Gambling addiction fiction: Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction, and ‘Owning Mahowny’

Like many others around the world, last week I was genuinely shocked when I heard about the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on February 2 (2014). One of my regular blog readers emailed me a couple of days ago asking if I would be writing a blog on him because of all his well publicized past drug and alcohol addiction. As the Wikipedia entry on his personal life noted:

“In a 2006 interview, Hoffman revealed he had suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and that after graduating from college at age 22, he went to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. He said he had abused ‘anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all’. Hoffman relapsed more than 20 years later with heroin and addiction to prescription medications. He subsequently checked himself into a drug rehab for about ten days in May 2013”.

I had already decided I would do a belated tribute to Seymour Hoffman but not in relation to his chemical addictions – but in relation to his portrayal of gambling addiction in the 2003 film Owning Mahowny. Although my all-time favourite gambling film is the 1974 movie The Gambler starring James Caan (a film on which I’ve written academically – see ‘Further Reading’ below), Owning Mahowny runs a close second. One of the key strengths of Owning Mahowny was that it was based on a real person. Seymour Hoffman played ‘Dan Mahowny’ (whereas the real life person was Brian Molony).

Brian Malony worked as a Toronto-based bank clerk at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). Over a one-and-a-half year period – and to fund his gambling addiction – Molony embezzled over $10million from the bank. His story was later the subject of a best-selling book by Gary Ross (called Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony, and on which the screenplay to Owning Mahowny was based). Ross wrote his book following 4-5 hours of interviewing Molony every day for a month. Ross was asked what made Molony’s story so interesting:

I was senior editor at ‘Saturday Night’ magazine at the time the fraud was discovered, right across the street from the Bay and Richmond (Toronto) branch of the CIBC. I assumed it was some sophisticated computer scam – how else could you liberate $10.2-million from a big bank? [I] was intrigued to learn from Eddie Greenspan, Brian Molony’s lawyer, that Molony was a compulsive gambler and that the frauds had been acts of improvised desperation rather than an elegant criminal scheme…Gambling addiction can be every bit as devastating, and as hard to treat, as a drug or alcohol dependency. It’s all the more insidious for being invisible, and it’s far more widespread than most people understand. A lot of social security checks, pay checks, and even liquidated homes end up on the casino’s bottom line”.

Additionally, and according to Molony’s Wikipedia entry:

“Molony, who had developed a passion for the race-track and gambling from the age of ten years, and acted as a bookie for his school-mates, graduated from the University of Western Ontario in London with a degree in journalism. Initially planning to be a financial writer, he did so well in a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce aptitude test that he was put in their management-training program and hired right out of university. Molony spent a few weeks as a teller before working in savings, current accounts, foreign exchange and loan accounting, then ‘floating’ among some of the Bank’s huge network of some 1,600 branches, which gave him a further broad exposure to the bank’s highly regimented workings and familiarity with its systems and internal weaknesses. On a modest annual salary of about $10,000, Molony led an unassuming lifestyle in Toronto, wearing inexpensive, ill-fitting clothes and leaving carefully calculated seven per cent tips in restaurants, at the same time he was embezzling $10.2 million from CIBC to feed his gambling habit, writing loans in the names of both real and fictitious companies. Molony was then able to transfer millions of dollars out of the bank through a company called California Clearing Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Desert Palace, a Las Vegas casino. This corporation’s only purpose was to let people deposit sums of money into the casino without detection”.

After 18 months of spending his employer’s money (including $4,732,000 lost at Caesars between February 7, 1981 to April 23, 1982), Molony lost half a million dollars at the Caesars casino playing table games in Atlantic City (AC). Molony had led the life of a ‘high roller, and was being heavily ‘comped’ with free luxury hotel rooms and access to a Lear jet to fly between AC and Vegas. Molony was eventually arrested (April 27, 1982), the day after he lost the money at Caesars. Later in the year (November 1983), Molony admitted during his trial that he had embezzled all the money from CICB and served 30 months in jail. One of his activities since leaving prison has been to lecture publicly on gambling addiction. At the same time that Molony went to jail, CIBC filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Caesars’ staff members should have realized that the money Molony was gambling with was not his own. The case was eventually settled out of court with the terms of the settlement remaining private.

Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Molony was excellent and provides true insight into life as a problem gambler. Obviously there is some artistic license in the dramatization of Molony’s life but all the key elements in the film were true. The film is noteworthy because (like The Gambler) the story concerns the effects of gambling addiction on the gambler and those around him rather than the glitz and glamour of gambling in Vegas and AC. Gary Ross, author of Stung was asked whether Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal bore similarity with Brian Molony. He replied:

“Remarkably so. They have the same stocky build, bushy moustache, glasses, slightly unkempt look, and earnestness. And Philip somehow managed to assimilate the psychic essence of Molony – a yawning emptiness that nothing except gambling was able to fill…It’s remarkably faithful to what actually happened. I assumed a great many liberties would be taken in the transition from page to screen, and I’m pleased that the changes were minor and inconsequential. The pathos and grimness of what happened is there in the movie”. 

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Ross, G. (1987). Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony. London: Stoddart.

Wikipedia (2014). Brian Molony. Located at:

Wikipedia (2014). Owning Mahowny. Located at:

Wikipedia (2014). Philip Seymour Hoffman. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 12, 2014, in Addiction, Crime, Drug use, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Obsession, Popular Culture, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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