Last year at this time, the city’s art world – as well as its high-stakes poker world and sports betting rings, and it may surprise some to discover the amount of overlap in that particular Venn diagram – was abuzz over the arrest and indictment of art dealer Hillel “Helly” Nahmad. The 34-year-old heir and man about town ran the Helly Nahmad Gallery inside the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue and was accused of laundering millions of dollars along with Russians Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov and Vadim Trincher and more than two dozen others in a scheme encompassing seven-figure card games, international sports betting rings and mixed martial arts fighters as debt collectors.
A year later, Mr. Nahmad has been convicted and last week was sentenced to a year and a day in prison plus a $30,000 fine. (He had proposed as an alternative to prison that he be allowed to teach the homeless about art.) Mr. Tokhtakhounov is at large in Russia – far beyond the reach of Johnny Law. Mr. Trincher faces a max of twenty years and three years of supervised release when he is sentenced alongside Mr. Nahmad. But what became of one of the most intriguing figures in the story – the raven-haired woman accused of setting up the games? In December, Molly Bloom pleaded guilty to collecting a rake on a poker game and then did the most American thing a criminal can do – wrote a book.
Molly’s Game: High Stakes, Hollywood’s Elite, Hotshot Bankers, My Life in the World of Underground Poker will be released by It Books on June 24 and the HarperCollins buzz machine has gone into overdrive to promote the photogenic Poker Princess. On Friday, Ms Bloom was sentenced to a year of probation and fined $1,000. Before correctly concluding that prison would be ridiculously harsh for someone who basically introduced fellow hobbyists, the federal judge, Jesse M. Furman (who happens to be the brother of Jason Furman, the Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors), asked Ms. Bloom about Molly’s Game to ensure that her contrition is real and won’t be undone by revelations in the book.
One close associate, the poker player and television producer Houston Curtis, like many others who played in Ms. Bloom’s games, has consistently declined to be quoted by other publications that have sought to interview him about Ms. Bloom, but broke his silence for the first time here. In his early 40s, Mr. Curtis described himself to the Observer as “an excellent poker player who has finished in the money in several tournaments.” He checked with Ms. Bloom before he first spoke to the Observer, shortly before her sentencing.
“Out of respect for my friendship with Miss Bloom, I called to give her a heads up. No offense, but the poor girl has been through hell, and I don’t want to contribute to something that could potentially make it even worse. I wanted to know how she felt about me speaking with you before I decided to answer your questions.”
A founding player from the LA game, Mr. Curtis sounded like a character witness when he told the Observer, “Molly Bloom was a smart, sweet, ambitious girl, who worked very hard to organize what had to be one of the biggest, most star-studded weekly poker games of all time. In all of my personal dealings with her, she acted honorably, above board and with the utmost integrity. I cannot speak to any of the games Molly put together when she moved to New York because I didn’t attend any of them.”
Ms. Bloom’s book is under lock and key, but HarperCollins’s website is promising a book that details how a “petite brunette from Loveland, Colorado, ran the highest stakes, most exclusive poker game Hollywood had ever seen.” A publishing industry source close to Ms. Bloom and her publisher told the Observer that the steamroller of expectations is already deafening, with a coordinated rollout planned by ABC for multiple shows. (UPDATE: The Observer has just learned that Vanity Fair will be running an excerpt from Molly’s Game.)
“She is apparently pretty nice to a lot of the guys in it like Ben Affleck and [Matt] Damon and all those guys, but she destroys Tobey Maguire.”
According to another source, the book will live up to the hype, at least among those hungering for additional insight into the cloistered world of ultra-high-stakes gambling. “I have not read it, but Helly told me that it is a fairly accurate picture of the poker scene and is naming names, like fully, fully naming names. And she is apparently pretty nice to a lot of the guys in it like Ben Affleck and [Matt] Damon and all those guys, but she destroys Tobey Maguire.” Another source familiar with the book says that while it is more specific about Mr. Maguire than other celebrities, the word “destroys” is far too strong.
But that’s where the story gets interesting.
