Thousands of popular card games are enjoyed around tables around the world—rummy, bridge, and canasta, to name a few. But since taking off in 1998 as an online game, poker has remained king. Today, there are an estimated 100 million poker fans across the globe.
Poker has been played in the U.S. since the 1880s, as anyone who has watched a Western movie can attest. Part of the game’s popularity stems from its easy social aspect. Bridge, for example, requires intense concentration and strategy. You can get tossed from a bridge game for talking.
Poker Remains a Social Game
Poker, on the other hand, demands a certain amount of skill, but players can socialize while playing. The poker culture in the U.S. evolved around low-stakes games hosted by friends in their homes. The in troduction of online poker in 1998 sent the game into a whole new realm.
The boom years of poker were officially between 2003 and 2006—ending with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) in the U.S. After the law passed, several online poker sites, including the industry leader at the time, Party Poker, left the United States.
World Series of Poker Attendance Topples
At the first World Series of Poker following the passage of UIGEA, attendance at the main event dropped nearly 28%, from 8,773 in 2006 to 6,358 in 2007. However, attendance at WSOP has recovered, and the game is considered even more popular than during its boom years.
The boom was officially over and the recession setting in when Molly Bloom, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado, moved to Los Angeles to work as a bartender. She had planned to take a year off before starting law school, and after years as a ski instructor, she says she came to L.A. to get warm.
Molly Bloom’s Book Takes Off
Bloom went on to document her exploits in a 2014 book, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.
Bloom was both deeply in debt and in trouble with the law when she started shopping it around to Hollywood. She was convinced that Aaron Sorkin, who had already brought Jobs, Moneyball, and The Social Network to the big screen, was the only person who could tell Molly’s Game.
Sorkin Signs on to the Project
At first, Sorkin was less convinced. Bloom hired an entertainment lawyer who knew Sorkin to set up a meeting. He agreed but later said that he didn’t feel the story was in his wheelhouse. What changed his mind? Molly herself. Sorkin recalled he made assumptions about her that were unreal.
When they met, he said, things looked very bleak, but then he observed that she had an “inner strength built out of integrity.” Sorkin said she refused to dish on anyone, and he believed she was an “honest-to-God movie heroine” in a very unlikely place.
Sorkin Peppers Bloom with Questions
Even though Sorkin knew he was in, he kept Bloom on the hook for two months, emailing her a handful of questions about her life: What was her relationship like with her father? Why didn’t she take the bigger book advance? Why didn’t she hire people to collect her debts?
Jessica Chastain, who was eventually cast as Bloom in the movie, had her own questions for the woman the tabloids had deemed the “poker princess.” Chastain was puzzled by the control that Molly had handed over to her strict father at the start of the story.
Parents Cut Molly Off after L.A. Move
Molly graduated summa cum laude from the University of Colorado, and she had every intention of entering law school after her break in L.A. But when her parents cut her off financially, she accepted the job as a bartender that provided her gateway into the world of high-stakes poker.
Though Bloom never went to the set—much of Molly’s Game was filmed in Canada, where she, as a felon, is not permitted to go—she did move back to L.A. during the production process to work with Sorkin. They became so close that there were rumors they were sleeping together, an allegation both have denied.
Star-Studded Movie Cast for Molly
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is as star-studded as Molly’s real-life poker games were. In addition to Chastain, the cast includes Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, J.C. MacKenzie, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Joe Keery, Brian d’Arcy James, and Bill Camp.
Unlike many of Sorkin’s scripts which take liberties with the actual facts, Molly’s Game sticks closely to the book and the reality of her life. Some dramatic license was taken, but we’ll try to separate fact from fiction in the play-by-play of the film.
Molly Didn’t Actually Have a Dramatic Skiing Fall
In the opening scene of Molly’s Game, young Molly skis over a twig during an Olympic qualifying run and tumbles down the mountain. She suffers a serious back injury that ends her career. In a voiceover, Molly blames this twig for changing her life path from athlete to “poker princess.”
That fall never happened. While Bloom was indeed an Olympic-level skier, she decided to retire from skiing, not after an injury but after a personal coup. She stepped away from the sport after winning a bronze medal. In her book, she writes she wanted to find a new path in life and succeed on her own terms.
