Ben Mezrich’s “Straight Flush” Opens Doors on Absolute Poker’s Rise and Fall

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The poker world has been rocked of late by new evidence regarding the mid-2000s “Superuser” scandals that changed the face of the online poker industry. The Travis MakarRuss Hamilton Tapes” have spurred new discussion on what happened at the then-called UltimateBet and a new book out today will continue to further that discussion, even if it doesn’t directly answer the questions.

Noted author Ben Mezrich, who has penned tomes on the MIT Blackjack Team (“Bringing Down The House”) and the founding of Facebook (“The Accidental Billionaires“) that have become successful movies (“21” and “The Social Network,” respectively), now takes on the story of Absolute Poker, one of the online poker rooms that exploded during the early part of the 2000s. The book, available at your local bookstore or through Amazon for $27.99 starting today, attempts to detail out the long journey of the founding of Absolute Poker, its explosion during the halcyon days of online poker, and its rapid descent after the “Black Friday” crackdown by the United States Department of Justice in 2011. Mezrich nails these details fairly well, but as to addressing the questions that a huge segment of the online poker community would like answers to, he does come up short.

The book begins with an attempt to draw in a bit of sympathy for the major players behind Absolute Poker. Mezrich details out the day that Brent Beckley, who was charged in the “Black Friday” indictments, decided to turn himself over to federal authorities in December 2011. Through that first chapter, you do feel a bit of sympathy for Beckley as he fearfully makes the journey back from the sunny climes of Costa Rica to a foreboding, cold New Jersey. Citing wanting a “normal life” for his wife and two children, Beckley is escorted through the process of his surrender (including his cuffing and booking upon arrival in the United States) and makes perhaps the best statement that could be made about the little business that he and several college friends started: “This wasn’t how this was supposed to have gone down.”

After the emotional tug from Beckley’s surrender, the reader is whisked back to the campus of the University of Montana in 1997 and, in particular, the fraternity house of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (ΣΑΕ), where we meet the men who would go on to create a billion dollar company. We meet Garin Gustafson, at that time the chairman of their Rush Week; Pete Barovich, the house president; and Shane Blackford, the most popular Sig Ep in the house (and other minor players). It is at this time we also meet the man who would bring these players together under the Absolute Poker organization, Scott Tom, whom Gustafson first meets as a potential pledge for the fraternity.

Mezrich paints Tom as a highly confident, almost arrogant college freshman and, after joining the fraternity, he becomes one of the leaders of the house. Tom also brings his stepbrother, Beckley, into the fraternity a couple years later. As they all move towards graduation, however, Tom also turns them onto something that will eventually lead them to great fortune and, arguably, great disaster.

Discovering the poker rooms in Missoula with Blackford, Barovich and Gustafson, Tom envisions the idea of playing poker online and, after discovering one of the early innovators of online poker (Paradise Poker), Tom decides to move forward with the creation of their own online room, quickly enlisting his fellow fraternity brothers (and stepbrother) to assist him in the operation of the company. The men do a huge amount of work to enlist backers for the project (a total of $750,000) before they jet off to Costa Rica to open the virtual doors on what would become Absolute Poker.

Mezrich does an excellent job in presenting how diligent these men, with a fresh college degree in their hand, worked at what they did (a common thread in Mezrich’s work that goes back to both “Bringing” and “Billionaires”) as they moved forward with the birth of the company. They originally started off in a basement, raising the starting revenues for their company, before graduating to a house in Costa Rica that was devoid of alcohol or women. It is something that many would take pride in, if it was a normal internet startup company or another business, and it should be said that those fraternity brothers didn’t shy away from hard work in creating Absolute Poker.

That isn’t to say they didn’t have their fun along the way. Mezrich also details out the parties, women and other activities that comes along with young men who start earning a great deal of money. But where it does come up short is in details on how Absolute Poker, and the men behind it, navigated the troubled waters after 2006.

Looking to go public (much as PartyPoker had done), the enactment of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006 derails those plans. Tom and his brothers stay in the U. S. market after the passage of the law (it is explained that leaving the U. S. would have devastated the company as almost 80% of their customers were from the U. S.) and, when the Absolute “Superuser” scandal erupts, there is little discussion about the issue (the “rogue employee” explanation is presented again by Mezrich). Also at this time, Tom moves into almost an emeritus role in the company, no longer dealing with day-to-day operations. By the time “Straight Flush” reaches the activities of April 2011, those details cover only two chapters and sixteen pages.

This is where many in the poker community will have a great deal of issue with Mezrich’s book. For all of the detail he was able to garner in the run-up to Absolute Poker’s beginnings and its eventual success, he doesn’t apply that same attention towards some of the most pivotal moments in the online poker world and how they affected the men, Absolute Poker as a whole or those who were on the “outside looking in.” For those who are looking for answers in Mezrich’s book, they will come away wanting to know more than what they are given.

This isn’t to say that “Straight Flush” is an overall bad book. The pacing is quick and, as stated previously, it harbors a sense of excitement as these men, barely out of college, created a business from scratch. There are several amusing anecdotes that touch on the “golden days” of online poker and even some tragic events that befell the men as they drove their company to success. It also does give you a moment of pause, a reflex of sympathy (especially for Beckley), as it all comes down around them.

Mezrich finishes off “Straight Flush” with a “where are they now” segment. Beckley, who was sentenced to a fourteen month prison term in Colorado, is due for release in September. Gustafson and Blackford are still living in Costa Rica, where they are successful businessmen. Barovich left Costa Rica and is currently a self-employed businessman in Arizona. Tom, one of three men who have not been nabbed by the “Black Friday” indictments, is stated by Mezrich as living in Antigua and, despite earning millions from Absolute Poker, is basically “in a gilded cage” on the island nation.

“Straight Flush” is well worth the read if you are able to disconnect any ill-feelings that you have for Absolute Poker from the equation. It does deliver in providing an excellent historical reference for how the company began, the travails that Tom and his fraternity brothers went through in its early days, and how they were able to create a billion dollar company virtually overnight. For those wanting something to place on the ends of their pitchforks, however, you’re not going to find that.

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