In 1998, John Dahl directed a film starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton called Rounders. The story line follows a talented young poker player, Mike McDermott (Damon), in the days after his best friend Lester Murphy (Norton) aka “the Worm” is released from prison. After watching this movie for the 100th time, it struck me how analogous it is to the past year’s fate of Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After losing his $15,000 bankroll in one sitting against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), a Russian mobster who runs an illegal gambling establishment, Mike decides to put away his cards and focus on law school. Those plans are sidetracked, however when he learns his close friend Worm is still carrying a mountainous gambling debt with little time to repay.
While in prison, an associate of the Worm, a leg-breaker named Grama bought all of his debt and wants his money.... now.
To help Worm, Mike agrees to start “rounding” again not knowing that Grama, to buy Worm’s debt, has partnered with KGB. When he and Worm go to Grama to buy some time, and Mike agrees to share the debt, he does so not realizing that the odds are much higher than a broken leg.
Russian mobsters don’t break legs; they break necks.
Non-stop, hand after hand, game after game, hours upon hours begin to take their toll on Mike as he builds a stake big enough to clear the dept. Worm suggests a big-money game he learned of in prison that took place every weekend only a few hours away that would bring enough cash to finish off their debt. Mike agrees, and sits with a goal in mind as he begins grinding away.
The key to winning big in a game like this was not getting pegged as a rounder, or travelling pro, and being told to leave. Mike is well on his way, winning while successfully staying under the radar by losing smaller hands, when Worm suddenly shows up and sits down.
Upon his departure from prison, Worm bragged to Mike about becoming a real card “mechanic” while behind bars, a cheat. Base dealing, card mucking, and double dealing were all a part of his sleazy reportage and he begged Mike to let him play but Mike refused. He had told Worm early in the process he would play it straight or not at all and tonight was no exception. Worm was told to “go bowling or something and come back at dawn.”
Though, like most cheaters, Worm couldn’t restrain the urge to fix every single hand he dealt and even with Mike folding on made hands to cover for him began to draw the attention of other players.
Mike’s worst fears were realized when Worm caught a “hanger” while dealing from the bottom of the deck and exposed them both. The result was a beating that left Mike and Worm bloodied and unconscious. Had their opponents not been law enforcement workers, the beating would have been worse. But it was nothing compared to the other consequence of Worm’s indiscretion, the loss of their money.... all of it.
Generally, cheaters are also cowards, and liars, and Worm proved to be no exception. After waking and realizing they were penniless, he confessed to Mike who he really owed and bolted.
Getting played, or conned, by a stranger is one thing, but being played by a friend, someone you looked to as a brother, is something totally different. Betrayed and abandoned, Mike was left to face his fate alone.
With scarred face from the beating he took the night before and a $10,000 stake borrowed from one of his law professors, Mike sits down to a do-or-die game of no-limit Texas Hole-em against none other than his nemesis, Teddy KGB.
After winning enough money to repay his debt to KGB, Grama, and half of what he borrowed from his professor, Mike gets up to leave.... until KGB pushes.
Mike once told Worm, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle,” but at that moment, with Teddy and Grama smirking condescendingly he came to the realization that if you don’t take the risk, “you can’t win much either.”
He knew he was good enough to beat KGB, but what good is the knowing if you don’t put it to the test, so he sat back down.
Poker isn’t about playing cards; it’s about reading people. The game itself is simple, the odds are not that complicated, but the art of reading one’s opponent is what separates the wannabe's from that select group of players that grace the final table of the World Series of Poker each year. Mike had sat with one of those players, Johnny Chan, and beat him.
The time had come to put it all on the line.
That is what makes this sequence in round three against KGB that much harder to understand....
Perhaps it was because KGB’s “tell” was suddenly so obvious, even to himself, but a poker player never allows his opponent to know when he has him figured out. Why the break from convention at this point? Again, poker is about reading people, and in a matter of seconds, KGB goes from the gloating conqueror to being thrown completely off his game. Emotion is a poker player’s worst enemy, and now KGB’s were an open book....
In the final scene, after defeating KGB, and with all debts paid and the $15,000 initially lost safely in his pocket, Mike hails a cab to take him to the airport so he can fly to Las Vegas and realize his dream of playing in the World Series of Poker.
After learning his destination, the cab driver tells Mike, “Good Luck”, and Mike smiles. When you’re the best, luck has nothing to do with it.
Today is the anniversary of the darkest day in Thunder history. At this juncture, there is little need to go into detail about what happened, but it is safe to say that when Kevin Durant bolted to the Warriors, it was likely as devastating to Sam Presti as when Mike McDermott learned the debt he owed was to one of the most dangerous men he knew.
Like round one with KGB, Durant outplayed Presti. He didn’t want to be traded in his final year before he left, so he promised forever, and Presti believed him and was left with nothing. For a month after, rumors that the Thunder were finished and a total rebuild was imminent were daily click-fodder.
Presti refused to give up. He came back to the table and played his last card and signed Russell Westbrook to an extension.
Now Presti is again at that table, and his play was boldly trading for Paul George and his single guaranteed season. Most are calling it a gamble; some are wishing him luck; not me. He has sat at this table before, with the signing of a superstar on the line, and lost. He is determined not to be left holding the bag this time around.
Paul George isn’t a gamble; he’s a message. A message that if Russell Westbrook signs the biggest contract in NBA history, his prime years won’t be squandered while waiting on the young Thunder to evolve.
Presti’s move proves he will continue to push for excellence and do his best to keep the Thunder in contention.
In the coming days, we should learn if that message was persuasive enough to convince Westbrook to sign the franchise player deal. My hope is that it is, because if not, we will see what this move also may have been.
When Sam Presti traded Victor Oladipo’s bad contract and the promising Domantas Sabonis for George he didn’t push in all his chips, that hand is yet to be played. What he did was muck a flawed, though guaranteed hand to gain an advantage in this game of no-limit, winner-takes-all, professional basketball contracts. He gained a tell, and Paul George is a little rack of Oreo cookies. Let’s play some cards.