Molly’s Actual Skiing Setbacks
She had some physical roadblocks when she was younger, with an emergency back surgery at 12 after which she was told she could no longer ski competitively. But after a year, she was back on the slopes. And in college, she made the U.S. ski team and finished third overall in the country.
In her book, Bloom speaks very lovingly of her father (played in the movie by Kevin Costner). But he definitely pushed his children to their limits. “Nothing was ‘recreational’ in our family,” she writes. “Everything was a lesson in pushing past the limits and being the best we could possibly be.”
She Started Her Career as a Waitress and Assistant
Since Bloom wrote her book before she was sentenced for her role in the gambling ring, we don’t know whether her father showed up in New York City to give her a pep talk about her trial, as he does in the film. But it is a very Sorkin-like touch.
Bloom met her future boss, played in the movie by Jeremy Strong, when he almost hit her with his car in Los Angeles. She had just quit her serving, and he noticed her uniform. The man, whom she calls Reardon Green in the book, hired her on the spot for a job at his restaurant. Eventually, the entrepreneur made Bloom his assistant as well.
Not a Nice Guy to Work For
Green wasn’t the most pleasant employer: The line in the movie when he rejects a bag of bagels he’d asked her to buy, yelling, “These are poor-people bagels!” is real, according to her memoir. But he did introduce her to the world of poker and the game at the Viper Room, a bar he co-owned. When he fired her from the game, she used her new contacts to start her own.
Sorkin doesn’t name the celebrity players who frequented Bloom’s game in the film, but Bloom identifies some of them in her book, including Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio. However, she only names people who had already been exposed in the media before her book hit the shelves, protecting other players from exposure.
Tobey Maguire Was A Major Player
Maguire plays the biggest role in Bloom’s memoir, and there appear to be elements of him in “Player X,” played by Michael Cera in the movie. (Sorkin even nods to Maguire, who played Spider-Man, with a line about the unnamed actor playing a superhero.)
In the book, Bloom writes that Maguire once offered her $1,000 to bark like a seal and stormed off when she refused. However, Maguire didn’t take the game from her like Player X does in the movie—another player did. But Bloom writes that the actor gleefully called her to inform her that she had lost her weekly game.
A Mobster Really Did Point a Gun at Her Head
The scariest scene in the movie comes straight from the pages of Bloom’s book. The real Bloom was nervous about toting around so much money between games and hired a driver for security reasons. This driver introduced her to his mobster “friends.”
Bloom met them in a fancy hotel lobby, where one of the men really did order an apple martini. The men offered Bloom muscle in exchange for a cut of her earnings. She rejected the offer. Weeks later, a stranger showed up at her door with a gun.
Mafia Threatens Molly and Her Family
He slammed her against the wall and stuck the gun in her mouth. He stole her cash and jewelry and made it clear that he was sent by the men she had met at the hotel. He threatened her family if she didn’t accept the mafia protection, and then beat her up.
Bloom hid out in her apartment for a week while her bruises healed. The mobsters contacted her about setting up another meeting and she agreed. But before they could meet them, she read in the paper that the FBI had arrested nearly 125 people in a massive mob roundup. She never heard from the men who threatened her again.
There is No Charlie Jaffey
Though Bloom employed real lawyers, Charlie (Idris Elba) is a fictional character who appears to be basically a stand-in for Sorkin—someone who is skeptical of Molly at the outset but comes to see her as a heroic figure.
Her lawyer also wouldn’t have had time to formulate opinions about Bloom based on her book. In the movie, Charlie reads the memoir before his first meeting with her. In reality, the book was published after she was arrested but before she was sentenced.
Film Debuted at Toronto Film Festival
Principal photography for Molly’s Game began in November 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The film premiered on September 8, 2017, at the Toronto International Film Festival and began a limited theatrical release in the United States on December 25, 2017.
The release expanded on January 5, 2018, and grossed $59 million worldwide. Molly’s Game received positive reviews, with particular praise for Sorkin’s screenplay, as well as Chastain and Elba’s performances, with the former being considered one of the best of her career by some critics.
Chastain Grabs Golden Globe Nomination
The film earned Chastain a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Drama. Sorkin earned nominations for his screenplay at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Writers Guild of America Awards, and BAFTA Awards.
