In "Straight Flush," Ben Mezrich tells the true story of a billion-dollar online poker operation that made six college friends exorbitantly wealthy, only to get decimated by the long arm of the law. Here's an excerpt.
December 19, 2011
Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José , Costa Rica
Ten minutes before 5 a.m., a gray-on-gray sky was pregnant with the remnants of a passing storm, a thick canopy of clouds marred by occasional daggers of tropical blue and orange—and suddenly seven years disintegrated in a flash of reflected sunlight across the spinning glass of a revolving door.
Brent Beckley stepped through the threshold of the Central American country’s main airport and into the poorly air-conditioned terminal. A little over six feet tall, with boyish features, a square jaw, and blondish-brown hair cut short over a wide, boxy forehead, Brent was moving fast, his five-hundred-dollar Italian-leather shoes clicking against the shiny linoleum floor. He was wearing a conservative dark blue suit with matching tie; there was a briefcase in his right hand and a heavy winter coat thrown over his left shoulder. Anyone looking his way might have assumed he was just another young, eager expat businessman on his way to an important meeting up north; business-clad Americans strolling through Santamaría International were a common sight, symbolic of the expat community that had grown exponentially in the near decade since Brent had first arrived in the tropical country.
But the truth was, Brent Beckley was not on his way to a business meeting. In fact, he was quite possibly on his way to a jail cell. And the journey from where he’d started to where he was going was anything but common. He looked calm, cool,collected—shoulders back, head up—but on the inside he was terrified. He could feel the sweat running down the skin above his spine, and it required all his willpower to keep his knees from buckling, his body moving forward.
Ten feet from the blue-rope labyrinth that led through to Immigration and Security, Brent spotted a man strolling determinedly toward him and slowed his gait. At first glance, the man didn’t look like a spy: thin, angular, with narrow cheeks, a sharp triangular nose, long legs lost in the folds of khaki pants, spindly arms jutting out past the cuffs of a white button-down shirt. The man was smiling, having recognized Brent immediately, though the two had never met. Brent tried to smile back, but the fear was playing havoc with the neurons that controlled the muscles of his face.
Brent was barely thirty years old, a small-town kid from backwoods Montana, a former frat boy who’d spent most of his adult life working for what he considered to be an Internet company; he’d certainly never expected to find himself rendezvousing in a tropical airport with a smiling spy.
Then again, the man wasn’t necessarily a spy. From what Brent remembered from the letter he’d received the week before, detailing how the meeting would go down, the man’s official title wassome sort of “liaison” with the U.S. State Department, based outof the embassy in San José. And up close, even despite the sharpcontours of his face, he looked much more like a kindly accountantthan a menacing secret operative.
But if Brent had learned anything over the past seven years, it was that there were very few things in life that were actually black or white; most things tended to be a mix of both.
“Good morning, Mr. Beckley,” the man said as he intercepted Brent a few feet from the entrance to the maze of blue rope. “My name is David Foster. It’s nice to meet you.”
Brent shook the man’s hand, trying to think of a response.When none was forthcoming, Foster extended his other hand, offering two documents. The first was instantly familiar: Brent’s U.S. passport—the same passport he had turned over to the State Department three days earlier. Glancing at the document, Brent felt his mouth go dry. He could see, even without looking closely, that someone had punched three holes through the center of the cover. Each dark circle tore at the pit of Brent’s stomach. There was something so permanent and real about the sight of that passport; its mutilation seemed like such a malevolent and unnecessary act.
A week earlier, when Brent had first made the decision to turn himself in, the U.S. Embassy had requested a copy of his passport. Brent had been happy to accommodate, offering them the original document so they could copy it themselves; they had promptly confiscated it. Now he could see the result.
It seemed to be just another step in a deceptive game. Brent had already agreed to surrender, and he was in the process of moving his family to the United States—yeteven that wasn’tgood enough.
Foster appeared to read Brent’s thoughts and quickly shifted the invalidated passport to the side, revealing the second document in his hand: a thin, similar-looking passport, this one with its cover still intact. Brent took both documents from the man, inspecting the second, smaller booklet—and saw that it was dated for a single day’s use. Brent was still free to travel like any other American citizen—for the next twenty-four hours.
There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Brent finally shrugged, shoving the two passports into his suit pocket.
“What now?” he asked.
Foster’s expression turned soft, and he jerked his head toward the blue ropes behind him.
“We’ve got an hour to kill before your flight. You want to get a cup of coffee?”
It wasn’t quite what Brent had expected—but again, none of this could have been anticipated. He nodded and followed the thin man toward Immigration.
