Two years ago, when the Justice Department indicted the founders of three major poker Web sites — including the founders of AbsolutePoker.com — American poker players squawked. People who had earned seven-figure incomes by playing cards online remain sidelined by the department’s decision to prosecute poker site operators not for gambling but for money laundering, making it impossible for players to fund online poker accounts. If it’s illegal to play poker in, say, the District of Columbia, the department reasoned, you can’t send money from here to an offshore company that offers poker games on the Web. The maneuver was like going after Al Capone for tax evasion.
And it seemed unfair. Making money from gambling in the Internet’s unregulated Wild West is so darn American. Didn’t Wild Bill Hickok do the same thing without a laptop?
With the same cinematic sense that propelled his nonfiction books about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (“The Accidental Billionaires”) and MIT whizzes turned card counters in Las Vegas (“Bringing Down the House”), Ben Mezrich has chronicled the collapse of AbsolutePoker.com, a site built by four University of Montana frat brothers playing by their own rules. “Most intelligent people he knew would be terrified at the idea of putting their credit card on the Internet,” Mezrich writes of an Absolute Poker vice president’s initial doubts that money could be made in online gaming. “It was 2000; the Internet had a long way to go before most would feel comfortable shopping over the computer, let alone playing poker.”
Such skepticism proved to be as wrong as folding a royal flush. By the end of the decade, Absolute Poker was the third-largest poker site in the world — a billion-dollar empire based in Costa Rica, run by 20-somethings, employing almost 1,000 people from Malta to Montreal and taking in $2 million per day from members, who paid a percentage of each pot to the house. Two of these entrepreneurs-gone-wild stand out in “Straight Flush”: Brent Beckley, who turned himself in in 2011 and, after a plea bargain, served time in prison, and Scott Tom, who remains a fugitive on the island of Antigua, living “in what could be accurately described as a gilded cage.”
Anyone who’s watched A-listers such as Ben Affleck and Don Cheadle compete on B-list television shows such as “Celebrity Poker Showdown” can attest to the game’s ubiquity. But even in an age when Texas hold ’em, once a game about as cool as cribbage, has become world-famous, the online businesses that fueled the poker boom don’t seem square. From the moment Absolute Poker set up operations in Costa Rica — which, according to Mezrich, has an abundant supply of drugs, prostitutes and gaming licenses — it was clear that its founders knew they were operating on the outskirts of the law.
Though “Straight Flush” portrays Absolute Poker’s founders as victims of a nonsensical U.S. gaming policy, as heroes they are less than lovable. Tom, Beckley and their pals don’t treat women well. They consume intoxicants to excess. They don’t care whether games of chance cause social problems. Theirs is a funhouse-mirror version of a Horatio Alger story — plucky young men from nowhere rewarded, at least in the short term, for following a twisted path. “Straight Flush” revels in its protagonists’ hedonism and general broishness, dispensing with any moral quandaries.
“Nip this in the bud,” Beckley says when one founder of Absolute Poker is falsely accused of using his access to cheat on the site. “A rumor like this could kill us.” In an author’s note, Mezrich owns up to re-creating dialogue — lines that will be spoken by handsome young actors well-supplied with hair gel in the movie that “Straight Flush” will probably become. But does the dialogue have to be so bad?
Whatever his writing’s shortcomings, Mezrich’s protagonists are stuck in a fascinating bind. Like Henry Ford, Howard Hughes and Zuckerberg, Absolute Poker’s founders figured out how to make something new essential to the lives of millions. But in their case, they were prevented from entering a promised land of profit by arbitrary regulation. “In the beginning, it had been something so special, so wild and cool — and simple,” Mezrich writes. “None of them could have ever imagined how quickly something so simple could become something huge — or how equally quickly it could all come crashing down.”
Sure, it reads like cheesy ad copy. But underlying the schmaltz is Mezrich’s sense of his protagonists as existential heroes — people punished for doing something that has become socially acceptable as poker rooms move closer to Washington. As for online gaming, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, many Republicans’ favorite possible presidential contender in 2016, just legalized it in his state, and some estimate that it will be a $100 billion industry as early as 2017. Legislators may give their blessing to something like Absolute Poker after all.
The True Story of Six College Friends Who Dealt Their Way to a Billion-Dollar Online Poker Empire — and How It All Came Crashing Down
By Ben Mezrich
Morrow. 288 pp. $27.99