The film generated positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81% based on 299 reviews, with an average rating of 7.10/10. The website’s critical consensus praises both Chastain’s and Elba’s performances and Sorkin’s script.
The Movie Plot
In the movie, Molly Bloom is a world-class mogul skier with Olympic aspirations, the result of years of rigorous training enforced by her overbearing father. She was severely injured in a qualifying event for the 2002 Winter Olympics, ending her career.
Instead of following her original plan to attend law school, Molly decides to take a year off and move to Los Angeles. Once she arrives, she becomes a bottle service waitress at a club, where she meets Dean, an ostentatious but unsuccessful real estate developer.
Molly Becomes Dean’s Office Manager
She becomes his office manager, and he soon involves her in running his underground poker games at a bar called “The Cobra Lounge.” Many famous and wealthy individuals, such as movie stars, investment bankers, and sports players, are involved in Dean’s game. Molly earns large sums of money in tips alone.
Molly has no background knowledge of poker, but she quickly learns how to appeal to the players to gain tips. In particular, she hopes to please the most successful player, a film star named Player X (based on actor Tobey Maguire), by attracting new players to the game.
Molly Gets Fired
Dean sees that Molly is increasingly independent in running the games. He attempts to control her, and then he fires her. Molly, having gained contacts through years of running the game, decides to create her own poker games. She rents a penthouse at a hotel and hires staff to help her run games.
She also contacts employees at clubs and casinos to try and spread the word about her poker games. Player X, along with many others, leave Dean’s games to play at Molly’s game. Molly becomes increasingly successful, gaining more money while being pressured by Player X to raise the stakes for her games.
Eustice Loses a Hand by Accident
Harlan Eustice, a skilled conservative, and a successful player, joins Molly’s game. One night, after accidentally losing a hand to the notoriously worst player in Molly’s circle, Brad Marion, Harlan becomes increasingly compulsive, suffering heavy losses. This proves to be a turning point.
Later, Molly finds out that Player X, who enjoys ruining people’s lives more than playing the game, has been funding Harlan to keep him in the game. After Molly berates him for his unethical actions, Player X decides to change the venue for his games, and the other players join him, leaving Molly’s game.
Molly’s Game Moves to New York
Molly moves to New York, looking to begin a new underground poker game. After reaching out to many wealthy New Yorkers, she finds enough players for several weekly games. Despite the continuous success, she fears being unable to cover her losses when players cannot pay.
Molly’s dealer convinces her to begin taking a percentage of large pots, allowing her to recoup her potential losses but making her game an illegal gambling operation. Brad is then indicted for running a Ponzi scheme; Molly is investigated and questioned as to who attended her games.
Stress Sends Molly to Drugs
At this time, the stress of running the games has taken its toll and Molly becomes increasingly addicted to drugs. Her players also begin to include wealthy individuals from the Russian mafia, among others. She is also approached by several Italian mafia members who offer their services to extort money from non-paying players.
After she declines, she is attacked in her home, where she is held at gunpoint and her mother’s life is threatened. As she is about to return to her poker games, the FBI conducts a raid, with Douglas Downey, one of her players, acting as an informant. Molly’s assets are seized, and she returns home to live with her mother.
FBI Arrests Molly in New York
Two years later, Molly has moved out and published a book where she names only a few individuals that played in her games. She is arrested by the FBI and indicted for involvement in illegal gambling with the mafia. She enlists the help of Charlie Jaffey, a high-profile and expensive lawyer in New York.
Jaffey agrees to help after he learns that she has been protecting innocent people who were affected by her poker games. While she is in New York awaiting trial, her father, Larry, attempts to reconcile with her. He admits that he was overbearing and that he treated Molly differently than her brothers because she had known about his affairs.
Charlie Jaffey To the Rescue
Charlie reads Molly’s book and becomes interested in helping her case, as he feels she has not committed serious enough wrongdoing to merit a prison term. Charlie negotiates a deal for Molly to receive no sentence and for her money to be returned in exchange for her hard drives and digital records from gambling.
Molly declines this deal, fearing that the information about her players would be released, and pleads guilty. The judge, deciding that she had committed no serious crimes, sentences her to 200 hours of community service, one year of probation, and a $200,000 fine.
