Until this past spring, you couldn’t have picked a more likely prospect to be the next United States ambassador to France than Marc Lasry. The co-founder of the $12.4 billion Avenue Capital Group was supremely wealthy and well connected: He had a net worth of $1.4 billion, counted Bill Clinton as a close personal friend (Chelsea worked for him for a while), and hosted a $40,000-a-head event for Barack Obama in 2012, when much of Wall Street had abandoned him for Mitt Romney. True, Lasry would’ve had to have made some major sacrifices to get the appointment—disclose or divest certain stock holdings, maybe even sell his entire stake in Avenue to his partners—but after conquering Wall Street for decades, he was more than interested. He told the people around him he was ready to move his family overseas.
But Lasry, like other hedge-fund executives, played poker. David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital, for example, arguably the best Wall Street poker player around, won third place and $4.35 million at a World Series of Poker event in 2012, only to announce that he would give the prize away to charity. Lasry wasn’t like Einhorn. For him, the game wasn’t interesting unless there were high stakes. And so on at least three occasions in the past year or so, Lasry found his way to a suite on the twentieth floor of the Plaza Hotel. Inside was the most expensive, exclusive private poker game in New York.
The suite was never crowded—at most there were enough people for one table of players—and the table itself was custom-made with a recessed card-shuffling machine. Bottle-service girls were recruited from nightclubs to work the room. Players ate filet mignon and sushi and drank Johnnie Walker Blue. The buy-in just to get through the door was $10,000. The game was Texas Hold ’Em with no-limit pots often growing to $200,000. The “blinds,” or mandatory bets to stay in the game, started small on quiet nights but grew larger when whales like Lasry showed up.* Running a poker game for profit in New York State is merely a misdemeanor unless the proprietor charges a “rake,” or pulls a certain amount of money out of every pot. The hallmark of the Plaza game was that, while it was raked, everyone there was too wealthy to care by how much. And while the raked Plaza game was illegal, as one regular put it, “it’s perfectly legal to play. Everyone knows that.”
Sitting around the table were people Lasry had only seen at other private games like these, including a young Russian-American player named Illya Trincher, who, along with his father, Vadim, and brother Eugene, had arrived on the poker scene about a decade ago with astonishing competitive skill and a seemingly bottomless bankroll. Now and then, the Plaza even attracted a few celebrities, like Phil Ivey, the nine-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner.
Molly Bloom, another face Lasry easily recognized, made a living organizing private poker games, and was darting in and out from behind the scenes. Tan with dark hair and a blinding white smile, Bloom was an almost spectral presence at these games. Around 2009, she’d moved to New York from Los Angeles, where she had spent several years running an exclusive high-stakes game for Tobey Maguire and several of his friends—Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, A-Rod. Some players found her hard to get to know; the wealthier ones liked the way she respected boundaries. For many of the regulars at the Plaza, Bloom’s legend had preceded her. Just having her run their game was enough to make the night feel special. But more than that, Bloom, 35, brought a core competence, a sense of security that what you were doing was perfectly acceptable and legitimate.
On Tuesday, April 16, a sprawling 84-page federal indictment connected the Plaza poker game and other related floating games run from various apartments in New York City to a $100 million gambling and money-laundering operation orchestrated by the Russian mob. Illya and Vadim Trincher are featured players in the indictment; they and many more of the 34 people indicted are recognizable figures in the professional-poker world, like Noah “the Oracle” Siegel, Justin “Boosted J” Smith, World Series of Poker bracelet winner Abe Mosseri, and Eddie Ting. There is also one fairly prominent Hollywood name: Bryan Zuriff, executive producer of the new Showtime series Ray Donovan. Toward the top of the indictment is Hillel “Helly” Nahmad, the 34-year-old son of billionaire art dealer David Nahmad. The younger Nahmad stands accused of partially funding the operation through his family’s art gallery in the Carlyle Hotel. The Nahmads may be the world’s biggest art dealers; according to Forbes, their collection is worth an estimated $3 billion and includes over 300 Picassos. (In a theatrical flourish, the FBI raided the gallery, seizing computers and records.) And at the very top is the whale prosecutors might have been after most of all: a purported Russian crime boss named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, charged with “extortion conspiracy” and “money-laundering conspiracy,” amount other counts, who has been living as a fugitive in Russia for a decade.
*This article has been updated to show the correct terms of the Texas Hold ’Em games.