Saturday, November 29, 2014

Molly’s Game – A Poker Review

Any book that has a sub-title as long as this one (Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker) should eventually live up to the hype. Unfortunately, this one does not, at least from a poker perspective.

It might live up to expectations as a tell-all (although she tells far from ALL in these pages), or as an “Access Hollywood” type story. As far as poker goes it’s a complete bust. 

First of all this telling of Molly Bloom’s story as the “madam” of the underground poker world is far from an “adventure,” with all the overtones of exploration and excitement that are inherent in the word adventure. Her journey is more of a disaster – one that she has no idea is coming until the Russian mob sends someone to rearrange her face and the FBI agents come banging on her door.

Molly presents herself as an overachieving, driven, yet sympathetic and innocent product of her all-American Colorado family who turns away from their values since she cannot compete with her over achieving brothers and demanding father. Her entry into the underground poker scene is completely by accident and only when she discovers the far reaching financial benefits of this sketchy endeavor does she embrace it as though she has found the answer. Never once does she own up to the idea that running high stakes poker games for playboys and celebrities is far into the legal grey area and, eventually, completely into the black.

Molly, who I am sure is an otherwise very nice person, is easily led and her sense of self hardly shows up in the book. Her introduction to the fast living, hard drinking, boisterous and hollow life of Los Angeles is through a chance meeting with a character, probably real but who goes by a fictitious name in the book, named Reardon. If Reardon’s LA is anywhere close to the real LA, I and many other people will not want to be caught dead there! It’s a world of deals and arrangements, name-dropping and high-end amenities along with very little else that is not selfish, self-serving, or narcissistic. Reardon is Molly’s Svengali and, in spite of his verbal abuse, his disregard for her as a person, and his loathsome personality, she sticks with him until he sets her free to become the poker goddess that she decides she wants to be.

You would think that running underground poker games that routinely build pots in excess of a quarter of a million dollars would demand an extensive knowledge of Texas Hold ‘em. Not so in Molly’s case. At the beginning of her new found career she had no idea how to play the game, much less the nuances of what was happening right in front of her. According to her, what she did know was people and that may be so. However, offering a game where millions can change hands in a matter of hours to a bevy of gambling addicts and having them accept is like offering a bloody steak to a hungry hound and having him dive in and devour it.

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, following the double whammy in 2003 of Jim McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker” and Chris Moneymaker’s miracle at the World Series of Poker where he turned a $39 online stake into a Main Event  victory, poker was all the rage throughout the USA and Europe. Finding players for underground poker games was a simple task; finding players for a high stakes game where the buys-ins were often $250K should have been more difficult. However, we were in a financial heyday here at home and abroad as it turns out. Hedge fund guys and bank bigwigs, along with financial analysts and real estate tycoons were drooling cash, at the expense of the unknowing public it turns out. We had bought homes on credit because we could and we had turned our life savings over to fund managers who were going to make us comfortable in retirement. 

They didn’t, but the custodians of those funds did gamble it away not so much on the stock market and personal purchases, as we might have guessed, but in high stakes poker games like Molly’s. They had money to burn because they had our money and Molly was only too happy to accommodate them along with a few celebrities who are fantastically over paid in our superstar worshipping society.

They say a poker game is like life and in the case of Molly’s games that’s not far from the truth. Everyday life issues emerged in or around these games on a regular basis. Every human emotion, at least every seedy human emotion, surfaced over time – greed, lust, selfishness, jealousy, anger, fear, betrayal, compulsiveness, you name it. Most times these feelings were left to run amok as long as the sharks were winning and the fish were losing and Molly was getting paid. If it’s too good to be true it usually is and a “good thing,” like this was perceived to be, had to run its course and in the end the games succumbed to their own greed and materialism.

Don’t get me wrong. I love playing poker and doing so outside a legal casino environment is no big deal. Even playing at really high stakes in an underground environment doesn’t bother me all that much. What bothers me about Molly Bloom’s set up is that it wasn’t about the game. It was about the personalities and what they could do for her – the connections, the influences, the bargains she could hope to strike. When you play with fire, and she eventually did play with the bonfires of organized crime, you get burned, maybe even scorched, sometimes to a cinder.

If you like poker and like reading about poker, don’t read this book.  It’s not about poker. If you like seeing the names of famous people in print, or you like hearing about wearing Louboutin shoes, or riding in Phantoms, or wearing this or that designer dress, you might like this book. 

One way or the other, if your head is in the right place, you will see Molly Bloom as a sad, naïve, young women wallowing in the things that lots of money can buy and blinded by the glitz, the fame, and the show of it all. 

Recent news reports have indicated that Aaron Sorkin has agreed to write a screen play from “Molly’s Game.” This is the same Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing,” “The Social Network,” and “The Newsroom” fame. That’s some good writing – writing with a message, often a moral, a meaningful treatment of a given subject. How in the world will he deal with this book? Other than presenting us with an opus detailing the demise of an otherwise innocent young woman, it’s a mystery to me. 

I’ll go out on a limb though and say this will be a case where the movie is much better than the book it’s based on.

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