[ed. note 2013: I wrote this review a couple of years before I got back into poker big time. I’m quite amused at my perspective when my gambling investments were 100% horseplaying…]
A. Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town (Houghton Mifflin, 1983)
[originally posted 14Aug2000]
Someone who’s not involved in the wonderful world of gambling may look at Alvarez’ spirited and slightly surreal view of the World Series of Poker 1981 as a study in caricature. “No one’s like this,” I can hear them saying. “No one’s really that obsessive over this kind of thing. It’s just a game, right?”
Let me tell you something, and this is coming from the perspective of a guy for whom $64 on a pick six ticket is a year-high bet: if four hundred thousand dollars of your money, and the same amount of the other guy’s, are on the table in front of you, it stops being a game and becomes a test of wills. The cards become meaningless, or at least far less meaningful than the people holding them. And under those circumstances, it’d be on the insane side to NOT obsess, wouldn’t it?
Alvarez, a witty and insightful Londoner whose first name has been a mystery for decades to those who only know him from his many books (all of which have been published under only his first initial, to my knowledge [ed. note 2013: according to Wikipedia, his first name is Al]), travels to Las Vegas with a press pass, a curious nature, a “respectable” poker ability, and not nearly enough money to get himself into trouble. While there, he covers the World Series of Poker for 1981 (“not nearly as interesting as the side games, which have no limits”) and, more importantly, gets to know a few of the many characters who give Las Vegas its somewhat unique charm. There are poker players with advanced degrees and poker players who are illiterate; there are quiet players and there are brash, boorish players; there are transgendered dealers and (well, there’s really no other side of that one); the whole spectrum of Americana is represented within the Golden Nugget, as Alvarez would have it, and by the time you’re finished with your trip through this book, as with a trip to Vegas, the oddness of the folks around him simply vanishes, and you’re left with only their personalities and their strategies. They have only one thing in common—they analyze every detail of every hand in order to try and get better. The pot isn’t all that great in the World Series of Poker—oftentimes men and women win ten times as much in a single hand in a side game—but it sure does give you bragging rights to have that title for a year or two. It may look obsessive… Okay. It is. But it’s also wonderful.
If you liked Rounders, or if you like poker, this one’s definitely worth hunting down. *** 1/2