In the PokerStories podcast (link below), Houston talked about his relationship with Tobey Maguire, assessed the activities of Molly Bloom and ranked Hollywood celebrities by poker skill.
Getting to know poker
I fell in love with the game as a child. When I was 5 years old, my father used to play with his friends, and I was always watching them play. He wasn’t at home much, but when he was, I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. I would climb on his lap and watch him play hands for hours. Sometimes he’d leave to talk on the phone and leave me to finish the hand, haha. This was back in the 70s when they played 5-Card Draw or Stud. I even managed to win a big pot once when he wasn't there. After the games, as friends were leaving, my father showed me card tricks, and I was blown away. I had two passions at the same time – poker and magic tricks.
I had a romanticised idea of the game, I imagined myself as Wild Bill Hickok. I found out that there is a book called "Expert at the Card Table", which was written in 1902, and I really wanted to get it. But there was no Amazon at that time, and I only managed to get it when I turned 11. This book was considered the "Bible" among card magicians, because it describes the secrets of all known tricks. The author was a well-known gambler at that time, although at that time the term "gambler" didn’t even exist then. All players were called professional hustlers, and those words were synonymous.
When poker stopped being just a hobby
I started playing seriously only in the early 90s, when I moved to Los Angeles. When we were kids, we used to play on Sundays in the basement of a church or at someone's house. But our town was very small, there were no casinos nearby. I dreamed of being in a real poker room, but I didn't know what was waiting for me there. I didn't even know that a single person was dealing out the cards – a dealer, I thought that it was always done by players in turn. Although it was like that until the 80s. I had experience playing Stud, 5-Card Draw and other varieties, I played almost everything except Limit Hold'em. In the early 90s, it was already gaining popularity, but it hadn’t yet reached its peak. I really wanted to learn how to play it, and I found a small stakes game in Hollywood Park. I’ll never forget the stench at the cheap tables of that casino, the air was saturated with urine, homeless people and swindlers.
I quickly moved through $2/$4 and $3/$6, but then I stayed at $6/$12 for a whole year. During the game, I was constantly looking into another room, where there was usually one $10/$20 table and two or three $15/$30 tables. They also played Omaha and another mysterious game in the farthest corner. I didn't understand what was going on there at all. I remember that in my first session of $10/$20, In 20 minutes I lost everything that I’d won from several days at $3/$6. But I gradually gained a foothold at $15/$30 and after one really good session I was walking over to the cashier and I was called over from the far table and invited to play Pot Limit. No-Limit games didn’t exist then in principle. They were playing $5/$5, and I think it was that game that made me a good player, if I can call myself that at all. I played there for years, gradually I started getting invited to Hollywood games, some of which I even dealt myself.
Meeting Tobey Maguire
One day I went into Commerce and headed straight for the room with the big games. I hadn't even managed to get to the front desk when one of the managers saw me and almost forced me into a seat next to Toby. We played all night, we had a lot of mutual friends. He was destroying the table, but I was most struck by the behaviour of other players who happened to sit next to him, being the star that he was. By that time, I’d already achieved my own success of in Hollywood and had met a lot of celebrities, so we chatted quietly. I told him about the game, which was a home game run by a lawyer from Texas. He made millions in class action lawsuits, then invested in shares of an IT company that just took off, and had moved to Hollywood to enjoy life. A week later Toby showed up at his house, we played together a few times, and he invited me to his game. I almost immediately started staying late at his house, we discussed the game, how to make it bigger, who to invite... We had similar views on a lot of issues, we thought out an unofficial business plan together and began to follow it. And our game began to develop rapidly.
About Molly Bloom
She had nothing to do with the organisation of the game, and that's a fact. There’s even more fiction in the movie "Molly’s Game" than in her book. Toby and I got the game going long before she appeared. The problem was that the game was being played at his house, and more and more money was being played in it. We began to fear for the safety of the players. Toby didn't want a robbery happening anywhere near his mansion. But that wasn't even the main reason. Toby is a clean freak and couldn’t stand watching the guys eat pizza at his table. The last straw was when Kevin Washington– the son of a billionaire – started spitting Tabasco sauce into one of Toby's cups. That evening he told me that he wasn’t going to tolerate these dregs of society in his house anymore.
We called Darren Feinstein, the owner of the Viper Room nightclub, he’d bought it from Johnny Depp. In the film, his name is Dean, and my name is Harlan Huistis, and according to the script, I had nothing to do with the origins of the game at all. But when Molly testified to the FBI, for some reason my name was at the top of the list. It was Darren who brought her into the game. He told us that he had a pretty assistant who could serve the drinks. And Molly turned out to be a diligent student. I don't mean in playing poker, she's never been interested in that. But she perfectly remembered the drinks preferences of the guests and took contact details from everyone. Then she and Darren had a fight, and she complained about him to one of the players she was dating at the time. The film emphasises that she has never had a relationship with any of the players, I’ll try not to comment on that, but let’s say it amused me a lot. In short, they came up to us, said that Darren was trying to take the game away, and threatened to hold it elsewhere the next day. Toby saw this as an opportunity to make the game even bigger, but I was against it. As far as I was concerned everything was fine in the Viper Room. At the very beginning we were playing $100/$200, and the buy-in was only $5,000. The game was very accessible. Many dreamed of playing at the same table with Toby or Leo, and for that experience, at that low a price $5,000 was pretty insignificant to them. Some players were already managing to rebuy twice within the first round. We didn't invite people in off the street and understood that no one would leave after losing $5k in 5 minutes. This scheme seemed perfect to me, but Toby decided that everything would work the same way for bigger money. We raised the blinds to $200/$400 and the buy-in to $50k.
