Five seconds of looped video were all it took to make Dan Bilzerian an icon.
The clip, lifted from the live TV coverage of the 2013 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, shows a player sitting at a felt table, betting on a hand, with $7 million in the pot. Or at least that's what you think it shows the first time you watch it. But then the clip repeats, and repeats... until, finally, you notice the intensely staring, Tom Cruise-ish figure in the top-left corner of the screen. He's sitting in the spectators' gallery, bathed in blue mood-lighting, watching the game. More to the point, there's a young woman draped over him - black dress, long hair, adoring eyes - who appears to be employed for the sole task of, well... stroking his beard.
Thus the internet - and the world - was introduced to the strange and unsettling phenomenon of Dan "Blitz" Bilzerian, the 34-year-old son of an exiled Eighties corporate raider, and a kind of Bruce Wayne-meets-Hugh Hefner for the social-media age.
Before the beard-stroking video went viral, few had heard of Bilzerian outside the sweaty male sub-culture of high-stakes poker or the core group of fans who kept track of him online.
One year later, however, and Bilzerian - a 5ft 7in, barrel-chested former US Navy Seal trainee and self-described "venture capitalist" who splits his time between Los Angeles and Vegas - is one of the biggest stars on the internet, and a man through whom millions now vicariously live out their fantasies in real time.
Crowned the King of Instagram by his followers (he has over 6 million of them, and adds another 20,000 or so a day) his feed documents a lifestyle so outrageous and seemingly free of moral, financial or legal constraints, it's as though he inhabits a Jason Statham movie, or a Hunter S Thompson novel - only with faster cars, less inhibited females, and more advanced weaponry.
He gets his hair cut by bare-breasted women in bow ties. He buys a new pick-up truck so he can carry around his 20mm anti-tank gun. He makes eight-digit bets on poker games. And he takes mobile phone portraits of himself next to his customised Gulfstream IV jet, which has his personal trademark - a headshot of his pet goat, Zeus - painted on the tail. He is the ultimate antidote, in other words, to adorably posed selfies of Justin Bieber and other sappy, endorsement-soliciting celebrities.
Indeed, when Bilzerian isn't naked in his photos - he has skinny, hairy legs, a bone-deep tan, and a laser-treated chest that resembles a ribbed condom filled with rocks - he is typically dressed in a pseudo-military get-up of dark T-shirt, boots and cargo pants. His captions, meanwhile, are pithy enough to command a million-strong Twitter fanbase of their own. "Parking has proven to be less of an issue than previously anticipated," he wrote recently, linking to an image of his six-wheeled, $625,000 Brabus G63 AMG, its rear tyres mounted on the stairway of what appeared to be someone's LA home.
In another tweet, he mused: "My greatest fear is that someone will break in and I won't be able to decide what gun to shoot them with." Attached was an image of his dining room table, covered with several assault rifles, pistols and magazines.
But as new facts about Bilzerian emerge, a more confusing picture of this bearded internet outlaw is beginning to form.
A Wall Street Journal investigation has revealed that his father, Paul Bilzerian - who now resides on St Kitts in the West Indies - is a convicted fraudster who has paid only $3.7m (£2.3m) of a two-decade old $62m (£39m) judgement against him. Naturally, questions have been raised over how much, if any, of Bilzerian's money comes from his father. (Bilzerian declined through his representatives to talk to GQ.) Meanwhile, a porn star has said that she may sue Bilzerian for breaking her foot when he threw her off the roof of his house into his pool - a stunt organised by Hustler magazine that almost killed them both. (The actress, naked at the time, panicked at the last second and grabbed on to the Instagram star's T-shirt. Her lawyer's threat drew a response from Bilzerian that read, "Like your client, the facts of the claim won't, quite, fly.")
In December last year, Bilzerian's behaviour hit headlines again, when footage emerged allegedly showing him kicking a woman in the face while out celebrating his birthday at LIV Nightclub in Miami. The woman, who is reportedly taking legal action, said she was left "bleeding from her eye". Bilzerian denied the allegations and said he was merely protecting another woman he was with at the time.
And then, of course, there have been Bilzerian's health problems, which have included two heart attacks at the age of 25 - he was supposedly treated by Michael Jackson's former doctor, Conrad Murray - and a more recent pulmonary embolism, caused by an overly ambitious schedule of poker, booze and sex between Las Vegas and Hawaii.
"Going for a run," tweeted Bilzerian after checking himself out of hospital early. "I'll bet a million dollars I don't die. Any takers?"