It was the fastest Brent had ever moved through the Costa Rican airport; usually, security took forever, especially for young Americans like him. In Brent’s experience, some of the native immigration officers seemed to take a special pleasure in hassling young American men traveling to and from the States.Brent assumed it had to do with the massive inequities between the two cultures; to the average Costa Rican, Americans were rich, entitled, and usually obnoxious. From what Brent had seen of the mobs of northerners who kept the local tourist economy alive—usually large groups of men who spent mornings splayed out across the pristine beaches like bleating, bloated, bleached, and beached marine animals, and evenings carousing through the legal brothels that put red-light districts around the world to shame—well,maybe the immigration officers weren’t that far off. At the moment, Brent could only marvel as he was towed through Immigration and Security at a near-Olympic pace; Foster seemed to know everyone who worked at the airport,and even more helpful, the man’s Spanish was impeccable.He spoke like a native—though from what Brent could piece together, it appeared that Costa Rica was just one stop on a colorful, government-sponsored road trip that had extended from a military academy in Virginia, through a five-year stint in Iraq,to a half dozen embassies across South and Central America.Even if Foster wasn’t a spy, he’d certainly lived like one. Yet bythe time Brent lowered himself onto a stool in a quiet corner of a dingy coffee shop—just beyond the last security checkpoint before the waiting area for Continental Airlines, the carrier that would take him out of his adopted home, possibly forever—he felt as comfortable with the man as one could possibly be, under the circumstances. Foster wasn’t a bad guy, and he wasn’t the enemy. He just worked for them.
Foster ordered for both of them, making small talk as the uniformed waitress brought them Styrofoam cups filled with tar-black coffee. The first sip put strength into Brent’s knees and warmed his throat enough to make the words come a little easier.
“This is just so crazy,” he said, the most words he’d strung together since he’d stepped into the airport. “I’m not even sure what I’m doing here.”
Foster smiled, sipping his coffee. “Getting on a plane to New Jersey.”
Brent must have given him a look, because Foster laughed.
“Kid, it really does help to keep things simple in your head. Take it one step at a time. Right now, you’re drinking a shit cup of coffee in a shit coffee shop. An hour from now, you’ll be boarding a 737 to Newark. Real simple, like that.”
Brent nodded. The guy was probably right. Keep his thoughts simple, keep focused on the moment, the little picture—because when he let his mind go after the big picture, well, things got really dark and confusing.
“It just doesn’t seem fair.”
Foster shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I don’t understand why they want you either. But that’s not my job.”
It was good to hear, but Brent couldn’t help finishing the man’s thought: Foster’s job wasn’t to understand why Brent was being prosecuted; it was to facilitate the situation. Or more bluntly, make sure Brent got on that airplane. Brent couldn’t help wondering what Foster would do if he suddenly changed his mind—just turned and headed for the airport exit. Would Foster try to stop him?
Brent immediately chided himself. He was letting his fear get to him. He’d already made the decision. The wheels were in motion.
“I’ll probably get some points for surrendering. I mean, I could just stay here in Costa Rica, right?”
He’d spoken to enough lawyers to know that technically, for the moment anyway, he was correct. One of the key points for extradition was that the crime you were accused of committing had to be illegal in both jurisdictions. As far as he—or his lawyers—could tell, what he’d done, what he was accused of doing, was legal in Costa Rica. Hell, it was legal pretty much everywhere inthe world—exceptfor the United States. And even there—well,he and his legal team still weren’t entirely clear.
“Maybe,” Foster agreed, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean,we probably couldn’t have extradited you. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get you.”
Brent looked at him. There was a glint in Foster’s eyes as the thin “liaison” leaned close, over the table.
“When we really want somebody, we work with our friends,in whatever country we happen to be. A few phone calls, a little back-and-forth, tit for tat. We get them to cancel your immigration status, and next thing you know, you’re being deported. Guess where?”
Foster was still smiling, but his thin features didn’t seem quite as amiable as before. Brent stifled a shiver.
“Put a bag over my head, hit me with a truncheon, shove me into the trunk of a car?”
Foster laughed. “Come on, kid. You’ve been in Central America too long. This is the U.S. government you’re talking about. We’re civilized.”
Brent pretended to ease back against his stool, but his muscles were tense, his nerves once again feeding rubber into his knees. When the U.S. government wanted to lock someone up,they didn’t need black bags, truncheons, and trunks of cars. They simply passed a law to make whatever their target was doing illegal.Then they punched holes in his passport.
Brent exhaled, taking a deep drink from his coffee.
“So I guess I’m doing the right thing. It’s just . . . well, this wasn’t how this was supposed to have gone down.”
Foster shrugged again. He’d heard the line before, probably many times. The thing was, in Brent’s case, it was more than a cliché. Seven years earlier, when he’d strolled through this very airport for the first time—a kid barely out of college, on his way to join four of his best friends chasing a dream that at the time seemed so real and possible—it had felt like the beginning of a grand, exotic adventure. And in many ways, those seven years had been just that—grand,exotic, exciting, and at times unbelievably profitable. Brent and his friends had built something amazing.
