(Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review. I was actually planning on reading it and reviewing it anyway, though, so I took them up on the offer.)
Molly’s Game is the tale of Molly Bloom and the super high-stakes private poker games she ran for a few years. These games featured celebrities, billionaire businessmen, rich heirs, famous sports stars, and, eventually, a good amount of criminals. Molly made a bunch of money from these games; she started out making a few grand per game and eventually, at the height of her power, she claims to have made $200,000 for her setting up of a single game. The presence of criminals in the games was eventually what brought the game down and got Molly indicted on illegal gambling charges.
The book is good and I recommend it. By good, I mean it’s interesting. It offers a glimpse into the workings of these private poker games, and the psychology of the huge gamblers playing in them, that I’ve never gotten anywhere else. This will be interesting reading for anyone who’s played poker even somewhat seriously and wondered how such games work. Molly (with the help of her ghostwriter) describes the mentality of these people well: many are just super-rich, with too much free time and money on their hands, and are just looking for excitement and for escape. It was the realization that many mainly wanted escape that made Molly focus on offering more luxurious accoutrements to the game: masseuses, attractive models just hanging out, the finest foods, booking private jets, etc.
I don’t read many autobiographies. I usually end up feeling like the author has too many reasons to lie and to distort the truth, so you never end up feeling like you got the real story. And I usually feel like reading such books is a waste of time; if you’re not getting the full story, and don’t know what you can believe, then why even read it?
I have some of those problems with this book. Molly obviously has bones to pick and grudges against a lot of people. This is made obvious by the fact that some people receive full “outing,” with Molly using their real names and going into details about what bad things they did and why they’re assholes. Other characters get pseudonyms and we hear hardly any details about them, making it obvious she wants to protect those people. (You can read an interesting review by Haley Hintze here, where some of the real people behind the pseudonyms are explained.)
I have no problem with Molly protecting herself or her friends; that is fully her right and it is logical. Obviously we all want her to spill the beans on all the assholes she encountered, and obviously we would all want her to spill the beans on herself, maybe telling us more about questionable or downright immoral choices she might have made along the way. But she has every right and every reason to not spill those beans. But my problem just becomes: if she has things to hide, then how much of the story is actually true? I don’t know, and that bugs me. I like to read non-fiction to feel I better understand the world around me. And if I’m left in the dark about what parts I can trust and what parts I can’t, then I don’t feel like the nonfiction was beneficial to me. (It’s especially mystifying to me why people read fictionalized accounts of true stories, like books by Ben Mezrich: Bringing Down the House, and The Social Network. Why read books about real events written by someone who’s willing to just make up stuff? What are you learning?)
But the redeeming thing about Molly’s Game, and the reason I can recommend it, is because I believe the depictions of the high-stakes games are pretty much accurate. I don’t believe Molly had reasons to lie about how she set up the games, or about most of the details about them. In fact, I’m sure she was proud of how she ran those games, so she has reasons to draw attention to some minutiae of the games that may not be that interesting to some people, but which poker players will find interesting. For example: how the money was shared between her and the dealers, how she collected money, how she vetted players, her game-runner competition, things like that.
While there might have been some sordid details about the games she kept out (for instance, there were rumors that she helped provide prostitutes for players), I have a decent amount of confidence that most details about the games are accurate. I can’t say the same for the personal depictions of people. Is Tobey Maguire really a huge, cheap, manipulative asshole? Probably. I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’m not going to base my worldview of real people on an autobiography whose author obviously has fish to fry and interests to protect.
Speaking of assholes, that is also the other interesting thing about the book: seeing just how horrible many of the super-rich people are, or at least are depicted as. Again, I’m loathe to take the book’s depictions as fact, but there are so many believable details about what assholes these guys are that it’s kind of hard to not believe at least some percentage of it.
For example, the book talks about Bob Safai, the businessman who you may remember playing in Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker; he was the guy who played horribly and just bitched and moaned and berated people on those shows, and he does more of it in this book, painting a compelling picture of a millionaire who is just a miserable person.
