My name is Houston Curtis, and as a reader of Card Player magazine since the early 90’s, I was honored to be asked to become a contributor to this fine publication. Each column, I will share experiences from my life and times playing high-stakes poker in Hollywood both before, during, and after the poker boom of the early 2000’s.
Many of the outrageous moments I’ll be sharing are the true accounts of stories that were most recently piecemeal together for Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, Bill Camp as myself (with my name changed to Harland Eustice) and Michael Cera as “Player X” who was based on my old pal Tobey Maguire.
I will be revealing the 100 percent accurate versions of these incredible stories, many of which have been culled directly from my book, Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, which at the time of this writing, is an Amazon no. 1 Top New Seller.
Many people in the poker world scratched their heads while watching Molly Bloom’s story play out on the big screen. Why? Because anyone from the high-stakes poker scene who was even six degrees removed from our game knew that it was masterminded primarily by the guy Sorkin referred to as “Player X.” And anyone less than three degrees removed probably knew that I was intimately involved from its inception.
Furthermore, anyone two degrees removed, knew for a fact that Molly was planted by us to be the face of the game, but had no authority or decision-making privileges whatsoever. Her memoir, however, spun quite a different tale.
Right after journalist Dylan Howard’s book, the original story about our now infamous Hollywood Poker ring, I was offered a lot of money to write a tell-all book about the game. I chose to stay silent. (I guess I wasn’t broke enough at that point to do a money grab) However, after seeing how friends of mine were portrayed, and how facts were changed in the film, I finally decided to share the real story for those who care to read about it.
I took a page from Hangover director and poker buddy Todd Phillips’ playbook and told my publishing partners to keep the advance in exchange for a true back end and the ability to hold on to all ancillary rights to my story. In every column, I will be expanding on tales from my book and sharing stories that I’m willing to bet will be enjoyed by anyone who loves the game.
But that’s not all I will be sharing with you. For nearly 30 years, I lived a secret double life that makes me uniquely experienced in how a poker game in the modern era can still easily be cheated. This is information that could save you lots of money in your private games.
By profession, my day-to-day career has been that of a television producer for most of my life. But at night, I supplemented my income as a highly-skilled card mechanic who primarily targeted LA-area games filled with scumbags, wannabe gangsters, and would-be hustlers. I never expected my skills with a deck of playing cards or my love of gambling to take me all the way to a place at Hollywood’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game… or to see me concoct a high-stakes fishing expedition with Tobey Maguire to hook some of the richest and most famous fish in the ocean (a story for another day).
You see, for as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a card sharp. That’s sharp with a “p.” A card shark is someone who is good at playing cards… but a card sharp, or card mechanic is someone who can control the outcome of a card game using deceptive methods.
And I was a natural. I hustled my first hand of poker at age 10, and was bottom dealing, riffle stacking, and performing overhand run ups before I was 15. I could clean out anyone I knew by the age of 18, when I left the innocence of the Midwest for Los Angeles to make my fortune in the entertainment business.
It was a hell of a plan, and a hell of a ride. I saw things and did things most people could only dream about. There were A-list movie stars, sporting idols, billionaires, gangsters, drink, drugs, Playboy playmates and thousand-dollar-a-night hookers… and millions in cash won and lost every week. And when it all came crashing down, I crashed hardest.
So, get ready for a roller coaster thrill ride of poker debauchery each month as I not only bring you some of the most star-studded true poker stories ever told, but as I show you firsthand how so-called games of chance can be manipulated at the highest level. I will teach you how to spot card manipulation, team play, and all sorts of injustices that are commonly and often imperceptibly executed at the card table right before your very eyes. It’s gonna be a fun column. I guarantee it!
But to further introduce myself I would like to share words from the prologue of my new book, which sets up the environment I was living in. Let’s enter a world of fame, wealth and excess as I describe what became a typical Tuesday or Thursday night for me starting back in 2005.
Prologue from Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist.
They call it the “Pink Palace.” For a hundred years the Beverly Hills Hotel – a discrete oasis of pure opulence off Sunset Boulevard – has played host to the cream of Hollywood and some of the richest, most famous and most powerful men and women in the history of America, including luminaries such as the Rat Pack, Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich. Fred Astaire read Daily Variety poolside, John Lennon and Yoko Ono hid out in one of the hotel’s 23 bungalows for a week, and Richard Nixon’s chief of staff learned about Watergate while eating breakfast in the famed Polo Lounge. Paramount Pictures was sold over drinks to Gulf & Western at its tables. Clark Gable was talked into acting in The Misfits by Arthur Miller over a tropical cocktail.