If anything is going to kill Dan Bilzerian, however, those who've spent time with him say that it almost certainly won't be a blocked artery. "There are guns lying around casually in literally every room in his house," as Jonathan Grotenstein, a poker player and senior All In magazine contributor, tells GQ. "Before you walk in, his security guard takes you aside and warns you not to touch them, because they're all chambered and loaded. You look at the guns, and you look at all these women coming and going... and it's hard not to wonder how it's all going to end."
The details of Dan Bilzerian's early life read more like a Marvel Comics origins story than the biography of a real human being.
He grew up in Tampa, Florida, in an eleven-bedroom mansion that was half the size of Buckingham Palace, with its own indoor basketball court, batting cage, lake-front views, swimming pool, water slide, and an "imported volcanic rock mountain". His dad, descended from survivors of the Armenian diaspora, owned a robotics company, among other investments. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone in his family, including Dan, his mum, Terri, and his little brother, Adam, has a near-genius-level IQ.
Bilzerian, however, had a lonely and often stressful childhood.
His dad, an elaborately mustachioed and sideburned former juvenile delinquent who'd fought in Vietnam and been a disruptive presence at Harvard Business School, was absent much of the time, working on exotic deals. And when the old man was around, his stubborn, take-no-prisoners attitude tended to make life difficult - such as when he sued his son's Little League baseball team for slander in an argument over a $5,000 donation, only for the case later to be dismissed.
"Basically I didn't get a ton of attention as a kid," Bilzerian has admitted, "I guess that's why I'm such a flashy lunatic."
When Bilzerian Sr did finally spend some time with his son, it was to drive him to school one day just after he'd turned ten years old.
As the car pulled up to the gates, however, the young Bilzerian realised something was wrong. That's when his dad broke the news: he was going to prison. In a case beyond a primary schooler's understanding, Bilzerian Sr had been found guilty on nine counts of stock and tax fraud, mostly related to a classic pump-and-dump operation that involved "parking" investments in public companies, staging hostile takeover bids, then offloading the investments as the share prices rocketed. The judge in the case said that the "lure of money" had caused Bilzerian Sr "to lose... proper perspective".
With his dad behind bars, Bilzerian faced ridicule from his classmates, and he began to show his own contempt for authority, getting expelled from two schools in one year, and ending up in a military academy under the care of drill instructors. After that, the family moved more than 2,000 miles northwest to Utah, where Bilzerian Sr, out on parole, bought a new company.
The family trip to Mormon-land went about as well as could be expected.
As his dad became embroiled in yet more litigation, Bilzerian arrived at school one day with an M16 machine gun in the boot of his car. The weapon, Bilzerian has since explained, was his dad's from Vietnam: "I was so proud of the damn thing, I was showing everybody." Neither the school nor the authorities had much sympathy, however. This time, in fact, Bilzerian wasn't just expelled. He says he was asked to leave Utah and not come back.
Not knowing what to do with himself, Bilzerian joined the Navy and began training for the Seal division, now well known for killing the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The initial course for Seals - known as Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal training, or BUD/S - is held at the Naval Special Warfare Training Center in Coronado, California, and is supposed to take 24 weeks. Bilzerian says he was there for 510 days, including two so-called "hell weeks" - the first of which he completed with a broken leg. (He'd bet his medical officer $20 that he could do it.) Three quarters of Seal trainees don't graduate, however, and Bilzerian was no different: after his second attempt, he dropped out permanently over a safety violation. Indeed, some Navy veterans have questioned just how close Bilzerian ever came to being a Seal. Even if he'd have completed BUD/S, they point out, he would have still had to undergo Seal qualification training, an even more intimidating 26-week course in tactical skills, including free-fall parachute jumps.
Bilzerian himself has admitted that one of the officers took a dislike to him. And although his dad had distinguished himself in Vietnam with a Bronze star, being the son of Paul Bilzerian was also a liability. Especially when news got out that his old man, while technically bankrupt was still living in his Xanadu-like mansion in Tampa. Eventually, after an FBI raid, the ex-corporate raider was thrown back in jail.
As for where Bilzerian Sr's fortune had actually gone, or whether it was anywhere near the half a billion dollars that some have estimated - it's anyone guess. According to reports, the family house was eventually sold in a series of Byzantine transactions, ending up partly owned by a charity named after the family's cat. Other assets found their way to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. There was one holding, however, that Bilzerian Sr made sure to diligently report to the authorities: the balance of his prison commissary account. As of the last filing, it was precisely 23 cents.
The younger Bilzerian has never denied that he has trust funds in his name. In fact, while he was still in Seal training, the government pressured him into putting up a third of one of them to get his dad out of jail - an act of generosity that didn't go down well at home. "He wouldn't talk to me for eight months," Bilzerian said. "He's some hard-headed bastard."
