The Sunday Review: Molly’s Game
“Molly’s Game” is the warmly anticipated tale of the high-stakes, invitation-only poker games run in Los Angeles and New York for several years late last decade by Molly Bloom. Bloom’s games featured an A-list roster of celebrities and business leaders, eventually becoming known to the public following a series of legal entanglements centered on the game and its participants. Bloom, who co-wrote the book following her arrest and plea deal on gambling-business charges connected to some of the games mentioned later in the story, debuts here as an author with a largely entertaining tale of the behind-the-scenes celebrity life.
“Molly’s Game” isn’t so much a tell-all as a tell-some, providing its readers with a somewhat filtered look at the celebrity-studded poker games that Bloom herself came to operate for several years, following her arrival on the LA scene. It’s also something of an executive-style coming-of-age tale, recounting as it does Bloom’s own explanation of how she came to be involved in the games and the bi-coastal underground poker scene.
Bloom’s heady journey within a few years’ time, from amateur skiing star to law student to waitress to a poker-game provider serving the whims of celebrities and executives, is tailor-made for a book. Bloom, who would later be dubbed the “Poker Princess” for her role in operating the game, finally saw her luxurious kingdom crashing down, following the targeting of her games by jealous rivals.
Bloom eventually moved to New York, where she became peripherally involved in the operation of a large-scale international gambling and money-laundering ring operated by, among others, former WPT event winner Vadim Trincher and Alimzhan “Taiwanchik” Tokhtakhounov. Tokhtakhounov, an alleged high-ranking tor in the Russian Mob, remains wanted on charges ranging from arms smuggling and money laundering to the infamous fixing of a pairs figure-skating event at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics over a decade ago.
Several of the defendants in that case, including Trincher, Trincher’s son Ilya, and New York socialite Hillel Nahmad, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from several months to a few years and hit with multimillion-dollar fines. Lesser defendants in that case, such as Bloom herself, ended up receiving probation and smaller fines. Bloom’s own involvement with “the Russians,” as she describes them, is one of the parts of her personal tale that receives the most glossing over. Many more pages, comparatively, center on her romantic relationship with Trincher’s other son, Eugene.
Still, the meat of the book and the target of most of Bloom’s venom is the clandestine Hollywood poker scene, and the game she ran for a couple of years that featured Tobey Maguire, Leo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Gabe Kaplan, Alec Gores, convicted Ponzi schemer Bradley Ruderman, Dan Bilzerian, Alex Rodriguez (on rare occasions), Todd Phillips, Nick Cassavetes and many others.
Much of the “tell-some” aspect of “Molly’s Game” is on clear display when it comes to naming names. For the most part, the film stars and celebrities who played are fair game, particularly Maguire, who may have been the central figure in the game and who receives the largest portion of Bloom’s wrath.
To state it mildly, Maguire, the one-time star of the original “Spider-Man” movies, emerges from this tale as an unlikeable, backstabbing opportunist who manipulated the game and its participants for his own personal gain. Maguire even toted around a ShuffleMaster machine in the back seat of his car that he demanded be used during the games, and for which he demanded weekly rent.
Anyone’s who’s ever had the displeasure of experience Maguire in person — as this writer has — can attest to the accuracy of Bloom’s character depiction: Maguire in real life is equal parts Hollyweird and pure, unadulterated pain-in-the-ass, and Bloom ultimately casts Maguire as the main reason why the lucrative LA games declined, even before the game’s players were later targeted in a clawback lawsuit by the victim’s of Ruderman’s Ponzi investment schemes.
The Ruderman tale has been covered in many news reports, and his involvement here as “Bad Brad” centers simply the poker group’s disbelief that anyone could play as badly and lose as much money as Ruderman did at the games. Little did anyone realize that he joined the poker games as a means to access more investment victims, and though it’s not part of the book, he eventually defrauded one of the game’s players, Alec Gores, out of roughly $4 million.
But Maguire is the focus of Bloom’s enmity, the story’s true villain, even above and beyond the mob thugs who later extorted and beat Bloom in her NYC apartment in 2009 while seeking protection-racket payments. Maguire, according to Bloom, demanded the right to approve all the players in the game, despite the fact that the game itself was first operated by Viper Room co-owner Darin Feinstein in the basement of the famed Sunset Strip club, the same nightspot where actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose two decades ago.
Maguire was even responsible for the presence in the game of what Bloom describes as the “odd man out,” producer Houston Curtis. Curtis is familiar to knowledgeable poker fans as the producer of the Russ Hamilton-inspired Ultimate Blackjack Tour (UBT), and was named in documents leaked by Absolute Poker’s Paul Leggett as one of more than two dozen Hamilton co-conspirators connected to the Hamilton-orchestrated cheating.
