In a summer filled with important new books on poker, Molly Bloom -- known to the tabloids as the "Poker Princess" -- has written something of a blockbuster. It's called "Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker."
And what a book it could've been, with A-list movie stars in weekly hand-to-hand combat with legit and shady billionaires. Do Leo's acting chops help him bluff more effectively? Does Ben call too light on the river? What's Tobey's three-betting range when the fish is on his right? Are hedge-fund wizards as good at reading flop texture as they are at decoding the fatal footnote in an earnings report?
"Molly's Game" answers none of these kinds of questions, unfortunately. As the former hostess of private high-stakes games in Hollywood and Manhattan, Bloom might have given readers a vivid glimpse of poker action few of us ever experience. She does reveal which wines and cheeses were served, and what she and the masseuses were wearing, but she seldom spends more than a sentence or two on the actual game.
A typical account runs in its entirety: "All the players besides Tobey and Houston were huge action. The going-all-in, blind kind of action." This is like writing, "All these guys in helmets ran around a field for three hours. Eli and Peyton threw passes." Besides making it obvious that poker is Greek to the author, what she says here is simply untrue, because at least two of these "blind action" players, Rick Salomon and Gabe Kaplan, have been holding their own against apex professionals for years. Going all-in blind (without looking at their hole cards) is not how they play. When Bloom then has Kaplan, a nonsmoker, smoking a cigar, her credibility sinks even lower.
Lower still when she's grinding an ax -- against Tobey Maguire, for instance, whom she initially resents for winning long money and tipping her less than she'd hoped. When he persuades an opponent to fold the best hand, then shows he was bluffing, Bloom says this is "in really bad taste"; in fact, it's a perfectly acceptable gambit to encourage bad calls down the road.
Bloom's main job became reserving seats for big fish selected by Maguire, rich guys who were bad at poker but eager to sit at the table with celebrities. She performs this job well, yet seems unable to accept that building games around loose, loaded players is a time-honored, thoroughly legitimate strategy. Later, while complaining that Maguire maneuvered her out of the job because she made too much money -- more than $4 million a year, she says -- she seems to forget that she was out-earning surgeons while operating more along the lines of a party planner or personal assistant.
It's true that Bloom doesn't get the respect accorded to, say, Winfred Yu, who organizes the megastakes Texas Hold'em action in Macau, or Eric Drache, who has pulled together stud games at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Both Yu and Drache are top-notch players themselves, and can swiftly tell the difference between sharks and fish. Bloom boasts that her game was "run by hot girls," including herself and the hutchful of Playmates she hires.
A related problem is that Bloom's prose has the ring of hype, not truth. She has channeled the breezily unfactual mode of Ben Mezrich, the author of "Bringing Down the House," turning a half-inch-thick sheaf of C-notes into a "giant stack." Of her days as a Los Angeles cocktail waitress, she writes, "I was working the best nights at all the hottest clubs in town." Busy woman. Like Mezrich, her go-to adjective is "incredible," as in amazing, though it's the word's alternate meaning, as in far-fetched or not believable, that she often conveys. In her Mercedes, she’s "going ninety-five on Sunset," passing a cop, who flips on his lights. "I turned into the Beverly Hills Hotel with screeching wheels. The valets all knew me." And the cop? He magically disappears, as Bloom heads to her incredible lunch by the pool.
Her take on why movie stars and business titans love No-Limit Hold'Em is even less persuasive. "My game was about escapism," she insists. But it wasn't. It was about status, money, deal-making and, above all, proving one's poker acumen to other heavy hitters, Alex Rodriguez among them. What Bloom arranged for -- five-star hotel suites, the attentions of "hot girls" -- these players had plenty of in the rest of their lives. No escape wanted or necessary.
Things fell apart for Bloom when, after moving to Manhattan to host even bigger games, she began raking pots, which made her a felon. It also turned out that a fish in the Hollywood game, Bradley Ruderman, had been playing with money raised in a Ponzi scheme. His victims sued Kaplan, Maguire and other winners, as well as Bloom. (Most settled for a fraction of what they'd been sued for.)
Bloom's bank accounts were frozen and, in her book's most memorable scene, she was beaten by a thug after refusing to pay protection money. She was eventually indicted, with 33 others, for participating in a much larger gambling ring operated by Russian gangsters. Too broke, she says, to fight the charges, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to probation and community service.
Given the chance, would she do it all again? "My answer is yes," she writes on the final page, "a thousand times, yes."
Again, the ring of bluster, not candor.
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