That was about when the gambling began.
Bilzerian says he learned to play poker at the University of Florida, where he enrolled after the Navy to study business and criminology - funded by a $6,000-a-month "disability allowance as a veteran" that he qualified for due to his injuries and honourable discharge.
By his second year, he'd gone broke, apparently with no access to the assets of which he was a beneficiary. Forced to sell his guns, Bilzerian returned to the poker table with a near-pathological focus. "You have to go broke to respect the money," he has said of his losses. "And I had a style where I could make a lot of money if I had self-control."
The way Bilzerian tells it, he turned the $750 he had left over from liquidating his possessions into $10,000. Then he bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas and turned that $10,000 into $187,000. With this sizeable bankroll, he then went back to university, more determined than ever, and resumed his studies while continuing to hone his skills in "cash games" after classes. (The potential winnings in cash games are essentially unlimited, whereas tournaments have fixed buy-ins and fixed prizes.)
Bilzerian never did finish his degree.
"Some weeks I was making, like, $90,000," he has explained, "so I'm looking at these professors, thinking, what am I doing here?"
Bilzerian was 27 when he first came to the attention of the high-stakes poker crowd. It was 2007, and he'd booked himself into Harveys Lake Tahoe, a 740-room hotel on the border of California and Nevada, with a suitcase filled with $100,000 in used bank notes. "He was not playing wild at all," recalled Todd "DanDruff" Witteles, a well-known player, when describing his first game with Bilzerian to Poker News, a website owned by Antanas Guogo, a Lithuanian-Australian businessman known as the "Australian Airbag" and the "Mouth From Down Under".
"The game was very nitty [no one betting much] and he basically wanted everyone else to start playing loose before he did," added Witteles. "I think he was just mad that people saw him as the rich fish [bad player] from whom they could extract money. Not surprisingly, the game stayed tight, and he finally got up and left."
Bilzerian's first attempt to win a big tournament - where exaggerating your wins is impossible, due to the very public nature of the proceedings - was similarly disappointing. He entered with his brother, Adam (who by then had renounced his US citizenship and written a book on the subject) and ended up in 180th place with $36,000 in prize money.
"I wanted to kill myself," he later told All In magazine. (The winner, Joe Cada, took home $8.5m.) Nevertheless, the tournament's broadcaster, ESPN, took note of Bilzerian's charisma and gave him plenty of on-screen time, which led to a sponsorship deal with Victory Poker, a now-defunct online cardroom. That, in turn, led to some of Bilzerian's first public stunts. He bet $400,000 on a drag race with his lawyer. He swam through an alligator-filled lake at midnight. He fired a 50-caliber machine gun at an RV in the desert until it burst into a flames. And along the way, he turned down an offer of $100,000 from one of the (unnamed) founders of Facebook to shave off his beard.
Meanwhile, in private cash games, Bilzerian became known for playing "loose aggressive" - in other words, betting big and betting often, to the delight of his ultra-wealthy fellow players. In one moment of madness, he flipped a coin for $2.3m (£1.4m) of chips... And lost.
Before long, Bilzerian had gone from high stakes to so-called "nosebleed stakes" at games hosted at his Los Angeles home with an assortment of billionaires and celebrity friends, including the Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire, the film director Nick Cassavetes, and the action star Mark Wahlberg. He was voted "funniest poker player" by Bluffmagazine in 2010. And in one blow-out trip to Cannes, he allegedly slept with 16 women in 12 days. Even when one of his fellow players turned out to be the operator of a $25m Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme he kept on going. And when Victory Poker chose to shut down its US operations, Bilzerian moved his antics to his newly opened social media accounts. Soon enough, he had tweeted about his girlfriend's vagina, boasted of how his dad had bought him a Bentley for Christmas, and announced that he intended to spend $16,000-a-year drinking nothing but coconut water.
Today, Bilzerian lives in a gated estate in the Hollywood Hills, where his neighbours include the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and the nightclub impresario (and billionaire's son) Sam "Sammy Boy" Nazarian. The house has a sunken living room, 270-degree views over the city, a pool that hangs out over the hillside, cash-counting machines, poker tables, and a garage for his chrome-plated 1965 AC Cobra (vanity plate: "SUCK IT") and his white-with-black-rims Lamborghini Aventador ("MR GOAT"). He shares the place with his cat, Smushball, and Zeus the goat - plus a new goat, Beatrice, to keep the former company. They sleep on a $700 blanket outside.
The 34-year-old poker player is said to have another home in La Jolla, a beach town near Mexico, which resembles Tony Stark's headquarters in Iron Man. And then of course there's his crashpad in Las Vegas, which at one point was an apartment at the Panorama Towers, developed by Britain's Andrew Sasson.