If the walls of this kings castle could speak, they would whisper of a century of easy money, sex, scandal and excess. But it’s rarely seen a night like this.
We are in a luxurious bungalow at the hotel, cloistered away from the other guests, wrapped in our own private world. And whatever we want, we’re getting.
There’s a private butler on standby and beautiful girls from the Ford modeling agency are giving shoulder massages for thousand-dollar tips. Nobody could agree on dinner so we had our hostess order in food from Los Angeles most exclusive eateries Spago, Mastro’s, and of course, the Polo Lounge.
Leonardo DiCaprio is chilling on the couch watching a ball game and chatting up one of the models, while at a specially set-up table in the lounge Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, real estate mogul Bob Safi, Cirque du Soleil-creator Guy Laliberte, technology billionaire Alec Gores, World Series of Poker champion Jamie Gold, Hangover director Todd Phillips, Notebook director Nick Cassavetes and myself are playing super high-stakes no-limit Texas hold’em poker.
Overseeing things is Molly Bloom, a smart, beautiful, ambitious 27-year-old who would go on to write about nights like these in her lackluster book Molly’s Game, later, miraculously made into the Academy Award-nominated movie from veteran writer and first-time director Aaron Sorkin. But she didn’t tell the whole story. She didn’t tell half the story. Hell, she barely even knew the real story.
More on Molly later. Right now, the blinds have been raised to $500-$1,000 and everyone is rolling deep. There are bottles of Dom Perignon and Cristal open and when they haven’t been attending to the needs of the players, the girls have been in and out of the bathroom to powder their noses all night long.
I’m totally focused on the game, however. In my left hand is the only thing I ever drink at the table, a super-cold diet raspberry Snapple iced tea. My right hand is covering my cards. If I win this next pot, I’ll be up $500,000 for the night. Everyone but Jamie and I have folded and he’s just gone all-in. I watch as he pushes every chip he’s got into the center of the table.
Todd whistles softly and one of the girls gives a little gasp – whether in shock or excitement, I don’t know. The rest of the room goes quiet. Even Leo turns his attention away from the model who is sitting on his lap and leans forward. I don’t take my eyes off Jamie but next to me I can sense Tobey grinning like a schoolboy.
It is, as they say, a moment. Half a million on the turn of a card. Has life ever felt any better than this?
I call the bet. I had been picking off Jamie’s bluffs all night long but now he was tired of it. He yells, “I’ve got it this time, Houston!” and turns over two kings. Tobey almost did a spit take.
Yes, Jamie finally had a hand, but so did I. I snap called and turned over pocket aces. We ran the entire board three times and I scooped it all, winning nearly $500,000 for the night.
I gave Tobey a ride home after the game and I remember him saying with a devilish grin on his face, ‘If we keep this up we’ll eventually take this game for over a billion dollars!’ I replied saying, ‘Yeah…one day they’ll call it The Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist.’ We both laughed as my Mercedes CL 65AMG sped down Sunset Blvd.
If you think you know this story because you’ve read Molly’s book, or seen director Aaron Sorkin’s movie, think again. This is the real tale behind the richest, most outrageous and star-studded high-stakes poker sting in Hollywood History!
So there is my introduction. I hope your interest is piqued and look forward to taking you on a roller coaster thrill ride into the world of Tinseltown high-stakes poker and beyond in this column.
In the next column, I’m going to share a great story about the first time Ben Affleck showed up to play poker at Hollywood Park with myself, Amir Vahidi, Gabe Thaler, Antonio Esfandiari, and Huck Seed! Did Ben win? Did he go broke? And which of the aforementioned pros gave him one of the biggest poker lessons of his life that night? Find out next month!
Plus… I will also be revealing a classic card hustle that can empty your pockets faster than a gold digger in the men’s room at a retirement home! Learn what the hustle is, how the sharp’s do it, and how to avoid having it done to you.
Until then, good luck creating your own memorable stories at the tables and remember: Stay sharp… stay KardSharp!
Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His cred-its include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.
Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.
Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to stacked@Kardsharp.com.
*All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.
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