to a heads up three-bet. A lot of the play is clearly influenced by passages from Doyle Brunson’s 1970s teach-yourself-poker classic Super/System.
In the climax of the movie, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) finds himself heads up against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) with tens of thousands of dollars and Mikey’s kneecaps on the line. It’s also the culmination of McDermott’s character arc as he realizes that poker is his calling, drops out of law school, and cuts ties with his cheating best-friend and gamble-shy girlfriend.
It’s all very The Hustler, only if Jackie Gleeson had been doing a pantomime Russian accent for the whole movie.
The final showdown is also the source of most of the best Teddy KGB quotes.
KGB: “I’m still up twenty grand from the last time I stick it in you. (makes popping sounds with his mouth)”
KGB: “Hanging around. Hanging around. Kid’s got alligator blood.“
KGB: “Want a cookie?“
Negreaunu’s breakdown covers the final hand of this showdown. The hand loosely mirrors the Erik Seidel v. Johnny Chan WSOP hand that we see a couple of times on TV earlier in the movie. McDermott wakes up with 9♠8♠ in the big blind and flops a straight on a 6♦7♠T♥ board.
Mike checks, and Teddy massively over-bets $2,000 into a $400 pot. (KGB: “In my club, I will splash the pot whenever the f**k I please.“)
The turn comes 2♣, and McDermott gives off a hilariously big false tell and checks. KGB bets again $4,400 into a $4,400 pot. (KGB: “Big Teddy bets the pot.“)
McDermott calls, saying that he needs to do that in order to respect himself in the morning. (KGB: “Respect is all you’ll have left in the morning.”)
The river comes the A♠. (KGB: “All your dreams down the f**king toilet.)
Teddy shoves, is insta-called, and McDermott shows him the straight to take the pot. Cue explosive bilingual rant. (KGB: “This son of b***h, all night he, ‘Check. Check. Check.’ He trap me!“)
We never see what Teddy KGB has. He quits the game and settles up. (KGB: “Niet. Niet. He beat me, fair and square. Pay that man his money.“)
Negreanu runs through the hand giving the orthodox view on what must have been going on in McDermott’s head as he played.
If KGB has as strong a hand as he’s representing, let him bet it into your nuts. If he is bluffing, let him keep bluffing. Either way, McDermott’s passivity with a monster hand isn’t wildly off-base for good play, at least back in the day.
The New School analysis focuses on the strange overbet on the flop. This is a strange bet into such a well-defined flop. A flop like this means the extremes of the betting range and bluffing range are narrow. Negreanu suggests it could pretty much be a set, 9x8x for the nuts or 8x5x for a semi-bluffed draw.
McDermott’s checks still make sense to DNegs under modern thinking, but KGB’s play starts to look a lot wilder.
As for what KGB was holding, Negreanu has a theory. But you’ll have to watch the video to find out what it is.
Featured image source: Youtube