Straight Flush, Ben Mezrich

William Morrow, 2013, 304 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-00622400

I picked up Ben Mezrich’s Straight Flush in a somewhat desperate attempt to reboot my reading. Due to various factors, my reading regimen has dwindled to almost nothing in the past few years. With a young child at home and various things to do around the house, my free time is limited and these days I long more for the passivity of movie-watching than for the effort of reading.

So, I thought, why not go back to a known quantity? When you pick up a Ben Mezrich book, you know what to expect: A heavily fictionalized account of real events, usually involving bright young men, halfway-legal schemes and massive amount of money. Our heroes are usually stuck between organized crime and police authorities, spend a lot of time around drugs, cars and women, and see the light at the end of the ride. Mezrich writes fantasy fiction for young men obsessed with status, riches and being cleverer than everyone else. I may not always like Mezrich’s book, but I can usually read them quickly and be reasonably entertained by the result.

Straight Flush did not disappoint me in that it’s almost exactly a pure Mezrich book. It tells the story of the frat-boys who founded an online casino in Central America, raking in the money until the U.S. government got wise and decided to criminalize their operations. There’s more to it, of course: the cutthroat competition between the casino start-ups, hints of cheating scandals, what it feels like to be hunted down by the U.S. government, and the sunny Costa Rican setting. If this is familiar to you, it’s either because this story made headlines circa 2010, or you’ve seen the 2014 film Runner Runner, which tackled the same subject in an even more fictionalized fashion.

But what I didn’t expect is how I would quickly sour on the people depicted in Straight Flush, or how even I (completely ignorant of the world of online Poker) would find fault with Mezrich’s attempts to exonerate the actions of his subjects. In keeping with his other books, Mezrich’s standard tone is one of barely repressed admiration for his characters. Since they made a lot of money, aren’t they smart? Aren’t they allowed a few exceptions to the rules given how clever they are? Aren’t haters just hating when they criticize them? Except no. They lucked out, exploited a legal loophole and then got caught with their pants down when the U.S. government finally passed down the law. Mezrich may try to excuse the behaviour of his subjects, but he doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for them.

It gets much, much worse when he tackles the issue of cheating at his heroes’ online casino. Worse yet: he tries to have it both ways, first by ending a chapter on the stunning revelation that an address associated with the cheating belongs to one of the casino insiders … then picks up in the next chapter by casually explaining that it was an unauthorized access to the system (by, what, a janitor?) that was the real explanation for the cheating. Even as a know-nothing in this field, that struck me as exceptionally suspicious. Then I checked other online sources commenting on the book and got eyefuls of savage criticism (“a gigantic literary fraud!” reads the most informative of them) against the book. If you go down that rabbit hole, be warned: The book comes out shredded once some of the most virulent reviewers are done with it. (Hilariously enough, most of the harshest Amazon reviews were posted within the span of a week or two, a month after the book’s release.)

I’ll be kinder, but not by much: In the end, Straight Flush reminded me not so much of Mezrich’s strengths, but his weaknesses in trying to spin entertaining docu-fiction out of shady stories. He ends up overcompensating by convincing himself that his sources are misunderstood heroes rather than possible criminals. He gilds the truth with some much drama that everything becomes even less believable. He creates conversations that can’t happen and so obviously fudges the chronology that even a cursory Wikipedia check can prove him wrong. If you’re on the more mature side, there’s something increasingly grating about Mezrich’s bad-geeks-gone-wild shtick that is nearing its expiration date. As much as I wanted to revisit the joy of reading with this book, I ended up revisiting the joys of writing a bad review. Eh, I’ll take it.

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