These 5 Important Poker Lessons From "Rounders" Aged Well

These 5 Important Poker Lessons From "Rounders" Aged Well

This article was written by contributor Fran Ferlan.

Rounders is arguably the greatest poker movie of all time. 

It has inspired thousands of players to pursue their poker dreams, and it remains a cult classic after all these years.

In one of my previous articles I wrote about the 5 terrible poker lessons from the movie that didn't age well. 

That article was written for fun and was meant to be taken lightly. 

And it turns out you guys loved it!

So with that in mind, it’s only fair to flip the script and examine the 5 greatest poker lessons from Rounders as well.

The movie is chock full of great insights and memorable quotes, so in today’s article, we’ll take a closer look at 5 important poker lessons you might have missed on your first viewing.

Spoiler alert: this article contains heavy spoilers for the movie.

Let’s get right into it!

Rounders Poker Lesson #1: Tight and Aggressive is The Way to Go

In one of the more memorable scenes of the movie, Mike walks in on the judge’s game and proceeds to read everyone’s hand blind. 

Everybody’s very impressed, most of all Mike’s mentor, professor Petrovsky, one of the unsung heroes of the movie.

In a later scene, the professor asks Mike how he pulled off “his little trick”, and Mike just shrugs off his insane hand reading skills as “second nature”.

However, Mike does give the professor a few pointers. In a nutshell, he gives him a brief overview of a winning tight and aggressive strategy.

This advice holds up even to this day, and it goes to show how much care and effort the directors put in the script.

It shows respect for the game, and the movie doesn’t just use poker as a cheap gimmick or something to move the plot forward.

The tight and aggressive (TAG) strategy is still the best strategy to quickly start winning at poker, and it’s by far the best advice to give to someone who’s interested in improving their poker game.

By the way, my free poker cheat sheet literally teaches you exactly how to play TAG.

There are three crucial aspects of a successful TAG strategy:

A) Only playing strong starting hands

By only playing strong starting hands, you are automatically giving yourself an edge over your opponents who play just about any random cards.

Strong starting hands will connect with the flop and make better combinations more often than random junk hands.

In practice, this means you will often be able to get action by a lot of weaker hands.

You also have to be careful when playing hands with weak kickers.

A kicker is the card in your hand that doesn’t help you make a certain hand combination, but can often determine the winner if both players have the same hand combination.

For example, if both players have a pair of Aces, the player with the stronger kicker wins the hand.

So what does this mean in terms of no-limit hold’em, and which hands should you actually play?

As a general rule, you should play about the top 20% of all starting hands in no-limit hold’em.

This includes pocket pairs (AA through 22), suited Aces (like A5s or A9s), strong broadways (like AQ or KJ), and suited connectors (T9s or 87s).

These 5 Important Poker Lessons From "Rounders" Aged Well

The rest is trash and should be thrown away.

By the way, check out my other article on EXACTLY which hands to play preflop for a much deeper dive on this.

Now, this is a big oversimplification, of course. 

The number of hands you can play profitably will depend on a lot of different factors, namely your table position, which brings us to the second key concept of TAG strategy.

B) Play most hands in position

Playing in position means being the last to act in a betting round.

This gives you a huge advantage over your opponents, because you get to see what they do first, while they have no idea what you are about to do.

This allows you to bluff more effectively, as well as control the size of the pot.

When you’re the last to act, you get a final say about the pot size.

If you have a strong hand, you can bet or raise to inflate the pot size. If you have a mediocre or a drawing hand, you can call or check behind to keep the pot size more manageable.

So how do you play more hands in position?

You simply open-raise more hands in late table positions (the cutoff and the button), and play less hands in early positions and in the blinds.

When you’re playing on the button in particular, you will ALWAYS have positional advantage post flop.

This means the button is going to be your most profitable seat by far.

If you’re using some good poker software like PokerTracker 4, you can actually just go ahead and check your winnings on the button for yourself.

The third key component of a successful TAG strategy has to do with the way you play your hands.

C) Play your hands aggressively

Playing aggressively means betting and raising instead of checking and calling, which are passive actions.

