Books | Card blanche

A review of Straight Flush: 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.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books)

Stephen King once billed himself, "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." What separates the author of over 60 books from his prolific peers is that his visual and visceral stories are achingly film-able. Sappy anti-King Nicholas Sparks has a similar knack for writing bestsellers that people would rather watch than read.

Preparing to join their hyper-exclusive ilk is Ben Mezrich, author of Straight Flush: 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(HarperCollins, $27.99).

Best known for writing The Accidental Billionaires: The Story of Facebook, which Aaron Sorkin adapted into The Social Network, Mezrich has published 12 previous books -- and provided material for two completed films, another in production, and two more optioned by studios.

In Straight Flush, Mezrich's protagonist Scott Tom introduces his University of Montana fraternity brothers to poker, recruiting them to form an Internet company.

American gambling laws were opaque in the late nineties and early aughts; online ones had yet to be defined. So, after raising nearly $750,000 in investments, Absolute Poker (AP) established headquarters in Costa Rica. The young company had the foresight to split its capital between two local banks, one of which closed the day of the site's launch. Half of its assets disappeared, and the group pulled their remaining funds from the second bank, which also closed that same week.

Between AP's disastrous beginning and end, the site became one of the most popular online gaming destinations. Gobs of money were earned as poker fans used credit cards to bet real money, with AP getting a percentage of each rake.

Every major protagonist survives a life-threatening accident (such as a head injury sustained at The Playboy Mansion). All of these smash-ups result from the new wealth acquired by reckless, twenty-something dudes.

Right before AP's IPO, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA). "On a straight reading of the UIGEA, running an online poker company wasn't illegal," Mezrich writes. "Playing online poker wasn't illegal. The only thing that was illegal was accepting money from U.S. players," who constituted 80 percent of AP's users.

The new statute ensured the demise of most poker Web sites. But AP, convinced that the law was bogus and short-lived, aimed to dominate the much-emptied market.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice seized AbsolutePoker.com. Scott Tom and his stepbrother, Brent Beckley, were indicted for running an illegal gambling business, money laundering and bank fraud. Beckley surrendered. Tom did not.

While Mezrich gets credit for choosing a good subject, he does a mediocre job as a storyteller. Not much happens in the first half of the disjointed 288-page book. Then everything happens.

Despite the prodigious amount of action, Straight Flush is mostly filler. Many "details" are generic and insignificant. Multiple sentences are dedicated to the trajectory of beer cans and wine corks. I didn't care about the book's characters, as it's extremely unclear who Mezrich relied on for sourcing.

Still, the book -- and, I suppose, the movie -- will be a huge financial success.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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