Seven Questions for Brian Koppelman

One half of the writing duo behind 'Rounders' and 'Ocean’s Thirteen' on playing poker for ‘research,’ how the game teaches life lessons and the status of 'Rounders 2.'

Photo by Ben Lazar

Photo by Ben Lazar

You believe that Rounders and the hole-cam were two of the key ingredients in the poker boom. How do you feel about the rise and leveling of the game’s popularity since 1998?

Even if there’s been some calming down of the frenetic exponential growth, it still permeates society in a way far, far greater than it did when we were writing that movie and before the World Poker Tour and before Internet poker. The fact that it’s hard to gamble online now if you don’t live in New Jersey or in Nevada has definitely spoiled the growth, but I don’t think it’s really eroded the game’s place in the culture.

Do you feel any sense of ownership over the game’s explosion?

Ownership’s a big word. Rounders is absolutely a part of the language of poker. It is sort of a compulsory step along the way to being serious about the game, because it’s the modern movie that captures what’s romantic about being a poker player.

You spent a lot of time researching the movie. How often were you in those underground New York poker clubs?

When I say I was in the poker rooms researching the movie, that’s true, but you could also put quotes around the word “research.” What I was doing was playing a lot of poker, and then it became research. There was a period of time where I was in there most days. I had a job in the music business. Part of my responsibility was seeing bands at night. Let’s say there was a band playing a rehearsal hall at 7, and then I had something I had to see at 10 and then I had something I had to see at 1:30. My way station, the place I’d use as my home base during that stuff, as often as not, was the Mayfair Club.

How’s your game these days?

I played the other night, and I lost straight-over-straight early; I got stacked. Then I did fine the rest of the night. It’s certainly not the sharpest it’s ever been. But, that said, if you want to invite me into your game, I’ll happily come and do the best I can.

I only played in the World Series of Poker Main Event once. I lost on Day One. A couple of years ago, two poker sites offered to put me into the Main Event. I just couldn’t justify the time away from my family. But part of me now wishes that I had done it. I’m planning on being out there to watch. I want to come out and really watch and talk to the young poker players, and see how this thing works now.

Are there any lessons from the game itself that are applicable to the rest of your career?

David Sklansky’s fundamental theorem of poker is pretty effective in all walks, or any kind of adversarial situation that could occur in business. You want to find a way to make your opponent act in the opposite way they would if he knew what you were really holding. Then the whole idea that comes out of Herbert Yardley’s book of figuring out how many steps away from the idiot your opponent is. That stuff’s useful in all areas of life. And being rigorously honest with yourself, which is an enormously important part of poker. Being rigorously aware of your own proclivities, your own weaknesses, your own leaks, and trying to make sure that your fortification is strong.

With the Six-Second Screenwriting Vines and Grantland’s “The Moment” podcast, you’ve established yourself as a creative guru of sorts. How do you feel about that position?

I’m definitely nobody’s guru. I don’t think anybody would hold themselves out in that way. What I am is someone who’s had experience in trying to be creative—in staring down the impediments to working at the highest level. The podcast is about me trying to dig in with people who have accomplished remarkable things and figuring out how and why they did what they did. And so, yes, I stand in for all the other creative people who are interested in that. In no way am I holding myself out as having these answers. I’m trying to engage in a conversation that might produce some answers, but hopefully answers that some really smart person I’m talking to has from hard-won experience.

The Six-Second Screenwriting Vines are absolutely me sharing what I’ve learned, what my questions are. If that’s of value to somebody, that’s awesome. I’m really glad for it. But I definitely don’t hold myself out as someone with all the answers. I’m searching. I’m engaged in this search just like you are. Maybe by having the conversation, we could get some answers together.

In Rounders, you have those hand-over-hand scenes that play out pretty realistically, but did you ever catch any flak from the studio to make it a more implausible, dramatic hand like in The Cincinnati Kid?

