As The Observer—and every other news outlet—has been scrambling to report in detail, the city is abuzz over the high-profile indictment and arrests of figures in an art-world money laundering scheme involving seven-figure card games, international sports betting rings and mixed martial arts fighters who played the Rocky Balboa role of debt collector. Now, The Observer has exclusive information on the high-stakes poker games at the heart of the ongoing investigation.
To recap, here’s what we know so far.
Art dealer and collector Hillel (“Helly”) Nahmad, who runs the Helly Nahmad Gallery inside the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, was named in a sweeping federal criminal indictment in which it is alleged that the 34-year-old Mr. Nahmad joined with Russians named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov and Vadim Trincher to launder millions of dollars.
According to the indictment:
The Nahmad-Trincher Organization used online gambling websites, operating illegally in the United States, to operate an illegal gambling business that generated tens of millions of dollars in bets each year.
The Nahmad-Trincher Organization laundered the proceeds of the gambling operation through a host of American bank accounts and Titan P & H LLC (“Titan”), a plumbing company in the Bronx that the Nahmad-Trincher Organization acquired a fifty percent interest in as repayment of a gambling debt.
The Nahmad family, descended from a banking dynasty in Aleppo, Syria, is “one of the richest and most powerful art-dealing dynasties in the world” according to Forbes, which estimates the family fortune at more than $3 billion, citing, in addition to the New York gallery and another in London that is run by a cousin (also named Helly Nahmad), a warehouse near Geneva International Airport said to hold up to 5,000 works of art, including 300 Picassos.
According to Forbes, the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime Squad uncovered “high-stakes poker and sports-betting dens that were frequented by prominent New Yorkers in the financial, sports and entertainment fields.”
The Observer can share for the first time details of the high-stakes card games mentioned in the indictment as “COUNT TWENTY (Illegal Poker Business).” At least five sources have come forward to discuss with The Observer the inner workings of these high-stakes card games. All agreed to speak on the condition that they would not be identified. They include two people who personally attended the games in question, one who helped run the games for many months, and a fourth who is intimately involved in business transactions with many of those named in the indictment.
Several sources with firsthand knowledge of the games named some of the players, including household names in the world of finance such as Daniel Andrew “Andy” Beal, chairman of Beal Bank, who makes no secret of his enjoyment of and expertise in poker, along with others who are less eager to publicize their affinity for Texas hold ’em. According to two sources, one well-known financier “is there every week.”
Also spotted at some of the city’s high-stakes games have been boldfaced Hollywood names like Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nick Cassavetes, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
It’s unknown how these allegations will impact those who are not named in the indictment but are alleged to have played in the games. According to no fewer than five sources, one regular player from the finance world who is active in high-level political fund-raising “is very nervous” about the indictment and arrests.
Both Helly Nahmad and “The Russians” (Messrs. Tokhtakhounov and Trincher) have apartments in Trump Tower. One resident of Trump Tower told The Observer, “I’d see these guys for three to four years coming into Trump Tower, and they didn’t live there. They would go not to Helly’s but to the Russians’ apartment. Other times they’d go to The Plaza. One thing I’ll say about Helly, I have never seen a human being who has more good-looking girls.”
One gentleman The Observer spoke to worked at the card games. He quit a few months ago when various poker players started getting calls from the feds. “They started contacting professional players and anyone potentially involved for information and confirmation months ago, and have been trying to bust the case for a while,” he said.
A source close to Eugene and Ilya Trincher—the sons of Vadim Trincher, who is named in the indictment, as is Eugene—claims that the elder Mr. Trincher is a mystery, even to the sons’ closest friends. “Nobody knows what Vadim’s business actually is, because Vadim doesn’t talk to anybody.”
The former employee claims that Eugene and Ilya Trincher were partners in heading the sports-betting operations, and that the younger Trinchers were the go-to sports betting option for many Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Apparently they weren’t bookmakers in the traditional sense, in which the goal is simply to line up even amounts of capital on both sides of a bet and live off the 10 percent vigorish collected from losing bettors. Instead, they had created an “algorithm” that predicted which teams would win. Ilya Trincher was rumored to be living in one of the priciest houses in L.A., with rent anywhere between $40,000 and $50,000, alleged to be funded by sports gambling money, including bets of up to $1 million per game.
One source said that Edwin Ting (known as Eddie, also indicted) “ran the highest-stakes poker games in New York, probably made more money than anyone else ever did playing poker in New York.” The source continued, “He’s just a Chinese guy from Queens, graduated from Baruch College. His wife was a poker dealer, now he’s a millionaire (and a real scumbag, by the way).”
According to a source with knowledge of Russian organized crime, the first person listed in the indictment, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, known as Taiwanchik, is from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and “has the highest ranking you can have in the Russian prison system. He’s part of the prison brotherhood. They sit in jail with newspapers, caviar and laptops.”
Another part of the sports betting picture is Noah Siegel, known as “The Oracle,” who was also indicted. According to the former employee, The Oracle wasn’t involved in business decisions; instead, “he was the smart kid with glasses who knows every player on every team and would pick the winning teams” with the goal of bankrupting traditional bookmakers.
The employee The Observer spoke to and all others working the games were asked to sign disclosures stating that they “never met” certain celebrities, and they were not allowed to use phones during special bookings, which included “a lot of lawyers, a lot of finance guys, a lot of hedge funders.”
Another name that came up during The Observer‘s investigation was the R&B record producer Irv Gotti a.k.a. Irving Lorenzo, who is known to run games. One source was shocked that Mr. Gotti was not snared in this dragnet. He said Mr. Gotti “surprisingly was not raided during this whole thing, which is extremely strange. The feds have walked into his [poker game] in the past and have never shut him down.”
One source painted a picture of how the whole thing works.
“First of all, you have an apartment that’s rented under somebody else’s name. You buy a poker table, some chips and chairs, and a casino shuffler on the black market, because they’re illegal to buy. The shuffler is to make the players feel comfortable that there’s no cheating going on. There are two dealers and two to 10 players per game. There are two to three waitresses and also ‘massage girls.’ The games go anywhere from six to 48 hours. Generally, the games start in the evening and finish in the morning, because most people need to go work, see their families and whatnot.”
Another gambler who frequented the game spoke of the card shuffler but put a different spin on it. “It wasn’t so much to prevent cheating. It was there to ensure there was always a freshly shuffled deck.” This gambler recalled attending games hosted by Mike Sokoloff, a New York society fixture who dated Charlotte Ronson, that were frequented by David Lee (then a New York Knick, now a Golden State Warrior), as well as “a lot of other Knicks.” This gambler said he “saw David Lee at the Molly Bloom games as well,” referring to the 34-year-old socialite who is referred to as “Poker Princess” in the indictment and is the sister of Olympic skier Jerry Bloom.
A different source also referred to the Poker Princess: “Molly Bloom just ran games, flew private jets back and forth to run games for the wealthy.”
According to someone with inside knowledge of the games, “There are no nobodies in this indictment, literally. These people are simple businessmen—not mob, not anything relating to it. They are maybe doing some organized crime, but they’re not the mob.”
Simple businessmen they may be. But there’s a good chance that not-so-simple trouble awaits. One source with extensive knowledge of the casino industry told The Observer that U.S. tax law requires all winnings to be reported as income. And as a check on the dishonesty of individual gamblers, a casino is required to report any payout in excess of $10,000.
Like a guy catching a straight flush on the river—it’s a solid bet that this 84-page indictment naming 33 individuals is only the tip of the iceberg.