Molly's tasks included calling players, booking hotels, and so on. For the whole existence of the game, the players were always handled by Toby. And he discussed all serious issues with me. So she basically had a secretarial role. There was never a rake in our game, but there was a mandatory tip. Like it had been back in Toby's house, when his ex-wife Jen Meyer was dealing out the cards. Toby was blunt about it: "If you want to be invited back, leave a tip for Jen." When the game moved to Darren’s place, he repeated these words, but this time in relation to Molly.
We had very wealthy and interesting people playing. The director of "Joker" Todd Phillips, also played with us, and Larry Khan was the founder of an empire for the production of fake cologne. He’d earned around $300-400 million from that. We called him "Old Spice" as he was an old guy in the perfume business.
I remember a hand where Larry rivered Chuck Pacheco and won a pot for about $25k. Chuck started whining, "I just sat down, I can't believe I've lost so much, it's so sick." Larry said "yes, it turned out ugly" and threw Chuck $25k.
It’s no surprise that such guys left generous tips. They could lose a 6-digit sum for the evening and still generously thank the organisers. Sometimes Molly got $30k a night. I didn't pay attention to it because I was winning impressive sums and was just happy that I had the opportunity to play. But Toby thought Molly was taking some of his profits. The stories about the big game hardly mention the dealer Manny, but he was also an important part of it. For a long time, Manny and Molly shared tips equally. But then she began to take more and more for herself, and threatened him that she would find a replacement. By that time, Manny had already bought three houses that needed to be maintained, and he didn't want to rock the boat, so he didn't tell Toby and me anything.
In the film and the book, Toby is shown as a monster who eventually took the game away from Molly and forced her to move to New York. But in reality it was different. Sometimes a guy from New York named Cliff came to us. He said that at home he also played with these loaded guys from Wall Street, but that the organisation of that game wasn’t even close to ours. And one day Toby advised him to hire Molly to fix everything. That is, Toby not only made her rich in Los Angeles, but also presented her with another equally generous opportunity on a platter. In New York, she got involved with the wrong people and everything went wrong, but what does Toby have to do with it? She slandered him, and he’ll never admit it, but it affected his cinematic career.
Winning the big game
Toby was winning an average of one million a month for three years, that is, he has earned about $36 million in poker over that whole period. I won about $15 million. I was always investing my money in businesses and Toby had a separate account only for poker winnings.
Other famous players
Rick Salomon called me when he read the book and said that he really liked it and they were planning to make a movie based on it. I’d written some quite frank things about him, but he respected that approach. I’ve always treated him with great respect. No matter how much he lost, you could be 100% sure that the next day you’d have the full amount.
Professionals periodically tried to get into the Viper Room. Lane Flack came in one day with a bag of money, but he didn't even have time to say hello to us. The doorman told us that Lane wanted to join, and we immediately told him that he wasn’t to be allowed in. We tried to avoid the pros, but we sometimes made exceptions. Phil Ivey played one session with us and won $300k. He sat to my right and opened the whole night with one bet-sizing. I finally got pocket jacks. He made a standard open, I re-raised, he came back over the top, and we ended up all-in. He had aces.
Phil Hellmuth also won a lot once. I know that professionals laugh at his skill in cash games, but put him at the table with amateurs, and he won't leave them a single chip. They don’t say that no one else plays better against weak players for nothing. But those were exceptions, we understood that they were taking money out of our pockets.
Of all the participants in our games, I rate Toby the highest – 10 out of 10. Ben Affleck also played well, I'll give him an 8. Pete Sampras was an average player – 5.
Leo DiCaprio is difficult to evaluate, because I have never seen him play anything other than aces and kings.
Matt Damon is one of the weakest, I'll give him no more than a 2. But it's hard to put into words how nice he is.
As for David Schwimmer – playing with him was a total anticlimax. In any home game there’s always a guy who turns out to be really annoying. He behaved exactly as you would expect if he really were Ross from Friends. Thinking about every move for ages and stuff like that. It's fun to watch on TV, but when you’re around someone like that it quickly gets boring.
Todd Phillips is a good player. We met him back in Hollywood Park.
Hank Azaria took poker seriously and even organised his own game at home. Not Affleck's level, but he always behaved with dignity at the table.
Don Cheadle – we met him only once at Hugh Hefner's mansion, for some kind of charity tournament. We both made it to the final table, and Don won it. But that was my only experience of playing with him, he never came to our private game.