And then, just like that, in a flash as quick and blinding as sunlight on a glass pane, it had all come crashing down.
“Yeah,” Brent said, and sighed, crumpling his now empty Styrofoam cup in the palm of his hand, “maybe we were stupid, but none of us pictured it ending like this.”
Two hours later, Brent toyed with the recline lever of his first-class aisle seat, trying and failing to find a setting that might relieve the dull ache that had settled into his bones once the narrow-bodied Continental 737 had reached its cruising altitude. He knew his efforts were futile; his discomfort had nothing to do with the seat, or the fact that even in first class, his legs were pretzeled together. His body hurt because now that he was alone in the confines of the airplane, his mind couldn’t help whirling forward, to what was coming. And even at his most optimistic, Brent knew that it was going to be one hell of a hard landing.
He desperately wanted a drink, but alcohol would be a bad idea. His head needed to be clear. Even his seat was a source of mild anxiety—he had purchased a ticket in coach, but someone had shifted him to first class, front row, aisle. He wasn’t sure if federal agents were going to get on the plane and take him off in handcuffs or if they’d let him walk through the Jetway under his own power. Either way, the gnawing thought of what was awaiting him would make this the longest flight of his life.
As the plane began to jerk and jag through a spot of mild turbulence, Brent shut his eyes, forcing his head back against the faux-leather headrest. Eyes closed, he was not surprised to immediately picture his wife and two young sons; at that moment they were probably beginning the process of setting up residency in Salt Lake City, where he planned to eventually join them. That little family was, without question, the most treasured part of his life. They were the reason he was on that 737. The reason he’d surrendered—even though in the minds of some of his friends, surrendering was akin to giving up without a fight.
The bottom line was, Brent’s wife was Colombian, his kids Costa Rican; if he was going to have any chance of giving them a life in the United States, of having his kids become full citizens like their father—he was going to have to make a deal.
And in a way, that had made his decision easier. There had been other options—and not just staying in Costa Rica. His older brother—stepbrother, technically, whom Brent idolized and respected more than anyone else on earth—had gone a very different route. Scott didn’t like to use the word fugitive because,in truth, he wasn’t running, nor was he exactly hiding—the U.S. government just couldn’t get him as long as he stayed within the borders of the tiny Caribbean island he now called home. But for Brent, returning to the States had always been the endgame; the government’s offer to assist in his family’s relocation had tipped the scales, and despite the anxiety Brent felt about his own future,at least for his family, he was pretty sure he was doing the right thing.
For the moment, he did his best to cling to that minor solace. He had to believe that whatever they did to him, he had made the best decision for his family. He kept his eyes closed, that thought firmly in place, until the plane finally began its descent into Newark.
It wasn’t until he heard the quiet rumble of the Jetway moving into place that he finally opened his eyes. He watched the flight attendant going to work on the door; a few clicks and a grunt later, the attendant stepped back, revealing the orange-lit tunnel stretching forward into the depths of Newark International Airport.
Brent gave it a full thirty seconds before he decided it was okay for him to be just another passenger, at least for a little while longer. He retrieved his briefcase and overcoat, then headed for the Jetway.
It wasn’t until he’d reached the end of the long, angled tunnel that he saw the immigration officers. He quickly counted six of them, all in uniform—and every one armed. Nobody had a gun drawn, but even so, the sight of those leather holsters, pitched high on each officer’s hip—it was enough to take Brent’s breath away. He did his best not to stumble as he made it the last few steps to the end of the Jetway.
The closest officer held up a hand, palm out.
“Are you Brent Beckley?”
Brent nodded. The man turned his hand over.
Brent fumbled with his coat for a second, then retrieved the single-day passport and gave it to the officer. The officer check edit, showed it to one of his colleagues, and then all six moved forward, taking positions around Brent. The lead officer gestured with his head—and suddenly they were moving forward through the terminal in what appeared to be a diamond formation, with Brent right in the middle.
Christ. It was the most absurd feeling. The officers were walking fast, and Brent was nearly skipping to keep up. People stared as they went past—pointing, whispering, a few even snapping cell phone pictures.
The mobile diamond advanced unimpeded through Customs and out into the main baggage claim area. On the other side of baggage claim, the officers finally broke formation, and Brent was handed off to two middle-aged men in white shirts and dark ties. One of the men showed Brent an FBI badge, the other a badge marked homeland security. The officers were exceedingly polite, but by this point Brent’s heart was pounding so hard, he could barely understand what they were saying. They walked him out of the baggage area toward the terminal exit.
Frigid air splashed against Brent’s cheeks as they stepped outside onto the sidewalk, shaking some of the fog out from behind his eyes. He immediately saw a vaguely familiar face, a woman in a dark suit hurrying toward him from the curb, a forced smile on her lips. Brent recognized her as one of the low-level associates from the law firm he’d hired to handle his criminal proceedings. While Brent stood between the officers, she retrieved his briefcase and overcoat. Then the FBI agent pointed at his watch.