Mr. Maguire is regarded as the single best player among the poker-playing actors. According to two sources, neither of whom would agree to be quoted by name because both continue to operate in the poker circles where Mr. Maguire plays, Ms. Bloom says that one of Mr. Maguire’s tricks is that he essentially staged the games in order to attract well-heeled players.
“Tobey got Molly to concoct these games using friends like Leo DiCaprio to sit at the table. Tobey was basically paying their entry fee, and using Leo as a lure to get these billionaires like Alec Gores and Andy Beal to come to the games.”
The tactic seems to have worked.
The banker Mr. Beal is one of the richest men in America, with an estimated net worth nearing $10 billion. He is also a legitimate poker stud, having had some of the biggest single-day wins in the history of the sport (and some huge losses). It had been reported by Radar that Mr. Gores and Mr. Maguire were among those flown by Mr. Beal on a private jet to Texas in 2011 for a tournament that “had a $1 million buy-in” but a source close to Mr. Gores insists that was not the case. This source claims “Alec flew in for the Super Bowl, not a card game. No one flew him in.” A pick-up game among friends did take shape but according to the source, “It was not a tournament in any shape or form. The buy-in was not close to $1 million.”
The New York Post estimated that Mr. Beal “lost up to $50 million” during that weekend, a figure that Mr. Beal has energetically disputed. But no one disputes that the amounts in play were gigantic. (Details of Mr. Beal’s obsession with extreme-stakes poker can be found in the can’t-put-down 2005 book The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time by the Observer‘s own Michael Craig.)
Mr. Gores, a “Christian Israeli” according to his publicist, is ranked 273 on the Forbes 400 list, with an estimated $2 billion gleaned from tech sector private equity. He and Mr. Maguire allegedly won a significant sum of money at poker from disgraced Ponzi hedge fund manager Brad Ruderman, who was sentenced to 10 years. Defrauded investors named Mr. Maguire and Mr. Gores in a lawsuit seeking to claw back some of those winnings, since they were funded by Mr. Ruderman’s ill-gotten gains; Mr. Gores later settled a $445,400 claim by the bankruptcy trustee by stroking a check for about $200,430, according to Howard Ehrenberg, the bankruptcy trustee who sued the group of players who had been paid by Mr. Ruderman with money taken from investors.
Mr. Maguire was sued for $311,200 and settled for $80,000. “I believe the evidence for Maguire was that he used a gambling checking account so he could keep track of his wins and losses for tax purposes, which is clearly the right thing to do,” said Mr. Ehrenberg, who noted that all of the cases settled. That includes Ms. Bloom, who apparently also received some money that was subject to the clawback. “Molly Bloom was part of the settlement as well but we settled for a very small amount because it appeared she didn’t have the money to pay.” (There is no evidence that Mr. Maguire, Ms. Bloom or Mr. Gores had reason to suspect that Mr. Ruderman’s losses had been funded by illicit activity.)
As for Mr. Maguire, he’s in a different league from other actors who can play some cards. While often mentioned in the same breath with other excellent playing actors like Jennifer Tilly and Ben Affleck, according to one of the sources, Mr. Maguire plays at a level that far surpasses “good for an actor” and approaches the elite level of the players who win bracelets at the World Series. So paying a few grand in entrance fees to have Leonardo DiCaprio join would be worth it to Mr. Maguire if it drew in deep-pocketed players. The source continued. “What’s even more interesting is some of those players now fund Tobey’s company, Material Pictures. So these guys have given money to Tobey to do a film development fund, and I think this book is going to say that he has basically been … not exactly cheating them, but like setting up games where they are at a disadvantage.”
Although Mr. Gores has at least exhibited interest in film-making – he and his brother Tom were among those bidding to buy Miramax and the brothers once owned stakes in Lionsgate Entertainment — his spokesman categorically denied that he is connected to any such deal with Mr. Maguire: “He has not invested in Mr. Maguire’s development or production company, nor has he invested in any company alongside Mr. Maguire.” As for Andy Beal, his spokesman simply said, “Mr. Beal does not comment on personal investment matters.” Multiple attempts to reach Mr. Maguire via his representatives at 360Management including emails and phone calls over the course of several weeks were unsuccessful.
“It’s not cheating; it’s just manipulative.”