And there’s Rick Salomon, the guy who filmed the Paris Hilton sex tape and allegedly sold it for millions without her permission. (As with most things you hear about, I have no clue how true this is.) In one scene, Molly opens the door for him as he arrives for his first time at her game and he asks her, “Wanna fuck?”
Little details like these paint a believable picture of a world most of us have no clue about; where money and power and privilege result in people willing to do and say whatever they want.
Also, for the poker players, there are some fun mentions and disses of a few celebrities and poker players, including a scene where she flatters Jamie Gold to get into the game because she’s heard how bad a player he is.
So, all in all, the book is a fun read and I think it does serve as education about the high-stakes games it depicts, which is why I can recommend it. I would just read it with a grain of salt.
One small detail I couldn’t help but notice and that I found weird. In the book, Molly talks a good amount about her family (her mom and dad and two brothers) and how much she loves and respects them all. (I found this stuff the most boring parts of the book; very few people will care about her childhood and upbringing.) In the Acknowledgements at the end, she thanks a lot of people, including her dad and her two brothers, but a mention of her mother is conspicuously absent. Again, it’s not our business at all, but I do think it’s a symptom of a lot of things being left unsaid in the book.
The book is very well written. Surprisingly so, actually. Kudos to her ghostwriter. I’ve read many well-known books that didn’t flow nearly as well. There were some nice descriptions and turns of phrase and there were very few awkward or unclear sentences, which is pretty difficult to pull off.
There were, however, a good amount of typos. This doesn’t really affect readability and I don’t actually care about their presence, but I think it’s kind of a symptom of how much less money there is in publishing these days. This book is from a major publisher and the fact that they can’t find and remove a few typos is kind of a symptom, in my opinion, of larger financial issues in the publishing world.
Update 1/6/18: Aaron Brown, author of The Poker Face of Wall Street, and a guy who’s played in a lot of high-stakes private games in New York, sent me the following feedback on my book review. I thought it was worth including because Aaron is knowledgeable about this world:
I wouldn’t describe Molly’s Game as “high stakes private poker.” There has always been a high stakes private scene, and it’s nothing like that depicted in Molly’s Game–or the Cincinnati Kid for that matter. It wouldn’t make much of a movie, it’s what you would expect if you’ve been to low or moderate stakes private games, and add a bit of money to the site and incidentals–a penthouse or yacht instead of a one-bedroom apartment; foie gras and scotch instead of pizza and beer; top Vegas dealer in a tux instead of players deal. There are nice people and assholes, but the assholes disguise it or don’t get asked back. Everyone is at least a pretty good player, the older guys are rich, the younger guys will be rich someday (and not from poker), no women except sometimes a pro, the dealer or a waitress/bartender (not a rule, just how it works in my experience), and a few low-key pros who are also interesting people.
Since the early poker boom, say 1997, there have also been celebrity games full of show-offs, boors, bad behavior, sex, drugs and conspicuous excess. Running them is more like running decadent parties for rich people than running a poker game. The book exaggerates that. There’s non-fiction, based-on-fact, Ben Mezrich, inspired by a true story, Molly’s Game and fiction–in that order. Non-fiction aims to be true, based-on-fact changes guesses plausibly about some aspects that aren’t known for sure, Ben Mezrich changes stuff to make the story better, inspired by a true story is fiction built around a few key facts, Molly’s game is fiction built around a few anecdotes that are more or less true, and fiction is fiction.
The real high stakes poker and the celebrity parties do overlap from time-to-time. I’ve played in sober games with people who have played in Molly’s Game or similar games; and some sober games jazzed up a bit to be more like the celebrity games. There are some intermediate games. But for me the bright line division is that older high stakes poker games were hosted by players who wanted to play good poker and never charged any form of rake; celebrity games were hosted by criminals or front women like Molly (who was more employee than manager) with no interest in poker, for a profit.