For the past few years much of the high-stakes poker talk has revolved around Macau, Tom Dwan and the notorious “Asian businessmen.”
But if there's a recent story most suitable for a Hollywood movie - in fact, parts of it even took place in Hollywood itself - it's the ultra-high cash games of Hollywood actors, Texan billionaires and New York mobsters currently making its way from multi-million-dollar pots in LA to the courtrooms of New York.
It's the ultimate melting pot of poker pros, shadowy mobsters and celebrities headed by A-List actors Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Macauley Culkin.
High-profile personalties like poker playboy Dan Bilzerian, director Nick Cassavetes and TV host Gabe Kaplan joined in, as did rich and dubious business guys like Vadim and Ilya Trincher, Bradley Ruderman, the art-dealing Nahmad dynasty from Syria and organized crime big-wigs like Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov.
And, there's A-Rod. And the pretty woman that brought them all together. PokerListings Germany's Dirk Oetzmann digs through the cast list to tell us more about poker's most anticipated tell-all.
By Dirk Oetzmann
The story of "poker princess" Molly Bloom begins in Loveland, Colorado.
Bloom was born the daughter of a clinical psychologist and a skiing instructor. Her two younger brothers took to sports early and became quite successful. In fact one of them, Jeremy, won two Olympic gold medals and three world championships in skiing.
He later went on to assume a professional football player’s career, worked as a model, started a successful business and founded a charity organization called The Jeremy Bloom Wish of a Lifetime Foundation that fulfills lifelong wishes of elderly people.
In the face of so much goodness, you’d expect some form of black sheep in the family.
Molly Bloom got "in trouble" with the law occasionally in her late teens and 20s although nothing serious as her offenses mainly circled around speeding and making “unreasonable noise” at her University dormitory.
She first came in contact with high-stakes poker after she moved to Los Angeles in 2003 when she was working as the assistant to a real-estate manager who happened to run private games.
It didn’t take her very long to realize that this was a way to make plenty of money so she started running her own games, which were an instant success.
Even the players that used to be at her boss's table moved over to hers, and by the second half of the 2000s Molly Bloom’s game was the most popular in California -- and maybe also one of the best-kept secrets.
“She was entrepreneurial and a very smart girl," says Ronald Richards, attorney in Beverly Hills who later represented Bloom in court.
Spiderman, Daredevil and Jason Bourne
The game started out in the Los Angeles at the home of Tobey Maguire and the players were A-List to say the least.
Leonardo DiCaprio made appearances at the tables, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon joined, and Home Alone icon Macaulay Culkin dropped in now and again, too.
Affleck was quite a good player at the time as in 2004 he won the California State Poker Championship and $350k. Damon showed up regularly at large tournaments like the WSOP, although he was never as good a player as an actor.
Undisputedly, though, the best player of the group was Maguire himself.
Someone who had to learn the hard way of how bad a streak can get was TV producer Houston Curtis, one of the game's founders.
According to his own reports Curtis lost a million dollars in one night. Maguire gave him a little financial help – some sources cite $300,000 - and Curtis spent months afterwards trying to pay the money back by winning at other games.
Basically they had an agreement that Curtis would give half of the money he won to Maguire, but if he lost it was Curtis’ own problem.
A little while later, Curtis suffered a heart attack despite being only in his 40s. He claimed it had nothing to do with his debts to Maguire, but the “Spiderman” still abated the rest of Curtis’ debts.
Billionaires in the Poker Game
There were players in this game, however, who wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep over $300,000. They are the likes of Alec Gores and Andy Beal.
Israel-born Gores owns about 80 different companies and his net worth is estimated at $2bn. On the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in America, he's #273.
Several times Gores and Maguire were invited to board a private plane and fly down to Texas for a visit and a poker game with Andrew “Andy” Beal.
While Alec Gores is a bigger name in business than the poker world Beal is a legend in both. The selfmade billionaire from Dallas, Texas, has made fortunes buying distressed assets. His personal assets are estimated at $9.8bn.
Forbes lists him as the 42nd-richest American and says: “He keeps getting richer thanks to the rising value of banks and fat piles of cash dividends he pays himself every quarter.”
Beal is even a big name in the world of science, as he postulated a Mathematic theorem called “Beal’s conjecture” that is still one of the unsolved mathematical problems of our time.
By the way, if you can solve it he will pay you one million dollars. Seriously.
Andy Beal, The Banker
Beal made an everlasting impression in the poker world when he challenged a group of top poker pros in Las Vegas for a series of heads-up matches in Limit Hold’em in the 1980s.
The group included players like Phil Ivey, Chip Reese, Barry Greenstein, Gus Hansen, Ted Forrest, Jen Harman, Doyle Brunson and Lyle Berman.
Aware that he didn’t have the quality to beat all these professionals Beal developed his own strategy: He tried to raise the stakes so high it would take them out of their comfort zone.