As for women: Bilzerian is no longer in a relationship with Playboy playmate Jessa Hinton, who told a reporter that she slapped Bilzerian when she read a tabloid account of drugs and prostitutes at private Hollywood card games.
Meanwhile, Bilzerian's sometimes cruel depictions of women elsewhere ("Ugly girls hurt my eyes," he has tweeted, attaching a picture of several females with one of their faces scribbled out in red pen) have led some to accuse him of misogyny.
It's the money that continues to provoke the most debate, however.
Some believe he made his own fortune in poker before his trust funds became accessible. Others argue that, quite the opposite, Bilzerian can only afford to take part in nosebleed-stakes games because of his dad's offshore assets, and that rival players don't just regard him as a fish [bad player], they see him as the ultimate whale [a fish with a seemingly never-ending bankroll].
When interviewed in July by the radio host Howard Stern, Bilzerian declared that he was worth around $100m (£63m) - $50m (£31m) of it from the previous year's winnings - and said he has 20 employees, including three assistants and three chefs. (Bilzerian, it should be noted, doesn't pretend to be among the world's best poker players. He simply argues that he has access to, and is good at picking, the most lucrative private cash games.)
Few are convinced of the accuracy of those numbers, however.
"Does he have $100m?" asks Jonathan Grotenstein, the poker player who visited his home in LA recently. "No, I don't think he has access to that kind of money. He plays poker at really, really high stakes, but he's not playing in the top games with guys like Tom Dwan, or going to Macau, where million-dollar pots are won and lost all the time. I think Dan is more about using poker as part of an image that he's trying to create, and I think there are a lot of people out there who will lend him a private jet, or let him test drive a ridiculous car."
GQ couldn't establish if Bilzerian does indeed own a Gulfstream IV or a Lamborghini - or whether he in fact rents his home in LA for $35,000 a month from Wong Ngit Liong, one of the richest men in Singapore, as has been rumoured online. An interior designer who studied a photograph of his bedroom, meanwhile, concluded that the furniture was from West Elm, barely more expensive than Ikea. There are plenty of other sceptics, including a gossip blog, The Dirty, which routinely mocks Bilzerian's reputation as "the most interesting man on Instagram" - a moniker inspired by the Dos Equis beer advertisements.
"Fake Equis" is how the site refers to him.
What is undeniable, however, is that Bilzerian has displayed a lot of savvy in developing an entirely new kind of celebrity - and has carried it off with a nihilistic, gonzo-esque sense of humour that has for the most part diffused its more abusive undertones.
Often, in fact, he seems to be sending-up his own image while at the same time revelling in it. "While this new watch may not get me any pussy," as he tweeted a few months ago, along with a picture of his $800,000 Richard Mille timepiece, "it does make me feel better about being neglected as a child". Later, he faked his own arrest and disappeared for a few hours... only to re-emerge with a video of himself doing donuts in a police car, sirens blaring, with what looked like a whiskey bottle in his hand.
Bilzerian's talent for calculated risk is also beyond question. When he invested $1m in the Mark Wahlberg war film Lone Survivor, for example, it was conditional upon him getting at least eight minutes of screen time and 80 words of dialogue. When his role was cut to almost nothing, he sued, revealing a contract that read more like a hedge-fund position than a Hollywood deal. And yet in the end, having reaped all the publicity, he dropped his case, arguing that the film had been so successful, he didn't want his money back - because he'd made $1.5m on the back end. Similarly astute was his decision to put up 20 per cent of the $10,000 buy-in for an up-and-coming poker star, Jay Farber, at the 2013 World Series of Poker. When Farber won $5m, Bilzerian was able to claim a $1m cut. What's more: he got to sit in the front row, getting his beard stroked by a model on live television.
Whatever Bilzerian's endgame might be, however, it isn't yet clear.
Over recent months he has replaced his publicist with a new firm; quietly dropped his description of himself as an "asshole" on Twitter; played up his donations to charity; and became uncharacteristically shy when approached by GQ. Could this mean the Instagram King is craving some respectability? Or would that destroy the allure he has so assiduously cultivated over the months since his breakthrough?
Bilzerian has already hinted at the answer in a self-leaked text message exchange with his social media manager, Greg Baroth, who complained that some of his client's more lurid behaviour wasn't a brand-friendly idea and could turn-off future sponsors. "Oh well," wrote Bilzerian, before posting an image of himself on a yellow life raft, being carried through a crowded nightclub with a naked woman in Christian Louboutins lying face-down next to him. "Good thing I'm rich and I don't give a f***."