The Real Molly Bloom Story
Bloom was born on April 21, 1978, and grew up in Loveland, Colorado. Her father, Larry Bloom, is a clinical psychologist and a professor at Colorado State University. Her mother, Char, was a ski and snowboard instructor and a professional fly-fisher with her own line of clothing.
Her brothers are Jordan Bloom, a cardiothoracic surgery fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Jeremy Bloom, a former American Olympic skier and professional American football player with the Philadelphia Eagles. She was a competitive skier and at one time ranked third in Nor-Am Cup season ranking for women’s mogul skiers.
Bloom Moves to Los Angeles
Molly Bloom moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and found work as a bartender. Darin Feinstein, one of the co-owners of The Viper Room nightclub, was approached by actor Tobey Maguire about hosting a high-stakes poker game in the basement of the club. Feinstein then recruited Bloom to cater to the players and manage the game.
In 2007, Bloom started her own business, registering Molly Bloom Inc. as an event and catering company to host poker tournaments. By 2008, the games had graduated to private homes and hotels like the Peninsula Beverly Hills, with hands going as high as $4 million.
A-List Celebs Playing the Game
In addition to Maguire, many wealthy people, celebrities, and sports figures were known to frequent the games including Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Gores, Macaulay Culkin, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Alex Rodriguez, Nelly, Mary Kate Olsen, Ashley Olsen, Phil Ivey, Rick Salomon, and Andy Beal.
As the 2008 recession hit, underground poker games became less common, and in 2009, Bloom to an Upper West Side high-rise in New York near Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. She began organizing games in a private apartment at the new Astor Place and suites at the Plaza Hotel.
A Different Type of Financing
Molly’s troubles began with the New York move. Her games in L.A. had basically been legal: Her salary came from the hefty tips players gave her, and she paid taxes on that income. (She said the most money she ever made in one year was $4 million.)
But in New York, she started extending more and more credit to the players. She gradually began to guarantee the game. She was essentially giving them money to play. After she was stiffed $250,000, Molly decided to start taking a rake—a percentage of the pot, which is illegal.
Raids Force Molly to Move to Long Island
She used the same sophisticated dealing equipment used in casinos, and they were staffed by women hired from 1 Oak, an exclusive nightclub. However, Bloom had fewer contacts in New York, where raids on underground games prompted them to relocate to Long Island.
As a result, Bloom attracted rich businessmen from Wall Street but also more disreputable gamblers whose bids were significantly smaller than those in Los Angeles. In June 2010, Bloom was served with a $116,133 tax lien for failing to pay appropriate taxes on her New York events.
Arrest and Sentencing
In 2011, one of Bloom’s games in Los Angeles was shut down as part of a bankruptcy investigation into a Ponzi scheme run by Bradley Ruderman, one of the players. Bloom, who had received money from Ruderman as part of the game, was accused of receiving $473,000 from Ruderman’s bank to settle his debts.
Bloom was sued by the bankruptcy trustee for $473,200, but she denied that she was involved in organizing illegal gambling. Her denial didn’t carry her very far. Bank records showed 19 transfers to Bloom in 2007 and 2008 for amounts up to $57,500.
Bloom Arrested and Charged in 2013
On April 16, 2013, Bloom was arrested and charged along with 33 others as part of a $100 million money laundering and illegal sports gambling operation. Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, charged 12 people with racketeering.
Others were charged with money laundering, extortion, fraud, and operating illegal poker rooms in New York City. Bloom, who was 34 at the time, faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, six years of supervised release, a fine of $1.5 million or twice the amount gained from the crimes or twice the amount lost by victims, and a $200 special assessment.
Bloom Hopes Book Will Save Her
After drying out at rehab, Molly moved in with her mother in Colorado and decided that writing a book could help pay her debts. When she went to shop her proposal, she said publishers told her they would give her a substantial advance only if she shared revealing stories about the stars at the games.
Bloom opted to disclose only the names that had been previously unveiled in court documents related to a Ponzi scheme run by one of her former players, Bradley Ruderman. (DiCaprio and Maguire were among them.) Harper Collins paid her $45,000 for the book, she said.
