Poker & Pop Culture: Damon and Norton Enter the 1998 WSOP
One of the dozens of much-remembered lines among poker players coming from John Dahl's 1998 film Rounders features Matt Damon's character, Mike McDermott, explaining to his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Moll), with some animation how poker is a "skill game," not gambling. "I mean, why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every single year?" asks Mike. "What are they, the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?"
Although McDermott might have been exaggerating somewhat by uttering such a line in a film set in the late 1990s, his claim that one often saw the same faces at WSOP Main Event final tables wasn't entirely off base. During the WSOP's first couple of decades (1970-1990), when fields had yet to reach 200 players, there were numerous instances of players making it back to the six-handed final tables. (WSOP ME final tables were short-handed until 2001, from which time they have been nine-handed.) Even during the 1990s, there had been a handful of players making their second and third appearances at WSOP ME final tables, even if it wasn't quite the case that the "same five guys" were there each year.
Of course, if a sequel to Rounders were made today, McDermott could no longer plausibly make such a claim. When Dan Harrington and Al Krux both made the 2004 WSOP ME final table (the third for both), that marked the last time we've seen anyone make such a return trip, and with fields of thousands routinely vying for the Main Event bracelet today, chances remain slim that we'll soon see even one player make a second final table, let alone five.
Interestingly enough, Rounders is itself one of the reasons why the days of the "same five guys" dominating the WSOP are probably long behind us. The film is often cited as having helped stimulate the growth of poker — especially Texas hold'em — over the last decade. And while the makers of the film did not necessarily foresee such a phenomenal rise in the popularity of poker occurring following the release of their film, Rounders has unmistakably played an influential part in the World Series' evolution from an intimate gathering of pros into a spectacle rivaling those depicted on the silver screen.
One part of the story of Rounders having helped with the growth of the WSOP involves the entries of Damon and co-star Edward Norton (who played Lester "Worm" Murphy, McDermott's ne'er-do-well friend) into the 1998 World Series of Poker Main Event.
Hollywood Comes to Vegas
The decision to enter Damon and Norton into the WSOP Main Event that year was not (as is often suggested) made by the makers of Rounders or Miramax Films. Rather, it was the hosting casino, Binion's Horseshoe, having seen a chance to attract some potentially lucrative free publicity, who decided to sponsor the stars' entry.
Damon and Norton were not the first celebrities to play in the World Series Main Event. Telly Savalas (Kojak), Dick Van Patten (Eight Is Enough), and Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back, Kotter) had all previously made multiple appearances at the WSOP. Curt Gowdy, the sports announcer, had taken his shot as well. And Chill Willis, the long-time film actor who appeared in numerous films, including It's a Gift with W.C. Fields, Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland, and Giant with James Dean, also played in the WSOP during the 1970s. Willis, by the way, appears alongside Johnny Moss, Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Jack Binion, and Puggy Pearson in that famous 1974 photo of the group waving their cowboy hats outside the Horseshoe.
But in 1998, there still weren't that many amateur players — relatively speaking — entering the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, let alone famous ones. Indeed, the following year when Wilford Brimley (The Natural, Cocoon) made his debut at the WSOP ME, he was one of only two actors in the field that year along with Gabe Kaplan.
Thus did Damon and Norton's having entered the event bring a great deal of extra attention to the Horseshoe that spring — precisely what Binion's had desired. Indeed, with the release of Rounders still several months away (it would not premiere until September), one could argue the Damon and Norton's appearance did much more publicity-wise for the WSOP than it did for the film in which they starred.
A Chance to Play with Kings
On the evening of May 11, 1998 — the first day of the Main Event — the popular celebrity-gossip show "Entertainment Tonight" did a report on the pair's WSOP experience, calling the segment "Matt and Ed's Excellent Poker Adventure!" In the interview for the segment, Norton explained how the casino had sponsored their entries, and that if by some unlikely chance they cashed, they would have donated their winnings to charity.
In that interview as well as in all other publicity for both the film and their WSOP appearance, both Damon and Norton repeatedly show humility regarding their own skills, and admiration of the abilities of the pros against whom they competed. Norton noted that in addition to the many hours of poker the actors had played both before and during the filming of Rounders, they had read Super/System and had also received some instruction from two-time WSOP Main Event champion Johnny Chan, who makes a celebrated cameo in the film.
But both knew full well their chances of going deep in the event were slim. Said Damon, soon after finding his seat just prior to the first hand being dealt, "I just don't want to be the first one out."
Both would avoid that ignominy, and indeed, the actors ultimately acquitted themselves rather well despite having relatively short Day Ones. Norton's day was the shorter of the two, lasting only a couple of hours before he was eliminated when his nines full of tens were bettered by Surindar Sunar's quad tens. Damon, meanwhile, still had close to his starting stack when Norton was sent to the rail, and would survive for a few levels, despite being seated at the same table as Super/System author and two-time WSOP Main Event champ Doyle Brunson.
As one would expect, Damon and Brunson's table attracted the most attention during that first day of the Main Event, with a horde of fans crowding the ropes all day in an effort to catch a glimpse of the action. Finally, Damon looked down to find himself having been dealt pocket kings on the button, and accordingly he made a big raise. Brunson, however, was waiting for him in the small blind with aces, and so promptly reraised all in. Damon made the call, and when no king came to save him he joined his co-star on the rail. "I sat with Doyle [and] I lost the way I would have wanted to," said Damon afterwards. "I'm going home with a story."
A New Era of Celebrity Poker
Later that summer, ESPN aired its hour-long show featuring the Main Event, during which the Damon-Norton appearance was highlighted (and Rounders picked up some free pub). Damon even mugged for the camera at one point, saying "Watch the World Series of Poker right here on ESPN."
An interview with Norton during the program underscored the pair's appreciation for the skills of the highest-level poker players. Said Norton, poker is "a very sophisticated game that operates on a lot of levels: mathematical, strategic, [and] psychological. There may be luck on any given hand, but over time, the really terrific players will crush you." Damon chimed in as well, comparing the effort required to win to hitting a Roger Clemens fastball.
Damon and Norton were also asked if they were planning to return to the WSOP to take their chances again. "We'll come back if they'll have us back," answered Norton, adding, "Any time they want to stake us $10,000!"
We've certainly come a long a way, with celebrities now coming out by the dozens to the WSOP every year, and some even being tapped to endorse online poker sites. As Norton correctly points out in the audio commentary for the Rounders DVD, "When we made this movie, this whole sort of poker rage, you know, this televised poker rage, was just not going on," including the whole notion of "celebrity poker."
But back in 1998, there was still a strong fantasy-element associated with the idea of a couple of actors sitting down with the likes of Texas Dolly. Indeed, of Damon and Norton one might've reasonably asked at the time, "What are they, the luckiest guys in Vegas?"