The Joey Knish character from "Rounders" is regarded as the consummate professional poker player. Knish’s physical characteristics paint a gritty picture of a pro’s life – disheveled appearance, unshaven face for days and weeks at a time, thick circles underneath droopy eyes from lack of sleep, and a slight limp from persistent back problems. Despite the fact that he looks more like a stoned zombie than a poker god, Knish is a positive influence on the film’s protagonist, Mike McDermott. As a mentor to Mike McD, his dispatches of wisdom are few rays of light in the otherwise murky underworld of poker.
Knish displays many similarities to Socrates. In classical Greek philosophy, Socrates was one of the rationalists from the “know thyself” school of thought. Socrates firmly believed that you must first understand yourself before you can fully understand the world. Knish exudes heightened self-awareness. He had firm grasp on his reality and his role in the realm in which he plays cards. Joe Knish believed in a system which is why he never worked a “real job” for over two decades. It is tough to string together several winning months in a row with variance and rake both conspiring against you. Yet that’s what Knish had done.
“I'm not playing for the thrill of f****** victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat.”
In boxing terminology, Knish is “punching his weight” and like a solid corner man, he knows which opponents he should duck and which palookas he should stand and fight. Knish knew that he could hold his own against the sharks at nosebleed stakes where they have the edge, but what was the point? Knish is a realist who doesn’t buy into the “pipe dream” of winning the World Series of Poker. He understands the fleeting appeal of fame and fortune which is why he warned Mike McD that the pipe dream wasn’t as enticing as hyped.
Mike McD walked into Teddy KGB’s place to sit in the big game with $30,000 and Knish knew what was going to happen before Mike McD played a single hand. That’s why he tried to stop the slaughter.
“They’ll chew you up and take your whole bankroll,” Knish said trying to dissuade Mike McD from making a dreadful decision.
What Knish didn’t know was that weeks earlier, Mike McD made a sick move on Johnny Chan at a $300/$600 table in Atlantic City. Mike McD had a tremendous amount of confidence in his abilities before that moment, but it wasn’t until Chan walked into the Taj that he truly put his skills to the test. After he successfully bluffed Chan, Mike McD knew that he had the ability and balls of steel to compete against the top pros in Las Vegas. Riding a tidal wave of confidence, Mike McD’s next goal was to crush the big game at Teddy KGBs.
Despite Knish’s encouragement to play beatable games (the soft seat in Queens, the $10/$20 game at Chesterfield, and the Goulash joint on 79th Street), Mike McD was on a mission. Perhaps Knish could have done a better job at stopping Mike McD, but the sage knew that Mike McD needed to learn a valuable lesson – sometimes the student needs to fail in order to succeed.
Conservative game selection and parsimonious bankroll management is the core of Knish’s master game plan. Mike McD initially bought into his “grind it out” philosophy to manufacture his bankroll. He paid half of his law school tuition (a worthy investment in his future) with his poker winnings. However, grinding is a boring life and Mike McD got the fever for bigger action. Bravado doesn’t pay the bills, but then you’ll never drag a six-figure pot playing for small stakes.
Mike McD took a daring shot at the big time and he missed horribly. With his bankroll decimated, Knish helped him piece his life back together. Knish had taken his fair share of lumps at the tables and knew that the best way to handle the pain and turmoil was to numb the senses, so he handed him a marijuana joint. When Mike McD waved him off, Knish looked for other ways to console his friend.
“Let me stake you,” Knish offered.
Instead of accepting the stake until he was back on his feet, Mike McD made the decision to quit poker altogether in favor of the straight and narrow life. Mike McD was not interested in backing, and instead took a real job working for Knish as a truck driver delivering candy and potato chips to bodegas.
The philosophy of Mike McD is evident towards the end of the film - “Bros before hos. Cheating is dishonorable. The legal field is a farce. Work is for chumps. Grinding is for losers. Don’t mess with the Russian mob. And, in order to win big, you gotta be willing to lose big.”
When McD made his return to poker, his new outlook conflicted with Knish’s mantra. When Mike McD asked him for money to stake him so he can bail out Worm’s debts, Knish vehemently declined. He had no problems supporting Mike McD by giving him work or even letting him crash with him. But when it came to funding Mike McD’s life leaks (let’s face it, his loyalty to a screw-up like Worm nearly cost him his life), Knish had to take the tough love approach otherwise Mike McD would never learn a valuable lesson.
“I give it to you, I’m wasting it,” Knish said.
Sometimes the Knish character is misinterpreted and unfairly knocked. I’ve been prone to a few back-handed compliments, tossing a Joey Knish reference into the mix – comparing a player to Knish is a knock on that player’s unwillingness to take a shot at a big score. One denizen from the Internet forums argued that Knish was an overrated player - “Knish is a big fish in a little pool.”
But isn’t that the point? Joey Knish should be revered as a deity among the despicable lot of characters in Mike McD’s life. However, if you poll poker players if they’d rather be Mike McD or Joey Knish – almost all of them would a say that the life of Knish is the more sensible and safe choice, but in the end they’d rather be Mike McD.
Every year, thousands of Mike McDs build a roll in their home games, local casinos, or at the virtual tables for the sole intention of heading to Las Vegas in the summer to play in the World Series of Poker. That lifestyle is far more exciting than staying at home like Joey Knish and “grinding it out on his f***** leather ass.”
Joey Knish might not have a bankroll worth millions, but he’s never broke. At the end of the month, he always comes out ahead. Why?
“I got stones enough not to chase.”