Poker Movies: “Molly’s Game” (2017)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in Molly's Game

If you love poker, you probably enjoy the characters you meet along the way as well. Also, all the different setting from back room games with friends to upscale private settings. It’s part of the fun. Unless you’re one of those players who can’t control him or herself. High stakes poker, like any form of high takes gambling, can crush souls and ruin lives. The key is to enjoy the thrill of this intoxicating game without letting it destroy you.

In “Molly’s Game” we get a glimpse into the world of private, high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York. It’s a world filled with celebrities, athletes, beautiful women and plenty of booze and drugs. It’s a target-rich environment if you’re a smart and disciplined player. But for many others it’s a seductive trap that can often lead to a spectacular crash.

Warning: spoilers will follow.

The film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a young and beautiful Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested by the FBI. When she got started in LA, her games had a buy-in of $10,000. In New York the buy-ins ballooned up to $250,000. For years she made her money on tips for her and the lovely hostesses she hired, keeping the game legal. By the end she was hooked on drugs to keep her awake and she started taking a rake, which made her game illegal. She got sloppy, and in the end it cost her. She eventually found herself being woken up one morning by FBI agents holding automatic weapons.

She wrote a book about her experience which was adapted into a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Naturally, Sorkin added quite a few dramatic scenes and composite characters to the story along with the crisp and witty dialogue we’ve come to expect from him. But the film is true to many of the details from the book. The players who attended her poker games in LA included huge stars like Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

The celebrity angle is key. Molly used this to recruit new players. Poker players love a challenge, and the allure of playing with big stars helped Molly build a hugely successful game. In the film, Sorkin uses a composite character called Player X (Michael Cera) as the famous actor. Player X loves to destroy lives, and relishes humiliating other players using his skills. And this is a key lesson – if you’re going to be star-struck, you don’t belong in these games.

The film is loaded with lessons for high rollers and lower-stakes players as well. One character loses it after a bad beat. He’s a disciplined poker player, always playing tight and winning consistently over time. But then he goes “full tilt” after the bad beat, losing over $1.2 million in the process. Never let yourself lose control like that. If you let your emotions get the best of you, you’ll end up losing your money eventually.

Also, these high stakes games are loaded with degenerates. Molly loses her Los Angeles game when Player X gets angry with her. Molly discovers he’s staking other players, and he refuses to stop. He doesn’t like her rules, so he takes away all her players. He calls her on her cell phone, cackling with laughter as he tells her how f#cked she is. Apparently, in real life it was Toby Maguire who made that call, though he wasn’t the celebrity who took away her game.

But there’s more of course. One player who consistently lost big money in Molly’s LA game was simply recruiting clients to his hedge fund, which was actually a Ponzi scheme. He flips later in the story. And then we have the Russian mob once she brings her game to New York. In a scene pulled from her book, Molly gets beaten and robbed in her apartment and has a gun placed in her mouth by a mob enforcer. That’s what happens after you politely decline an offer of protection.

Jessica Chastain Molly's Game screen shot

Chastain is brilliant in this film as Molly. She handles Sorkin’s dialogue with impressive skill, working effortlessly opposite Idris Elba and the rest of the impressive cast. Elba plays her lawyer Charlie, a fictional character created by Sorkin to help drive the story. Molly always looks gorgeous, flashing her lovely cleavage even when she’s dressing down, but she and the glamourous hostesses she hired never hook up with the players. It’s a rule that was critical to her success, and this was important to her from a personal perspective as well. She wasn’t a prostitute. But this becomes an issue when Player X resents the lack of personal attention.

In the end, we get to see a lot of the glamour surrounding these high-stakes private games, along with the potential pitfalls. Many of you won’t be able to resist this thrill if you can ever get invited to one of these games. Just be careful . . .


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