In poker, most of your money will come from your strong value hands, where your opponent is willing to pay you off with a weaker hand.

So when you get a strong hand, you should try to win a big pot with it. This is something that Mike mentions a few times throughout the movie.

You need to wait for a good opportunity, and when an opportunity arises, you need to bet big.

Strong value hands don’t come around often in no-limit hold’em, so when they do, you need to make sure you get your money’s worth with them.

And the best way to do that is to simply build up the pot yourself.

In the movie’s climax, Mike flops the nuts straight against KGB, then proceeds to slowplay it to lure his opponent into a trap.

This makes a great scene, and a lot of impressionable viewers at the time (myself included) wanted to emulate Mike and own our opponents with a sick slowplay.

To slowplay means to play your hand passively in order to conceal your hand strength and trap your opponents.

It’s true that slowplaying can be a viable strategy at times, but it only works in certain spots against certain types of opponents.

When you’re slowplaying, you’re essentially relying on your opponent to build up the pot for you.

This can be a good idea if you’re up against a particularly aggressive player or against a Russian mobster who loves to splash the pot.

But in most low stakes games, slowplaying usually just means leaving money at the table.

Slowplaying doesn’t work if you’re up against a lot of passive players who won’t build up the pot for you.

Recreational players usually play passively and like to call a lot, so a much more effective strategy against them is to simply play your hands straightforwardly, and let them make the mistake of overcalling you.

By the way, check out my recent video for the 5 typical mistakes poker fish ALWAYS make.

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Rounders Poker Lesson #2: If You Can't Spot the Sucker, Then You Are the Sucker

The movie is chock full of great memorable quotes from the opening scene to the very end. In the opening scene of the movie, our protagonist Mike Mcdermott drops the following line: 

“If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”

This is such a great quote because it concisely describes what winning poker is all about.

First of all, it implies that poker is a game of skill, and it’s the relative skill difference between the players that allows some players to rake in big bucks, while most players walk away from the table empty-handed.

It also emphasizes one of the crucial aspects of winning poker: self awareness and the importance of proper game selection.

Winning in poker consistently is only possible if you’re playing in games where you have a significant skill edge over your opponents.

If you’re the sixth best poker player in the world, but go up against the top five players, you’re still going to be a losing player.

In fact, one of the reasons poker is so profitable in the first place is the fact that most players tend to overestimate their skills, while underestimating their opponents.

What’s more, a lot of players routinely underestimate the short term impact of luck (i.e. variance), and think they can make up for it with their (assumed) skill edge.

Poker offers plenty of opportunities for self delusion. Since the game is so easy to learn, a lot of players get the impression that they have some sort of innate talent for the game, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re playing high stakes.

But if you’ve played poker for a while, you know that it’s not really that easy.

Sometimes, you can lose for prolonged periods of time even if you play perfectly. 

Conversely, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you can still win from time to time.

Poker is designed in the way to keep the bad players playing. Better yet, it’s designed in the way that allows bad players to routinely overestimate their skill level and play in games they really shouldn’t be playing in.

That’s why it’s so easy to spot a recreational player at your table.

Recreational poker players (aka the fish) will routinely give off signs that they’re playing out of their depth.

This can take many forms, but usually comes down to:

a) not understanding the “poker lingo” or being foggy on the basic rules of the game

b) giving off tells (physical tells, timing tells, or betting pattern tells)

c) making huge technical game mistakes (like playing too many hands, chasing every draw, using bad bet sizing and so on).

By the way, check out my other article on the 5 most common poker fails that ALL amateurs continue to make.

Skilled poker players can recognize these signs a mile away, and it won’t take them long to take their unsuspecting customer’s stacks.

Good poker players are not only able to quickly spot weaknesses in their opponent’s game, but they’re also aware of potential leaks in their own game.

This is why self awareness is key if you want to make it in this game. 

Without knowing the limits of your own skill, it’s easy to jump in games that are way beyond your skill limit.

Ironically, this is exactly what happens to our protagonist at the very beginning of the movie, when he goes toe-to-toe against Teddy KGB, the Russian mobster/underground poker club owner, and the main antagonist of the movie.

