I’ve written about poker nearly as long as I’ve been playing it. I observed in these pages years ago that the game can be a great revealer of—but sometimes a great destroyer of—character, especially when one harbors the psycho-social and hereditary/genetic potential for compulsive gambling.
Gambling humor embraces the dark side. Poker argot is especially mordant. “Where’s Lennie?” asked one of my high-rolling patients about a legendary loser, absent from the tables for several months.
Came the laconic reply: “Lennie is in Poker Hospital. . .” meaning he was broke beyond redemption . . . possibly disappeared himself to elude loan shark thugs who would assuredly be playing castanets on his kneecaps with hammers if he didn’t pay up.
Molly Bloom, feisty heroine of the eponymous Molly’s Game, wound up in poker hospital not from playing, but from running lavish underground poker games in LA and NY. Her “clients” were major Wall Street sharks, glitterati from the worlds of entertainment, sports, politics, and—to her final undoing—kingpins of the Russian mob.
No-Limit Texas Hold-em is the most popular form of poker today. You can easily google the rules, but it’s more enjoyable to learn them by watching Rounders (1998), the best poker picture ever lensed.
Each player—10 maximum—is dealt 2 down cards, which are then combined with a “window” of 5 common pasteboards. Betting proceeds before and after the window is flopped. The best 5-card hand wins.
The game looks disarmingly simple. In fact, it’s alarmingly complex. Any player can go “all in”—bet his or her entire stack—at any time during a round. The ability to bluff and suss out bluffing is crucial. Played for high stakes, the game requires extraordinary patience and battlefield courage. You strive to keep your head on straight during hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
Fine players carefully bide their time until the right terrifying moment comes along. But Molly’s punters were action junkies, many pathological gamblers who were always all in, creating stratospheric pots. Molly was especially adept at winkling out “fish,” poor players with deep pockets, able to sustain formidable losses and come back week after week for more.
She took great pride running a legitimate game in a milieu prone to knavery. She paid her employees—dealers, servers, security—on the books, kept scrupulously to the letter of ambiguous gaming laws. She lived large, but only on big weekly tips.
Aaron Sorkin’s previous TV and theatrical work—eg, in The West Wing—featured high-octane plotting and rat-a-tat dialogue reminiscent of the screwball comedies and sizzling crime pictures of Hollywood’s studio era. Molly’s Game marks his debut as a film director; he also adapted the film from Bloom’s autobiography.
Sorkin’s skillset satisfyingly drives the picture until an unfortunate conclusion, of which more presently. (Molly is stunningly played by Jessica Chastain). In the scorching establishing sequence, Federal agents summarily yank Molly out of bed and into the slammer for illegal gambling. Her arrest came several years after she had closed her operations.
The feds actually cared little about Molly’s games. They jailed her with the goal of compelling her to rat out 30 badfellas under indictment who had played at her tables. But Molly refused to co-operate. She had substantial knowledge about her players’ private lives, and refused to break confidentiality so as not to shame them and their families. Their outside business wasn’t her business.
Sorkin adroitly interpolates Molly herself relating her picaresque, often harrowing backstory, and third-person narration of her quest to escape incarceration. Her voiceover delivery is fast paced, ironic, curiously distanced—as if she’s describing someone else’s life in a galaxy far away. Staccato cutting accentuates Molly’s fragmented modus vivendi—initially exciting, and terminally desolating.
Molly’s father (a one-note gruff Kevin Costner) is a charismatic psychology professor, who relentlessly helicoptered Molly and her 2 brothers to become academic and athletic super achievers.
We infer that the brothers accepted, indeed flourished, under their father’s iron tutelage. Molly brashly challenged and disrespected him at every step; yet identified with his Ayn Randish vision of a world in which the meek are crushed and the elite rewarded.
Molly rose to early prominence in breakneck downhill ski racing, until a freak accident demolished her career. She migrated to LA against her father’s wishes and without his support. She became the factotum of a repellant Hollywood wannabee mogul. She serviced, then stole his game; eventually moved to Manhattan, where she ran more games at higher stakes.