"Molly's Game" subject Molly Bloom, 39, still knows how to present in L.A., with her immaculately white Louis Vuitton sneakers and brown tresses blown out despite spending the previous night retching during a bout of food poisoning. But being at the Beverly Hills Hotel — which "smells like people owing me money," no less — brought up a slew of conflicting feelings for the onetime host of high-stakes poker games filled with high-profile players.
She first moved here from Colorado in 2001, fresh out of college. She wanted to take a year off before heading to law school, and after a decade of skiing professionally she was tired of being cold. She wasn't coming to Hollywood to make it; she just wanted some sun.
Her parents — especially her strict father, a professor at Colorado State University — weren't thrilled with the idea and cut her off financially. So Bloom slept on a friend's couch and started cocktail waitressing. One night, while serving overpriced vodka, she met a real estate investor who needed an assistant. She got the gig, part of which included helping him organize weekly celebrity poker games at the Viper Room.
Bloom didn't know anything about poker. She arrived at the first game with a cheese plate and a mix CD filled with songs she'd chosen after googling "what kind of music do poker players like to listen to?" But when she looked around the table, her mind began to race.
"It just occurred to me instantly: This is a massive opportunity to build a network," Bloom recalled.
She was good at running the poker games. So good, in fact, that she convinced the guys from the Viper Room to come play elsewhere with her.
Instead of a grimy basement, Bloom set up tables in luxurious hotel suites at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Peninsula and the Four Seasons. She ordered Mr. Chow's and had beautiful women on hand to offer massages. If a game lasted for three days, she would stay up for three days.
In 2009 she moved her operation to New York — and that's where the trouble began. 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. (The most money she ever made in one year was $4 million, she said.)
But in New York, she started extending more and more credit to the players.
After being stiffed $250,000, Bloom decided to start taking a rake — a percentage of the pot, which is illegal. She was in the midst of a downward spiral, taking pills to stay up, drinking alcohol to take the edge off the pills and then popping Xanax to come down from it all.
In 2011 the FBI got wind of the scheme and raided one of her games. The government seized all of her money. She was broke, and the IRS was after her to pay taxes on the additional income she'd made.
After drying out at rehab, she moved in with her mother in Colorado and decided writing a book could help pay her debts. 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 names that had been unveiled in court documents related to a Ponzi scheme run by one of her former players, Bradley Ruderman. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were among them.) Harper Collins paid her $45,000 for the book, she said.
She finished her first draft and moved back to L.A. in 2013, but just 10 days after settling 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.
In May 2014 she got a break: A Manhattan federal judge ruled she had ultimately been a minor player in the illegal gambling ring and sentenced her to one year of probation, fined her $1,000 and said she would have to perform 200 hours of community service.
Her book was published a month later, and she quickly started pitching it as a movie adaptation. Although she met with a few potential screenwriters, she was intent on getting a meeting with one guy: Aaron Sorkin. "I was a huge fan of his work and think he writes with a lot of humanity."
Bloom hired the first person who said he had ties to Sorkin — an entertainment attorney — and a meeting was set.
"I said I'd meet with her as a courtesy to him," said Sorkin, who also directed "Molly's Game." "The book is a great ride, but I really wasn't thinking this was in my wheelhouse. But when I met Molly, everything changed."
He said, "To say she was down on her luck is an understatement. Things were looking very bleak for her when we met, and yet she was poised and confident. There was an inner strength built out of integrity: Far from cashing in on her decade-long brush with celebrity, she was refusing to dish on anyone. This wasn't the female 'Wolf of Wall Street.' What I saw was an honest-to-God movie heroine found in a very unlikely place."
Even though Sorkin knew he was in, he kept Bloom on the hook for two months, e-mailing her 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?
Although 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 production to work with Sorkin.
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 joined a 12-step program and now meditates regularly. And next year she's planning on launching her own company, Full Bloom, which will oversee co-working, membership-only spaces for women.