Mike may very well be skilled enough to take KGB head on, but he conveniently forgets basic bankroll management rules and blows 30 grand on a single hand so the rest of the movie can happen.

The point is, you should assess your own skill level in relation to the players you are up against.

Winning at poker, particularly at the lower stakes, often comes down to discipline, not just skill, which brings us to another great Rounders lesson.

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Rounders Poker Lesson #3: Winning Poker Can Be a Grind

Playing poker is fun and exciting. Winning poker can be outright boring at times. 

Most people play poker for fun, and a lot of players fantasize about quitting their day job and playing poker full time.

But the vast majority of players would be better off just keeping their 9 to 5.

The life of a professional card player may seem alluring for the amount of freedom it promises, but it does come with a cost.

The fact is, poker can be just as much of a grind as your 9 to 5, minus the benefits.

You still have to put in long hours, only you’re not guaranteed a paycheck at the end of every month.

Rounders poker movie

How much you earn over a given month is not entirely within your control. So in order to outrun variance and make at least somewhat consistent income, you need to put in a lot of volume.

This can mean thousands and thousands of hands over a given month.

Since variance has a profound impact on your short term results, it’s important to put in enough volume to allow your skill edge to truly manifest.

The more hands you play, the less impact the variance will have on your results.

This is especially the case if you have a big winrate for the stakes you’re playing.

The problem is, playing hundreds or thousands of hands day in and day out is very different than playing a few hands over the weekend with your friends.

Getting together once a week with your buddies, playing some cards with a beer or two is a blast.

Sitting at the tables for hours on end and getting your ass handed to you every other day, not as fun.

Add to that the fact that you are better off playing at times when most people would rather take some time off, and the prospect of being a professional card player starts to sound a bit less appealing.

If you want to have great results playing poker, the best you can do is play during the periods when the games tend to be softest. 

This means the weekends, and especially the holidays. You know, times when you’re supposed to spend times with friends and family.

The allure of becoming a professional poker player entails being able to set your own hours, but that doesn’t really work in practice.

Sometimes, you don’t get to set your own hours, but have to follow the action. If the games tend to be particularly soft, you’re best off sitting there for as long as the players are giving to donate their stacks to you.

Conversely, if there’s not a lot of action at the tables, you’re better off taking a break or doing something else.

The point is, the games won’t always cooperate with your schedule.

So if you want to achieve great results, you need to be willing to have at least somewhat flexible schedule that allows you to keep playing when the games are good, and take some time off when they’re not.

In practice, this means you’re probably going to have to play during the evenings, the weekends and the holidays.

This means you need to find ways to balance your social obligations with your playing time, which isn’t always easy to do.

Also, you have to love the game for what it is, not just for the prospect of making an easy buck.

As the saying goes, poker is a hard way to make an easy living.

In other words, you need to find a way to love the grind.

You need to find a way to be ok with just sitting there and folding hands for seemingly hours on end.

You need to be ok with losing money over and over again even though you’ve done everything right.

You need to be ok with losing to both inferior and superior players.

When losing to a fish, you have to recognize why it’s actually beneficial to your game over the long run.

When losing to a regular, you have to contend with the fact that they might have outplayed you,  and you may not be as good as you think you are.

At the same time, you have to be confident enough in your playing abilities, yet humble enough to realize there’s so much left for you to learn.

You have to be conservative with your money management, but you also have to be ok with losing your whole stack in a given moment.

Bottom line: life of a professional card player may seem appealing, but in reality, it comes with serious drawbacks for most people.

So the only way you can make it work is if you love the game for what it is, warts and all.

If you're just in it for the prospect of making an easy buck, you're probably better off looking elsewhere.

By the way, if you want to learn the advanced poker strategies you need to crush today's games, check out my 2nd book, Modern Small Stakes.

Rounders Poker Lesson #4: Poker is a Game of Skill

What makes Rounders stand out from other poker movies is its accurate portrayal of the game.

With the exception of a few outlandish scenes here and there, the game is depicted in a realistic manner. 

