The subtitle of Ben Mezrich’s new book will have a familiar ring to some: “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 . . .” He’s also the author of “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook — A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal”; “Busting Vegas: A True Story of Monumental Excess, Sex, Love, Violence, and Beating the Odds”; and “Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.”
You get the idea: Mezrich writes about the meteoric rise to riches of young bros behaving badly. Or, at least, as in the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not very nicely. There’s also his questionable “technique of re-created dialogue” as well as the “re-created” inner thoughts of his characters, based on “multiple interviews” and “thousands of pages of court documents.” Mezrich’s “technique” has resulted in several bestsellers as well as Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay adaption of the Facebook story, “The Social Network,” and the Kevin Spacey-starring version of the MIT cardsharp story, “21.”
The story this time is about a handful of fraternity brothers (natch) and their cohort — Scott, Garin, Pete, Shane, Hilt, and Brent — who dream up a scheme for creating the world’s best online poker site, if not the most successful. Beginning in 2000, we watch as our heroes start from scratch in the basement of Scott’s dad’s house, travel to South Korea to work with the software developers, move their growing operation to Costa Rica, refine the design, test-run the site, and eventually start raking in the cash.
The business procedural is fairly engrossing, especially if you’ve ever hesitated before entering your credit card number online. (There’s a whole world of “payment processors” operating offshore, beyond the respectable horizon of PayPal.) There’s the challenge of making poker a viable online commodity (initially, in the early 2000s, it was seen as a losing proposition compared with the riches of online sports betting). And the agonizing over the perfect name. (In a brainstorm, the crew hits on AbsolutePoker.com — “Sophisticated,” they thought. “Cosmopolitan, kind of a lounge feel.”)
There’s also the little matter of the Interstate Wire Act of 1961, pushed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in his war against the Mafia back then. Our boys are assured by their lawyers that there’s no way the Wire Act applies to them but, just to be on the safe side, they take their operation to Central America. It isn’t until the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act of 2006 that it all comes “crashing down.” Here, beyond the morality tale of hubristic young men in over their heads, is yet another unsavory tale about the sausage making of congressional legislation and of overzealous prosecution. And as, Mezrich points out, when one of our kids does go to jail, it’s for a crime (bank fraud) that even the prosecutors agree had caused no “losses to any banks or any individuals.”
But that’s just a small part of a story that’s otherwise all about the ascent and immolation of our young swains, told in a hyperbolic prose: “The next six weeks flashed by at ten thousand RPM, bolstered by a constant stream of Red Bull. ” There’s sex, drugs, wads of cash, and even the threat of gunplay. All of which would be more compelling if the writing weren’t always so slapdash, if the author, swept up in his own story, occasionally stepped back from his characters’ post-adolescent worldview.
In the end, though, it’s hard not to agree with Mezrich’s assessment that these young guys were railroaded by hypocritical legislation pushed through as an unrelated amendment to the Safe Port Act by two conservative antigambling Republican senators, Bill Frist and John Kyl, who were running on morality platforms. That particular morality tale almost gets lost in the overamped storytelling. But, hey, I can’t wait for the movie.
Jon Garelick, a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com.