Feds Continue Their Pursuit
Molly finished the first draft of the book and moved back to L.A. in 2013, but just 10 days after she settled into a new apartment in West Hollywood, 17 FBI agents turned up outside her door with automatic weapons.
They arrested her, pushing a paper in front of her face that read: “The United States of America vs. Molly Bloom.” Her mother put up her house to get Bloom out of jail. For Bloom, this was the lowest point of the story. But things would pick up.
Bloom Pleads Guilty to Lesser Charge
In May 2014, Bloom pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to one year of probation and 200 hours of community service. At the sentencing, Bloom’s lawyer, Jim Walden, told the court that Bloom was in severe debt that included forfeiting $125,000 in poker proceeds as part of the plea.
He stated that Bloom had “been ordered into the gambling business” by her boss at a Los Angeles real estate company, then went on to create her own illegal poker game in New York in 2009. Apparently, the court accepted his statement.
Molly Re-Blooming in Colorado
Bloom recently moved back to Colorado, but this time into her own place in Denver. She’s paid her legal bills but is still negotiating with the IRS and figuring out a payment plan for her restitution. She leaned into a 12-step program and now meditates regularly.
And next year, she’s planning to launch her own company, Full Bloom, which will oversee co-working, membership-only spaces for women. Bloom told the LA Times that since her involvement with the Feds, none of the celebrities who frequented her games has contacted her.
Re-Evaluating Her Life and Values
Bloom told the Times that she realized that no matter how much money she had, she was living with an essential loneliness. She added that she’d been rich and she’d been poor, but she hadn’t felt fulfilled, and that’s what she is reaching for now.
Molly told the Times that she is now happy to live her life in the smaller moments. She adds that the big moments are great, but that she feels she now has a more comprehensive picture of how she wants to live her life.
Poker Still Rising in Popularity
Despite the tightened federal regulations in the U.S., poker continues to gain popularity. The unprecedented growth in online poker gaming is the result of the acceptance that it has witnessed in international markets—mainly the U.S., UK, China, and Europe.
Now, with the boom of the digital era and stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is capturing a huge market share of the Indian online gaming industry. As per the industry reports, the online poker industry is presently growing at a rate of 35-40% a year.
Why Do We Love Poker?
Many people believe that poker is all about luck, just like many other games of chance. A significant amount of luck is involved in the short run, but professional players deal with that by learning the best poker strategies they can.
Professional players know that poker is all about maths and odds. To win, you need to invest more when you have a statistical advantage and less when you have a disadvantage. Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than that, but this is the gist of things.
First Mentions of Poker
In the 1837 edition of Foster’s Complete , attributed poker as first played in the United States as a derivation of the Persian game of . The game was played with a deck of 20 cards, handed out five each to a player.
There is evidence that a game called poque, a French game similar to poker, was played around the region where poker is said to have originated. One modern source rejects these ancestries as the unique features of poker have to do with the betting and do not appear in any known older game.
Controversy over Game Origins
In this view, poker originated much later, in the early or mid-18th century, and spread throughout the Mississippi River region by 1800. It was played in a variety of forms, with 52 cards, and included both straight poker and stud.
Twenty-card poker was a variant for two players—it is a common English practice to reduce the deck in card games when there are fewer players. The development of poker is linked to the historical movement that also saw the invention of commercial gambling.
Professionals Return to the Game
Thanks to the “satellite system,” players can enter low-level tournaments for less than $0.50 and win tickets into bigger and bigger tournaments. With enough luck and skill, there are opportunities to win tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars for very little money invested up front.
Online Poker Biggest Indian Money-Maker
The number of online poker players in India is also on a continuous rise—there are more than 3 million active players at present. Being a real money game, online poker has the potential to help people make money by using their mind skills.
People have started to view poker as a competitive sport that tests the skills of the mind. The security and ease in making digital payments contributes immensely in making the players consider online poker a serious method to earn money.
Other International Growth in Poker
In 2009, the was founded in , and became the official governing body of poker and promoting the game as a . In 2011, it announced plans for two new events, both based in Europe.
The first event is The Nations Cup, a team event, staged at the on the banks of the . The other was “The Table,” the invitation-only IFP World Championship, featuring roughly 130 of the world’s best poker players.