The poker scenes are grounded and believable, and they allow us to sympathise with Mike. We commiserate with him when he loses and cheer him on when he wins.

We relate to him because we’ve been through what he’s been through. 

Rounders has done a great service to poker and the poker community not only because it helped popularise the game and bring it into the mainstream, but also because it depicted the game as a game of skill.

Poker has a short term luck element involved, meaning everybody who understands the basic rules of the game has a chance to win.

But over the long run, skill prevails.

The reason why poker is a game of skill is because it’s played against other players, rather than the casino.

The cards you’re dealt in poker are random, but you can still choose the way to play them.

This means that poker players have a lot more agency in the game compared to other chance-based games.

For example, in no-limit hold’em, not all starting poker hands are created equal. Some starting hands have a better mathematical chance of connecting with the flop and making strong combinations.

So if you only play strong starting hands, you are automatically giving yourself an advantage over players who will play just about any two random cards.

The ability to recognize a good starting poker hand, and finding opportune ways to get involved in a pot clearly require a certain level of skill and understanding of winning poker strategy.

Another factor that makes poker a game of skill is the fact that you are playing against other people who unconsciously give off tells about their hand strength.

This is especially the case in live poker, where most beginner players have a lot of physical tells, or they give off their hand strength based on their betting patterns.

Rounders Matt Damon

The ability to recognize physical tells and betting patterns in other players, while being careful not to give off tells about your own hand strength is undoubtedly a matter of skill, not luck.

This is greatly depicted in one of the scenes where Mike and his friends play against a bunch of tourists in Atlantic City.

To quote Mike: 

“These two have no idea what they’re about to walk into. Down here to have a good time, then figure: why not give poker a try? After all, how different can it be from the home games they’ve played their whole lives? All the luck in the world isn’t gonna change things for these guys. They’re simply overmatched… They wear their tells like signs around their necks. Facial ticks, nervous fingers, a hand over a mouth… We catch everything.”

One thing to keep in mind when talking about skill in poker is the fact that it’s always relative to the opponents you’re facing.

The tourists, aka the recreational players Mike is referring to are more than likely overestimating their own skill level.

This leads them to sit down in games where they’re a huge underdog.

And since poker has a short term luck element involved, it’s easy for players to ascribe their bad results to bad luck, and good results to their superior skill.

This is one of the reasons why poker can be so profitable in the first place.

Since players routinely overestimate their skill level, they are willing to give action to superior players like Mike.

And even though they may win from time to time, the odds aren’t in their favour over the long run.

So to win at poker consistently, not only do you need to learn the winning poker strategy, you also need to be aware of the limitations of your own skill.

This takes a bit of honest self-assessment, and it can be painful to realize how much you actually don’t know.

But even though it may hurt your ego for a while, it’s the only way to grow as a poker player and take your game to the next level.

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Rounders Poker Lesson #5: We Can't Run From Who We Are

Rounders has inspired countless players to follow their poker dreams, and it’s easy to see why.

It remains a cult classic after all these years, and it still makes for a great viewing. 

Despite depicting a mostly bygone era of gritty, underground poker games, it’s still surprisingly fresh and entertaining, in no small part thanks to its stellar cast, great script, and witty, memorable dialogue.

Aside from being entertaining as hell, it offers timeless lessons you can take away after every viewing.

One of the most memorable ones that comes to mind is the one from Mike’s mentor, Professor Petrovsky.

He tells Mike a story about how he was supposed to be a rabbi, but he felt it wasn’t his true calling, so he chose to pursue a law career instead. His parents never got over it, and they never spoke to him again.

Mike asks him if he would make the same choice if he had to do it all over again, to which the professor responds: “What choice? The last thing I took from the Yeshiva is this: We can’t run from what we are. Our destiny chooses us.”

Mike finds himself facing a similar dilemma, having to choose between his prospective law career and playing cards.

Even though Mike would make for a decent lawyer, he realizes that it’s not his true calling.

No matter how hard he tries to make it work, it’s not going to lead him to fulfillment.

And the reason for that is simple: it just doesn’t interest him enough to truly immerse himself into it.