When I say it’s a movie about the romance of the game, it’s about the internal life of this young character at a crossroads of trying to decide if he’s going to chase his dream, which is like being a modern gunslinger in a way. But we wanted the poker play to be state-of-the-art for the time. We couldn’t anticipate the way game theory would infect poker all these years later and couldn’t anticipate the pursuit of optimal play and all this stuff that’s happened since. But we were determined never to have a hand like a jack of diamonds royal flush to be the thing that will win or lose. We wanted the poker play to be realistic. We picked hands that we’ve been burned on, and obviously, we modeled the last hand after Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel [the final hand of the 1988 WSOP Main Event].

You’ve done other projects in and around that world. Are you involved in anything else in that arena right now?

[Writing partner] Dave [Levien] and I are always keeping tabs on the world of gaming. You never know. But I wouldn’t say we have any immediate [plans]—our attention has been turned pretty fully to the show we’re going to do for Showtime, which is set in the world of high finance. That shares a lot [with poker].

You look at the criticism that came out around Gone Girl, and it got hammered for being misogynistic. It seems like a very unforgiving time to be making movies, because there’s a huge contingent of critics who only want to dissect a film from a socio-political angle. When you’re sitting down to work on a screenplay, obviously, you can’t write for the critics, but knowing movies are constantly going face sharpshooting from those preoccupied with identity politics, does it make you second-guess yourself as you write, particularly when a lot of your material has centered on environments that are traditionally considered masculine?

No. I mean, look, I think the critics were largely right about Runner Runner. I don’t think that movie really worked for a variety of reasons. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been done any kind of grave injustice. A couple of the early reviews of Rounders were bad. They were wrong. A bunch of the reviews were positive. One of the benefits of my engagement on social media is that I’m in this conversation with people all the time, whether it’s through the podcast or Grantland or Twitter. I’m able to process this positive or negative reaction and figure out what impact to allow it to have. So no, the answer is I never think about it when I sit down to work. All I can do is my thing to the best of my ability. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing it a long time. Maybe it’s because the conversation we’re all in on the Internet blunts the impact of any one or two comments. If I want to read negative comments about me I could find them in a heartbeat.

I’m of the generation that was raised with an awareness of this stuff. That’s not about the criticism. That’s about your own creative north star and your own way of looking at the world. You can have a character who’s misogynistic or a character who’s racist. Of course you can. But that’s different than the work itself being those things. I wouldn’t really allow some external judgment of that to be any guide. As a creator of any content, your responsibility is to be aware of what you’re saying. Our movies have never come under any kind of criticism for that stuff. Our show Billions, which we’re shooting after the first of the year [for Showtime], has really powerful female characters who are central to the story. Look, you can always do better at everything, but I can’t let that concern have a chilling effect on my creative process.

Is the approach different when you’re working on something like Ocean’s Thirteen, which has a couple of other entries in the series already under its belt?

Because Ocean’s Thirteen was with Steven Soderbergh, we were able to approach it with total freedom, and it was exciting we were going to be able to use those characters. You’re writing for Matt [Damon] and George [Clooney] and Brad [Pitt] and Casey Affleck and Don Cheadle. Everything about that was exciting and fun. It didn’t feel sort of different in a negative way. It felt exciting. And filled with pressure that if we didn’t deliver—that’s what you worry about—if we didn’t write a script those guys didn’t want to make, it would be all our fault the movie wouldn’t get made. If anything, it just made you want to do better.

Do you feel like you’re building to something specific with the podcasts and the Vines? Where do you want to take those?

I love doing this podcast. It’s an incredible exploration for me. I love that so many people are engaging with me about it. I don’t calculate. I don’t plan. I’m just going to try to live a creatively fulfilled life to the best of my ability and along the way try to share what I learn with people who are interested in learning along with me. It’s hard to tell what form that will take. I write a lot. I’ll write for Grantland, I’ll write for Cuepoint. I imagine I’ll write a book at some point, maybe a nonfiction thing that will tie some of this stuff together. I’m happy for it to be unclear at this point.

What can you tell us about Rounders 2? Or will it be a 25-year wait like Walter Tevis going back for The Color of Money?

We’re all engaged in trying to figure that out. That’s the most I can say right now.

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