13:14, May 14, 2013
By Alec Luhn
The April indictment in New York of 34 conspirators involved in gambling and bookmaking rings reads like the screenplay for the 1998 poker flick Rounders, with high-stakes games, Russian mafia dons and thugs breaking bones to collect from losers in too deep.
The main players include a notorious Russian thief-in-law (the equivalent of an Italian mafia don), a billionaire art mogul, a J.P. Morgan banker, a Hollywood poker hostess and the Russian-born ringleader -- poker pro Vadim Trincher, who lived in Trump Tower in a $5 million apartment directly beneath that of “The Donald” himself.
“From his apartment he oversaw what must have been the world's largest sports book,” Assistant US Attorney Harris Fischman said during a hearing at which a judge ordered Trincher, facing nearly a century behind bars if convicted, held for trial without bail.
The whopping 84-page federal indictment spells out how the conspirators all fit into two related rings that operated since at least 2006 out of Kyiv, Los Angeles, Moscow and New York. The men charged were hit with heavy-duty counts of racketeering, extortion, money laundering and operating an illegal gambling business. The organizations laundered at least $100 million, the indictment said, and most of the charges are related to the transfer of money in the course of their operations.
Investigators gathered evidence including deposited and cashed checks and conversations recorded via wiretap. According to Fischman, Trincher warns a customer in one recorded conversation that he should be careful, lest he be "tortured or found underground."
The case seems to have touched the highest echelons of power: The New York Post reported that President Barack Obama's pick for ambassador to France, billionaire investor Marc Lasry, had to turn down the position over his ties to one of the defendants, Trincher’s son Illya.
The ring's illegal gambling business was old-fashioned given that much Russian-speaking organized crime has shifted to white-collar fraud in recent years, according to Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor specializing in Russian organized crime. But the structure of the organization—with Russians working alongside non-Russian-speaking Americans—and its focus on wealthy clients was novel, Galeotti said.
“What was innovative was the scale,” he said. “They focused on an upmarket audience … drew on them and made a lot of money.”
Taiwanchik Still At Large
The indictment defines two related gambling rings.
The “Taiwanchik-Trincher” organization, led primarily by Trincher, Anatoly “Tony” Golubchik and Alimzhan “Taiwanchik” Tokhtakhounov, allegedly held underground poker games for professional players, celebrities and Wall Street financiers, shaking down those reluctant to pay their losses and laundering the rake through shell companies in the US and Cyprus. Through gambling websites operating illegally in the United States, the ring also ran a high-stakes sports betting business that catered to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.
Meanwhile, the related “Nahmad-Trincher” organization, directed primarily by Hillel “Helly” Nahmad, Noah “The Oracle” Siegel and Illya Trincher, reportedly ran a similar high-stakes gambling operation in New York and Los Angeles. The operation took in tens of millions in bets on illegal websites, then laundered profits through a multitude of US bank accounts, a plumbing company in the Bronx, a real estate company and car repair shop in New York City, and a firm that sells used cars over the Internet.
At least 30 of the 34 people named in the indictment were in custody as of April, and the trial is planned to start in June, 2014. The key missing figure who has remained out of reach is the Russian thief-in-law Tokhtakhounov, an ethnic Uigur known as “Taiwanchik” for his Asian features.
Interpol has a red notice out on Tokhtakhounov, who was previously indicted for bribing ice skating judges at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Tokhtakhounov lives in Russia and has been on the Forbes list of the world's 10 Most Wanted fugitives since it was first compiled in 2008.
In a televised interview with the channel Mir 24 after the April indictment, Tokhtakhounov said the case against him was “made up,” calling it “yet another fairy tale from the Americans.”
“My name is well-known. They listed me (in the indictment) to give the situation more significance,” he said.
Tokhtakhounov did admit, however, that he knows two of the defendants and occasionally placed bets on sporting events with them starting two to three years ago.
“Of course, in conversation I might have given them advice, how to do things better,” Tokhtakhounov said. “These are my friends. It was a bookmaking company.”
According to the indictment, Taiwanchik used his influence in the criminal underworld to “resolve disputes with clients of the high-stakes gambling operation with implicit and sometimes explicit threats of violence and economic harm.”
Compensation for these services allegedly brought him $10 million from December 2011 to January 2012.
Although none of the rings' clients have been named (three former clients will likely provide evidence during the trial), one of the defendants, poker impresario Molly Bloom, was previously reported to have run exclusive games for such A-list actors and athletes as Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Alex Rodriguez – and Matt Damon, the star of Rounders. DiCaprio has been photographed with Nahmad on at least two occasions.