This is what the professor is implying when he says we can’t really choose our destiny. This isn’t a fatalistic proclamation that implies we’re powerless and have no control over our circumstances.

It means that we can’t really choose what interests us. We can’t will ourselves to make something interesting, no matter how often our teachers, parents, or society in general tell us that it’s a good idea.

If you don’t have an intrinsic interest in learning about something, you’re going to be miserable while doing it. And no, you can’t make it more tolerable by just grinding it out. 

It doesn’t get better.

This doesn’t mean you should give up whenever you reach an obstacle and things start to get boring or tough. 

Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to have to go through periods of boredom and dull, repetitive activities.

If you’ve played poker for any amount of time, you already know that.

But if you’re really interested in the subject, you won’t mind even the repetitive and boring parts. You won’t mind the grind.

People have different interests and temperaments, and what may seem like a blast to some people can seem a living nightmare to others.

Even when it comes to poker, not everyone is wired the same way. Some people don’t mind sitting on their leather ass and slowly grinding it out day in and day out.

I literally had to play over 10,000,000 hands of poker to achieve my version of "success" in this game.

And then there are people like Worm who prefer to get their ass kicked by the police and loan sharks. To each their own.

The point is, if you want to reach your true potential, you need to relentlessly follow your interests.

You can’t choose what interests you, just as much as you can’t choose your height or eye color. You were put on this world for a specific purpose. It’s up to each and every one of us to find what that purpose is.

To help you find your purpose, you need to look for things that call out to you. What calls out to you is yours to follow. 

Ignore it at your own peril.

No matter if it’s a lawyer, a poker player, or something else entirely. Whatever you choose to be, be the best at it.

Don’t be a mediocre law student. 

If Vegas and the f***ing Mirage are calling out to you, answer the call!

By the way, here are the 7 poker tips that changed my life.

5 Great Poker Lessons From Rounders Most People Missed - Summary

A lot of things have changed in the poker world since the first release of the movie in 1998. 

While you probably won’t learn a lot about the advanced poker strategy you need to crush today’s games, it will definitely inspire you to hit the felt and dream big.

To sum up, here are 5 great poker lessons from Rounders that still hold up to this day.

1. Tight and aggressive is the way to go

Some things never change, and when it comes crushing low stakes poker games, what used to work decades ago still works like a charm in today’s games.

Tight and aggressive (TAG) strategy involves only playing strong starting hands, playing them aggressively both preflop and post flop, and using the power of position to your full advantage.

2. If you can’t spot the sucker, then YOU ARE the sucker

Winning poker is not only about knowing which cards to play in which position. 

It’s a game played against other people, and the only way to win consistently is to play in games where you have a significant skill edge over your opponents.

If you can’t spot that edge in the first few minutes of the game, chances are that you’re playing in the wrong games.

3. Poker can be a grind

What separates Rounders from other poker movies is its realistic depiction of the game.

It shows that the life of a professional poker player is not always glamorous, and it comes with serious challenges and difficulties, namely the uncertainty of your next paycheck.

4. Poker is a game of skill

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the film lies in the fact that it successfully depicted poker as a game of skill to the mainstream public.

While it may have been a bit over the top in some scenes, it still showed that winning poker is not all about luck, and there’s a fundamental difference between poker and other casino-based games with little or no skill involved.

5. We can’t run from who we are

Probably the best lesson to take away from this movie is the one delivered by one of the most overlooked characters, Abe Petrovsky, played by the great Martin Landau.

And the lesson is that you have to be honest with yourself. 

You won’t find your life’s work and your life’s calling by listening to other people, even if those people want the best for you.

Even though you might not know what’s best for you, you do know what makes you feel alive.

So the final lesson is: follow your weird, stupid, or crazy interests. Your interests are your compass. Pursue them relentlessly, and see what happens.


This article was written by Fran Ferlan

Poker player, writer and coach
Specializing in live and online cash games

For coaching enquiries, contact Fran at
Or apply directly for poker coaching with Fran, right here

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $2000+ per month in small/mid stakes games, grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

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