The poker craze may have peaked, but it was a big thing there for a bit. About five years ago, ESPN’s prominent televising of the World Series of Poker and the emergence and proliferation of online poker sites where amateur card sharps could test their skills against other players around the globe fueled an explosion of interest in what was once a back-room pastime. To a lesser extent, a pair of books fanned the flames as well: James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, a journalist and amateur poker player’s tale of parlaying an advance for a Harper’s piece on the World Series (and other related topics) into a miracle run to the final table and Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House, an apparently substantially apocryphal tale of MIT geeks who used their considerable mathematical abilities to bilk millions from Las Vegas casinos using card counting schemes. (Yes, the latter is about blackjack, but it seemed aimed squarely at the suddenly booming poker market and tapped into the same “get rich quick” bravado.)
So, for the many poker novices who have taken up no-limit hold’em over the last few years, whether via a neighborhood game, or more likely online, the earlier, though not to say more innocent, years of no-limit hold’em and the World Series of Poker will be surprising in many ways.
Such was my reaction to reading The Biggest Game in Town, a journalistic account of the 1981 World Series of Poker by New Yorker contributor and accomplished essayist, novelist, and poet A. Alvarez. On the one hand, it is interesting to know, some twenty years before ESPN began broadcasting poker seemingly every day, that the World Series, held annually since 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, was a notable event even back then. Alvarez describes “television teams trail[ing] their cables around the room,” major newspapers carrying the results, and spectators “packed against the rails.” At the same time, these early years seem almost impossibly quaint compared to the madness that is described on TV now. In 1981, there were 75 entrants competing for $375,000 in prize money. In 2007, it was 6,358 going after $8.25 million (and that was down from 8,773 and $12 million the prior year). Alvarez’s description of the players’ introductions sums up the scene:
Jack Binion climbed onto a chair at the back of the room… He motioned for quiet, did not get it, then introduced the players over the babble of the casino: name, place of origin, a word or so of praise. His favorite description was “plenty tough.”
This familial atmosphere allows for Alvarez to paint compelling profiles of a dozen or so of the participants. Unlike the online moonlighters and poker tourists that you might find at the World Series nowadays, these are hard-bitten bunch, and more candidly hooked on gambling than any drug addict and as prone to peaks and crashes. From the likes of Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, and Nick “the Greek” Dandalos emerges Doyle Brunson, a survivor in the poker world, thanks both to an uncharacteristically even-keeled demeanor compared to most of the poker pros that Alvarez meets and to a popular and highly technical poker manual he wrote, Doyle Brunson’s Super System: A Course in Power Poker. It’s not uncommon to see Brunson on ESPN still today, revered as a poker god among the hordes of newcomers. Even his children have become celebrity poker players.
While Brunson and his small-town Texas bonhomie are at the heart of the book, his colleagues provide the color. What’s particularly interesting is that this book, far more than McManus’ Fifth Street, is a book about addicts. It just happens that these addicts are incredibly good at what they do and so can improbably make a living at it, albeit one that sometimes has them losing hundreds of thousands in a matter of hours and opening a line of credit with a casino (or some shadier operation) in order to get back on track.
The World Series, we surmise, is just an attempt clean up poker and market these latter day cowboys for the tourists. It’s telling that the World Series itself isn’t particularly interesting to the participants, Alvarez, or this reader, rather it’s the numerous “cash games” that spring up when the world’s top poker players occupy the same zip code. In these games, which Alvarez describes with something like awe, the $375,000 that World Series participants spend a week competing for might be lost (and won) in a single hand. Members of the top-tier poker fraternity compete ruthlessly, and have no qualms about absolutely cleaning out the deep-pocketed amateur who gets in over his head. It’s an ugly world, lived in windowless rooms with smoky air, and trailing lost jobs and broken families. There’s glamor and excitement in the sums involved but, Alvarez’s book makes clear, never satisfaction.