Aug 9 2011 3:30pm

When Poker Was Dangerous: Al Alvarez and The Biggest Game in Town

Al Alvarez cover of The Biggest Game in TownI’m not a poker guy. Let’s just get that out in the open right away. It’s not that I dislike the game. I enjoy playing it and I’ll admit to getting sucked into the World Series of Poker (WSOP) when it’s on at a friend’s house or a bar—those hole-card cameras and odds-of-winning graphics are just too good to ignore. But I don’t have a weekly game with friends, I don’t play online (although hardly anyone plays online since Black Friday), and I don’t know who won the last WSOP Main Event.

This puts me in the same basic position Al Alvarez found himself in when he went to Vegas to cover the 1981 WSOP for his book, The Biggest Game in Town. Alvarez lands in a Vegas that’s still grimy and dives into an event that hadn’t yet become family-friendly. In 1981, Vegas was decades away from the towering mega-complexes of today and much closer to its mob-controlled, Rat Pack past. There weren’t spas, shopping malls, or roller-coasters, and Alvarez complains that he can’t even find a swimming pool. Today, that’d be like someone going to Vegas and saying they can’t find a way to lose money.

Johnny Moss, equally watchful for cheaters, thieves, highjackers, police and rangers.The game itself was still dangerous. Johnny Moss, winner of the inaugural WSOP Main Event in 1970, tells Alvarez, “’Every time I go into a game, the cheaters are there, the thieves are there, the hijackers are there, the police are after you, the rangers are after you….Then you have to get in an’ beat the cards. You have to win an’ get out with the money.’” Moss played with a gun in his jacket and a shotgun in his car. Hard to imagine Chris Moneymaker or Phil Ivey with a revolver strapped to their leg.

This combination of a Vegas that’s still violent and a game whose top players were no more than a shade above the underworld leads to a book full of hard-boiled characters as ruthless as any fictional creation.

Alvarez spends most of the book talking to the players and poker legends circling the event, including: Jack Binion, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Mickey Appleman. The real-life poker professional emerges as a person who requires such intense focus that they began to lose connection with reality and, most importantly for their ability to gamble, they lose any connection to money. As Alvarez says, “Money is no longer money to the professionals; it is like a wrench to a plumber—a tool of the trade.”

David Chip Reese, high stakes poker playerDavid “Chip” Reese, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, tells Alvarez that, “Big limit poker is a separate world, and makes it hard to relate to other aspects of what’s going on.” Alvarez’s book is filled with stories of top pros, like Reese, who try to pay for $4 burgers with $100 bills or pay $2,000 water bills for months without blinking an eye, surprised when the water company says they have a leak. Men who play twelve-hour games on their honeymoon, or buy houses they don’t live in. because they’re constantly flying from city to city looking for the next big game.

Alvarez decides, “What is certain is that the continual movement of huge sums of money across the poker table has fractured [the professional’s] sense of reality…”

What struck me was that this “fractured” perspective and obsession with the “job” is something Alvarez’s players share with most protagonists of crime novels. The person who becomes obsessed with a crime, the planning of a crime, the solving of a crime, and loses sight of the rest of the world is a common theme in crime fiction. There aren’t too many happily married folks in crime novels or at the final table of the WSOP.

Both groups are separated from “normal” people by their tunnel vision and obsessions. The professional gambler lives in a constant downward spiral of solitude and loss familiar to even casual readers of crime fiction. Eric Drache describes the pressure as unrelenting: “I’ve already been playing professionally for twenty years. In the same game, really. I mean, how long is a poker game? If you play for a living, there is no end to it. Just because it breaks up doesn’t mean it ends.”

Dead Man’s Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table edited by Otto PenzlerThere’s still a dark, backroom gloom around the game in Alvarez’s book. This is different from modern explorations of the WSOP, such as the personal, inward-looking dispatches found on Hard-Boiled Poker and Colson Whiteheads brilliantly self-absorbed articles for Grantland. Readers looking for classic anthologies of poker writing would be well-served by Dead Man’s Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table and Read ’Em and Weep: A Bedside Poker Companion.

We’re lucky to have such a well-written book that focuses on such a transitory time in both Vegas and poker history. The WSOP is now sponsored by beef jerky, but the game will always have an aura of the illicit. And Vegas will always be Vegas. Alvarez’s brilliant description of the skyline in 1981 is still accurate, even though all the buildings have changed:  “The casinos lie out there on the baked earth like extravagant toys discarded on a beach, their signs looping, beckoning, spiraling, and fizzing recklessly, as in that moment of glory just before the batteries run down.”

What’s more hard-boiled than that?

Richard Z. Santos lives outside of Austin and is enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. Once, he worked in Washington, DC, but now he doesn’t do much more than write and teach. He blogs at Paperclip People, and is working on his first novel—a crime thriller set in New Mexico.

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