What do President Obama, the Russian mob, Tobey Maguire, hedge funds, Olympic figure skaters, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Bill Clinton, A-Rod, France, and the "London Whale" have in common? They're all connected (more or less) to a complicated web of money, politics, and illegal poker that may have cost one innocent man an ambassadorship.
The trouble started last week when about 30 people were busted in New York City and Los Angeles for running a lucrative gambling and money-laundering racket. The scheme involved high-stakes poker games that featured celebrities, poker pros, and high-powered Wall Streeters playing for hands of ten of thousands of dollars, which were then laundered through a high-end Manhattan art gallery. One of the defendants is a notorious Russian mobster named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who has been accused (among many other things) of trying to fix the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Remember the French figure skating judge and Canadian pairs who were robbed of a gold medal?) Tokhtakhounov is still on the loose and considered one of the world's most wanted fugitives.
Among the people who were arrested, however, was Molly Bloom, who was also connected to the Olympics through her brother, Jeremy—and who organized secret Hollywood poker games for celebrities like Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon. There was also Helly Nahmad, the wealthy playboy who managed his family's $3 billion art collection out of the crooked gallery—and who plays cards with DiCaprio and Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez. (His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, also represented DSK.) And there was Illya Trincher and his father Vadim, who is a professional poker player. The younger Trincher was considered one of the ringleaders of the $100 million operation and a well-connected gambler.
So what does that have to do with President Obama? Well, Illya Trincher is reportedly a close friend of Marc Lasry, a Wall Street heavy hitter who runs a $12 billion hedge fund. Lasry is also a bit of a heavy gambler and, according to The New York Post, a little too close to Trincher. He's also a major donor to the Democratic party and—if you believe Bill Clinton, who dropped the news at a fundraiser in March—Lasry was Obama's pick to be the next ambassador to France. Or at least he was until his connection to the gambling scandal forced him to drop out of the running.
To fair, the Post makes it clear that Lasry, pictured at left, is not accused of any crimes. (Gambling with other rich people in your home isn't normally illegal.) But he likes to play cards for a lot of money and seems to have a few unsavory friends. If he were to be formally appointed to the ambassadorship, Lasry would have to answer questions before the Senate—and no one in the White House is looking forward to that hearing, even if Lasry is totally innocent. So whether he was asked to, or decided on his own to step aside, Lasry let his investors know in a letter this week that he would not seek the position.
Officially, his company, Avenue Capital, said he withdrew because becoming the ambassador to France would force him to divest his interest in the company, which would be too difficult given that many of the investors have "key man" clauses in their contracts stating they will only work with him. The Post takes the less charitable view, blaming it on the cards, but still finds a way to take a shot at the President:
A source close to Clinton said, “Lasry loves playing cards. He played in a celebrity poker tournament for Clinton’s foundation.
“I can’t believe that Obama admits in a book that he snorted cocaine and yet Marc Lasry can’t be named ambassador to France because he played cards.”
Top photos (clockwise from top left): Vadim Trichner (WorldPokerTour.com); Hillel "Helly" Nahmad and Benjamin Brafman (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano); Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov (AP Photo); Eiffel Tower (Flickr/tomlane_); New York Post front cover; and Tobey Maguire (AP Photo/Laura Rauch). Inset photo: Marc Lasry (Chip East/Retuers).