“Better take that too. And his belt, and cuff links.”
Brent swallowed, then slowly went to work on the watch. He suddenly noticed that his fingers were shaking, and it took a good minute to get from the watch to the cuff links. His belt was a little easier, though his pants felt strange without it; luckily, he’d put on an extra pound or two in the anxiety-filled weeks leading up to his surrender.
After he handed over the items, the FBI agent reached into his back pocket. Out came the handcuffs, like a fist to Brent’s gut. When the cold metal touched his wrists, then closed—tight, too damn tight—Brent fought the urge to break down. It all seemed so goddamn unfair.
But instead of complaining, Brent didn’t say a word. He let the officers lead him to a waiting black sedan. The Homeland Security officer got behind the wheel; the FBI agent slid into the back next to Brent. A moment later they were off, tires rolling against pavement, winding their way out of the airport and onto the Jersey Turnpike.
Brent tried to find a comfortable position, but the tight handcuffs made it nearly impossible. Instead, he tried to concentrate on the sound of his own breathing. His chest felt constricted, his mouth dry as cotton. He felt himself losing all sense of time as the gray turnpike flickered by outside the tinted window to his left. Was it still morning? Afternoon? How long had they been driving? Were they in New York, or still in New Jersey?
Eventually the silence began to get to him, and he quietly cleared his throat.
“So, are you guys just here to process me today? Or have you been working on my case for a while?”
The agents shared a look in the rear view mirror. Then the FBI agent grinned.
“We’ve been onto you for a long, long time, Mr. Beckley.”
Brent forced a smile of his own.
“Well then, I guess it’s nice to finally meet you.”
As he turned back toward the window, the sight of something in the distance made him blink. Tall, rising out of a faraway mist, reaching toward the sky: the Statue of Liberty. Brent was seeing it for the first time. Handcuffed, sitting next to an FBI agent. He felt the haze of unreality coming back. Once again, he lost all sense of time.
The next hour went by in flashes. An FBI processing center, somewhere in midtown Manhattan—they’d driven in through a gated basement entrance, then gone up in an armored elevator to a cubicle-filled office full of printers, copy machines, and many more agents in white shirts and dark ties. Fingerprinted, photographed, then back into the elevator, returned to the sedan—and on to another faceless building, another gated basement entrance. At that point, the two officers handed him over to a pair of U.S. marshals, who took him into a similar elevator. The marshals were decidedly less polite than the two previous agents; they were large, burly men, with crew cuts and matching cruel grins. When one of them noticed Brent’s expensive shoes, he pointed a thick finger at the silver clasps.
“I’m gonna need to rip these off,” he said. And a second later the marshal was on his knees, yanking at the clasps with his meaty paws. After a few minutes of grunting and groaning—while Brent did his best to keep from toppling over—he eventually gave up.
Then they were in another processing center—more fingerprints, more photographs. Brent was handed off to different officers and eventually led via a tunnel to another building. Finally, nearly eight hours after he’d taken off from Costa Rica, he arrived in a jail cell.
Barely larger than ten by ten, it had a low ceiling, white walls, a pair of steel benches suspended beneath a tiny barred window. There was a scruffy-looking man sleeping on one of the benches; as the barred door slammed shut behind Brent, the man momentarily looked up before going right back to sleep. Brent moved a few feet into the cell, then just stood there, staring at the walls, the window, the bars. Everywhere he looked, he saw rivets, some of them rusted, some of them shiny. Rivets, thousands of rivets, running up the corners of the walls, around the window, along the door. So many goddamn rivets.
Brent felt his shoulders begin to sag.
He truly hoped that he was doing the right thing. Because it was suddenly very obvious: he wasn’t getting out of that cell until somebody came and let him out. It was maybe two in the afternoon; he had a whole day ahead of him. He was barely thirty years old; he had a whole life ahead of him.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
It wasn’t supposed to have ended at all.
In the beginning, it had been something so special, so wild and cool—and simple. A group of best friends and two brothers, who had set out to do something different.
None of them could have ever imagined how quickly something so simple could become something huge—or how equally quickly it could all come crashing down. They had risen so far—Christ,at one point, they had been days away from being billionaires.
Now Brent was counting rivets in a prison cell, his brother had sequestered himself on an island the size of a Minnesota shopping mall, and the others had scattered all over the world, facing futures as uncertain as his own.
No, Brent thought to himself as he once again shut his eyes, picturing his wife and his two little boys.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go down at all . . .
Reprinted from STRAIGHTFLUSH by BenMezrich by arrangement with WilliamMorrow, animprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, Copyright (c) 2013 by Ben Mezrich