Sunday, December 17, 2017
Books

Review: 'Straight Flush' stacks deck for online poker moguls

What ethically challenged billionaire would not welcome the journalistic cosseting of Ben Mezrich? With each new book, Mezrich becomes increasingly adept at how to use his kid gloves. He is expert at making up conversations he did not hear, sexing up parties he did not attend, pumping up the thrills of getting rich quick and playing down the legal liabilities of characters who may have done a teeny bit of innocent law-bending or moral compromising on their ways to the top.

If he has a single favorite sentence, it is this, best savored slowly: "Billionaires." If that needed a followup, which it doesn't, his heightened version is: "Billionaires. Was it really possible?" Sometimes it is very possible, as in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, whose story Mezrich both tarnished and faked in The Accidental Billionaires, the basis for the film The Social Network. Sometimes, as in his last book, Sex on the Moon, the climber gets busted before those billions are in reach.

In Straight Flush, Mezrich's latest, the characters are a group of ambitious fraternity brothers who create an online gambling business called Absolute Poker. One, Brent Beckley, has gone to federal prison. Another, Scott Tom, is not technically fleeing criminal charges because he has not left Antigua since the business hit the skids. But he remains trapped offshore.

(Another of Absolute Poker's founders was Oscar Hilt Tatum IV, a graduate of Shorecrest Preparatory School and son of former St. Petersburg dentist Hilt Tatum III. He is also the son-in-law of Times art critic Lennie Bennett.)

Being a near-perfect specimen of pulp nonfiction, Straight Flush has to give its story the obligatory arc. So it begins in the present, with an overwritten prologue about the first whiffs of trouble. (Beckley, at a Costa Rican airport, stopped by an American security officer: "Brent tried to smile back, but the fear was playing havoc with the neurons that controlled the muscles of his face.") After all, Brent and his partners had lived the dream. "And then, just like that" — italics Mezrich's — "in a flash as quick and blinding as sunlight on a glass pane, it had all come crashing down."

If Beckley's facial neurons and that sunlit glass signal Mezrich's way with padding, the next part of the book is no milder. It moves back in time to 1997, when it's Greek Week at the University of Montana, and its Missoula frat houses are "throbbing," "foaming" and "teeming" with exciting things (music, beer and girls, respectively). Just look at what Mezrich can do with one little half-empty beer tossed over somebody's left shoulder: "The can arced upward like a Scud missile, hung in the air for a full beat, then spiraled down in a flash of" — what else?—"spinning aluminum." This is nothing if not creative writing.

Little do the Sigma Alpha Epsilons know that the fraternity's recruiting rush will bring together the perfect team to build a Texas Hold 'Em empire and take it online. None of them has computer programming skills. But they can multiply well enough to realize that the house's take — when skimmed off many, many games played all around the world — can add up to a whole lot.

Straight Flush follows the partners around the world as they find ways to animate and monetize poker playing on the Web. ("Is this even legal?" "Sure, why not?") It doesn't go into much detail about how Absolute Poker works, but it paints the company's progress as an uphill struggle. After all, these guys don't have the pornography profits that helped a competitor. They have to raise their own money and figure out how to keep poker games going nonstop, even when individual players go offline.

But eventually, after bouncing to Korea (for computer graphics expertise), Dominica (for an offshore bank, though they picked a bad one) and British Columbia (which they fled after being approached by authorities in Canada, where the legality of gambling was "momentarily unclear"), they put down roots in Costa Rica. And they started the wait to accumulate three years' worth of business records, a prerequisite to taking the company public.

Timing turns out to have been a big issue for Absolute Poker because it had not managed an IPO before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act passed in 2006. Other companies, responsible to their shareholders, paid fines to the United States in exchange for amnesty. But the Absolute Poker team was so close to its unrealized billions. And its purpose was gambling, after all. So some of the book's principals kept on gaming the system. The Absolute Poker story is not yet over.

Whatever happens, the players have this book on their side. Mezrich presents most of them as decent, unfairly picked-on businessmen. Tom gets special treatment for "being persecuted," for having "built a company out of an American pastime" and for simply trying to help the poker-loving community. "He truly believed, in his heart, that he was innocent," writes Mezrich.

Any defense lawyer would welcome such a friend.

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