Sometimes this would actually work and there was more than $10m on the table, but in the end the pros came through. If you want to know the whole gripping tale, read Michael Craig’s amazing The Banker, the Professor, and the Suicide King.
There have been rumors that Andy Beal lost over $50m over the years in Bloom’s and Maguire’s cash games, but his spokesmen insist that this is far from the truth.
Nobody denies, though, that he and Gores were participating and that Beal lost. “Beyond that, Mr Beal has no further comment," says Beal’s spokesman.
A lot of people wanted to be part of that game, but you could only get in on personal invitation.
Cassavetes, Salomon and Ruderman
Nick Cassavetes, the director of several drama and comedy movies and participant at GSN’s High Stakes Poker came in, as did its commentator Gabe Kaplan, poker playboy Dan Bilzerian, record label owner Cody Leibel, Las Vegas entrepreneur Andrew Sasson and Rick Salomon, whose main claim to fame is an infamous sex tape with Paris Hilton.
Lesser known, but more important regarding the downfall of the game, was Brad Ruderman. The CEO of Ruderman Capital Partners lost about $25m in Molly’s game and then started a Ponzi scheme to pay the money back.
The FBI would eventually uncover his wrongdoings, but that was still in the future.
By 2009 the games were moving around in Beverly Hills. They were hosted at the Four Seasons, the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Molly took her shares; Maguire won consistently. Life was good.
Of course, some players took things a little too far. One of the participants, who wants to remain anonymous, is quoted:
“It was known to a handful of us that one player would keep two hookers down the hall of the hotel in another room … He would disappear for 30 minutes at a time, leaving the main players in the game frustrated.”
With the game being so successful in California Bloom eventually decided to take it to the East Coast, which turned out to be a mistake.
It's also true that by now several well-known poker pros had entered the circle. Kenny Tran, for example, and Justin Smith.
But, among the new players who joined the game – or, let’s say, who were involved with several high-stakes cash games in the Big Apple as well as other gambling "ventures" - were Helly Nahmad, the Trinchers and Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov.
Helly Nahmad is in his early thirties. He is the son of one of the richest families on earth, the Nahmad dynasty from Syria. Vadim Trincher won the Foxwoods Poker Classic 2009, but his actual profession remains in the dark.
“Nobody knows what Vadim’s business actually is, because Vadim doesn’t talk to anybody," the New York Observer quoted a “source close to Eugene and Ilya Trincher," Vadim’s sons.
Ilya, by the way, also lived in one of the most expensive houses in Los Angeles. Both the Nahmad and the Trincher family owned apartments in the Trump Tower. Nahmad also used to run the New York branch of the Helly Nahmad Art Gallery on Madison Avenue.
Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov has made it on Forbes’ list of the top ten most wanted fugitives worldwide. Among other charges he is supposed to have rigged some results of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
In the indictment later issued by the FBI all three of them were accused of laundering money through online gambling websites, supposedly more than $100m. The FBI in its indictments used the term “the Nahmad-Trincher organization."
It's certain that the Hollywood actors mentioned above as well as Molly Bloom did come to New York, and that Andy Beal showed up there, too.
Although there is no definite proof we can pretty safely assume that they all sat together at the poker table at one time.
The End, the Fallout and Molly's Game
Things were going downhill, though. The stakes were lower than in the original game and playing became increasingly dangerous because the FBI was investigating many of the participants.
After the FBI had found enough evidence they raided numerous places in New York and arrested dozens of players and organizers. At the end of the day 34 people were arrested, among them many of the names mentioned in this article.
Not that everybody was convicted or deserved to, although almost everyone pleaded guilty. Maguire for example was sentenced to pay a six-digit figure, which was basically the money he had won from Bradley Ruderman.
As Ruderman had illegally acquired the money he lost the court ruled that Maguire couldn’t keep his winnings.
Helly Nahmad was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. His generous offer to teach art to homeless people instead was not appreciated by the judge. Nahmad also had to pay $6.4m.
Ilya Trincher, for now the last defendant to be sentenced, had to pay the same sum and received six months on probation while his brother is still waiting for his verdict. Vadim was sentenced to five months in prison.
Ruderman, the man who started the Ponzi scheme, is serving a 10-year sentence. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov is still at large.
Molly Bloom, Lying Low
And Bloom? Just like the Hollywood celebrities she was able to avoid jail time and was released on probation.
She’s been lying low for a while but last year HarperCollins announced the upcoming release of the book Molly’s Game, “an insider’s story of excess and danger, glamour and greed.”
Bloom has done what many Americans do when they're subsumed a scandal: name names in a book. It's currently scheduled to be released next month and in it will be a lot more names than the ones we have come across here.
Bryan Zuriff, for example, Hollywood producer of the Showtime series Ray Donovan and recently sentenced to two years probation. And Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks Animation studios.
Since Michael Craig’s modern classic this could be the most awaited book in the poker business.