Meanwhile, so what if Mr. Maguire did pay the entrance fee of celebrity friends? The Observer asserted to the source that it would seem an honest quid pro quo was in place. If Andy Beal plays in a game because he wants to be able to tell his friends he played with Leo Dicaprio, that’s not really cheating. And as good as Maguire is at poker, Mr. Beal might be one of the best players in the world – it’s inconceivable that he could be hustled.
“Okay,” conceded the source. “It’s not cheating; it’s just manipulative.” Maybe so, but it’s nothing compared to another tidbit involving Mr. Maguire. According to the same two sources, Mr. Maguire assumed a player’s large gambling debt and turned the unlucky fellow into a sort of poker-playing pawn. “He basically assumed a guy’s near million-dollar debt and then sort of had him working it off with winnings. The guy even had a heart attack. It’s pretty nuts.”
The Observer has learned that the player whose debt was bought by Mr. Maguire was none other than Houston Curtis, the close friend of Molly Bloom. Mr. Curtis had worked extensively in tv production for years, including producing The Dating Game and a short stint as Director of Development at MTV which he claims included sowing some of the seeds for The Osbournes. He was also the founder of a video production company in Sherman Oaks called Big Vision Entertainment, which produced things like infomercials and the instructional video Phil Hellmuth’s Million Dollar Poker System; Mr. Hellmuth would host a $2000 buy-in tournament sponsored by Big Vision that Mr. Maguire went on to win, besting over one hundred other players to go home with $95,480.
For his part, the guy on the receiving end of Mr. Maguire’s largesse doesn’t seem to harbor any hard feelings. In a series of phone calls, emails and texts, Mr. Curtis revealed to the Observer the exact details of the arrangement between himself and Mr. Maguire and in so doing opened a window on the previously unknown world of this particular high-stakes game.
“It’s very simple what happened. There was one bad night at the tables. We were playing poker and I got buried in a game and the games played big. That night I lost a million dollars. I met with Tobey about it and scratched out a deal that allowed me to keep playing. He didn’t pay the full million; he put up $600,000 of it. I would pay him 50% of my wins until he was paid back and then he’d also get 50% of my wins for a year after. He knew that long-term I was gonna win in that game cuz that’s what him and I did in that game – we won.
“So my losses were on me; my wins went to both of us. Tobey makes good deals for himself, he prides himself on that. I paid him back in full within two months, but it became an impossible deal to keep playing under because think about it. I play one night and win $100,000 — $50,000 goes to Tobey. I play the next night and win $100,000 — $50,000 goes to Tobey. I play a third night and lose $100,000. That’s on me. So I win two of three nights but I end up with nothing and Tobey gets $100,000.”
Mr. Curtis continued: “Eventually it got to where I couldn’t play anymore. At the very end of it, I owed him about $300,000 from the wins and I told him I was quitting. He told me, ‘Listen, I was never going to keep all those wins anyway.’ I think for Tobey, it was more the thrill of knowing he’d made a good deal. He knew I was having trouble with my business and said don’t worry about the $300,000.”
Did all this cause you to have a heart attack?
“I had a heart attack but it was the strain of being a multimillionaire and getting stiffed by four distribution companies inside of 18 months and watching a great poker game go by the wayside and having the Ruderman thing put a lien on my house. Having it all to not having it all overnight is enough to put anyone in the hospital, but it had nothing to do with Tobey.”
If Mr. Curtis’s charitable assessment of a wealthy actor who levered him into a Brady Bunch-style “slave for a week” deal, that seems to reflect the rosy glow in which many of the players regard a game that enjoyed a really good run. ” Tobey and I we don’t talk as much as we used to but I consider him a friend. Ultimately, he’s the kind of guy who always does the right thing.”
And as for the game itself, “I don’t think anyone who played in the game on a regular basis would disagree with me in saying it changed our lives,” said Mr. Curtis. “For a few brief hours, once, sometimes twice a week, high up in a beautiful 5-star hotel suite, a series of regular (yet anything but regular) players left everything else in their lives at the door, and had an experience that very few people in the world ever get to have. I will be forever grateful for that time in my life, and for the role that Molly played in making it happen on a consistent basis.”