Whether Curtis was involved in the actual cheating at UltimateBet remains unclear; he was a close friend of Hamilton’s. Hamilton, in a tale twice removed from the world of “Molly’s Game,” may have had access to Curtis’s “h_curtis” account, which was implicated in the cheating and movement of money. What’s certain, however, is that Hamilton plowed many millions of the stolen UB money into the UBT, making Curtis an indirect beneficiary during his tenure there, before the UBT’s “ultimate” failure.
In “Molly’s Game,” Curtis emerges as a friend of Maguire’s, and Bloom describes Curtis and Maguire as the only two tight players among a room fool of action junkies. Since Bloom also declares that Maguire had a piece of Curtis’s action, the obvious question — to which Bloom indirectly alludes but doesn’t explore — is whether Maguire and Houston Curtis team-played the table and the game. Curtis eventually went deep into debt to Maguire after a disastrous million-dollar loss in 2008 in one of the games, and suffered a heart attack not long after — an episode not shared by Bloom in her recounting — as troubles swirled around his life.
For all the naming of celebrity names, Bloom in “Molly’s Games” protects the Hollywood business people, the players who someday might offer her employment once again. Darin Feinstein, himself a frequent player in the game, is the psuedonymous “Reardon Green” of the book. He’s the LA entrepreneur who first hired a newly arrived Bloom as a bumbling waitress, then moved Bloom over to a role as his personal assistant before taking charge of the games.
Others such as Alec Gores and music-label producer Cody Seibel, by comparison, get the pseudonym treatment, emerging here with names such as “Arthur Grossman” and “Philip Whitford.” There’s even a Dan Bilzerian-ish character somewhat given away by the arrival of the player on a private jet and the four girls accompanying him down the stairs.
Where “Molly’s Game” gets glossy and plastic is in the recounting of the details of the games, and later, the series of events that led to Bloom’s arrest. Bloom describes the success of her exclusive games as built upon her ability to cater to the luminaries’ every whim, though the examples given are nominally legal things such as favorite drinks and fine cigars. Bloom eventually acknowledges that she obtained masseuses for the games, though the full extent of their services remains unclear.
An extensive Hollywood Reporter piece in the wake of the Ruderman conviction and lawsuit paints a more sordid picture of the games, suggesting that the masseuses and drinks might just as often have been hookers and blow, and the HR feature details one game held up for a half an hour while extracurricular activities occurred.
Also glossed over in Bloom’s story is the involvement in the games of former baseball great Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez appears only as a very occasional player in the games, and Bloom makes no mention of tabloid accounts that she hosted a game for A-Rod in his Miami mansion, or that the two may have even had a brief romantic fling. Might be true, might not, though she and her second serious boyfriend, Eugene Trincher, do end up in Miami at one point.
Bloom’s first serious romantic fling also gets significant mention here: Drew McCourt, son of former LA Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. Bloom blames that failed relationship on her own dedication to her burgeoning game, which usually provided several thousand dollars in tips to her and her primary dealer each week.
Bloom steadfastly maintains that the games she organized in LA were for tips only, and thus legal; the story abruptly skips a similar detailed recounting of the later NYC games, the ones run under the protection of the Vadim Trincher group. Differences between California and New York State law mean that the Trincher games were likely illegal, raked or not, though some reports indicate that those later NYC games were indeed raked. If so, Bloom skips that detail.
She also doesn’t talk much about family scion Vadim or the those among the sportsbetting case’s defendants, as she recognized some of them as they were arraigned with her in federal court. The only reference to the Trincher organization’s possible activities comes when Vadim’s character is introduced. Wrote Bloom, “Rumor had it that Ilya’s father, Vadim, ran the largest bookmaking operation in the world, taking bets from his closest oligarch friends in Russia.”
That description comes from Bloom’s first visit to an exclusive NYC game, from which she created an opportunity to, briefly, recreate her Hollywood game success. It didn’t last for long, however, and the downfall was swift. Bloom even fled to Colorado at one point after learning via phone that one of her games had been raided by the FBI.
Bloom’s own strained family relationship serves as the counterpoint to her socialite-world flings, even if that gets a glossed-over treatment as well. One would never know that brother Jeremy Bloom, like Molly herself a one-time US Team skiing star and later a college and pro football tight end, ever played in the NFL. The omission appears designed to keep brother Jeremy’s reputation far insulated from Molly’s own fling with “the Russians” and their global sportsbetting rings, though the lucite treatment is glaring — acronyms such as “NFL” and “NCAA” are never mentioned here.
Is “Molly’s Game” a good read? Sure, it’s a decent effort for a first-timer, an easy-reading page-turner with tons of name-dropping, intrigue and attitude. An excellent book it’s not, but it compares with James Leighton’s “Alligator Blood” as the best reading of the real-life poker tales to appear in print in recent years. Other entries in that niche, Ben Mezrich’s execrable “Straight Flush” and Dutch Boyd’s self-indulgent “Poker Tilt,” don’t come close.
by Molly Bloom