The Biggest Game in Town

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For the Love of the Game: Poker in Nonfiction

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The watershed moment for Texas hold’em and its oldest and most prestigious tournament, the World Series of Poker, can be traced back to 2003, when online qualifier and self-described poker amateur Chris Moneymaker – his real name – became World Champion. Moneymaker inspired a legion of online amateurs with his Cinderella story. Since then, hold’em – as played virtually – has transformed into a cultural and commercial phenomenon. Poker websites are veritable training grounds for the World Series of Poker, as well as other less high-profile tournaments, whose number of contestants and purse money continue to rise in tandem.

Proof of the game’s current popularity is the marketability of hold’em strategy books, as any google search for related titles will confirm. Decidedly less marketable, but also part of hold’em’s history, is the World Series of Poker as covered by a novelist turned sportswriter. In this canon there are but few titles, the most notable of which are The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez and Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus. Colson Whitehead has now added his own contribution to this sparse and rather obscure list with his new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death.

Back in the spring of 1981, when the World Series of Poker was in its twelfth year, English writer A. Alvarez flew from London to Las Vegas to cover the Main Event for The New Yorker. For the next twenty-seven nights, he took up residence in the Golden Nugget hotel on Fremont Street in the downtown section of Vegas known as Glitter Gulch. Today, as was the case in 1981, the neon lights of Glitter Gulch are eclipsed by those of the Strip. Ask any recent Vegas visitor if they happened to check out downtown Fremont during their trip and they will likely look at you mysteriously, as if you asked them whether or not they checked out a bunch of shrubs nearby the Grand Canyon. When Alvarez was interned there, however, Glitter Gulch was home to what he called “the real action.” By action he meant gambling, of course, and by real he meant absolute, or not diluted by additional entertainments famously offered by the Strip.

More to the point, Glitter Gulch in 1981 was also home to the World Series of Poker, then called Binion’s World Series Championship of Poker, trademarked by its founder, Benny Binion, a Vegas pioneer from the Lone Star State, at whose relatively humble Horseshoe Casino the tournament took place. That year, seventy-five contestants competed in the No Limit Texas hold’em Main Event, the winner of which is crowned World Champion of Poker. It was Stu Unger who won the title along with less than half a million dollars. Last year, at the not-so humble Rio Hotel and Casino on the Strip, the tournament venue since 2005 after its purchase by Caesars, the number of Main Event contestants exceeded six thousand; the winner claimed over eight million dollars.

The story Alvarez filed for The New Yorker he expanded into a book sharing the same title, The Biggest Game in Town, itself a golden nugget about Vegas and American ingenuity. But mostly it’s about poker and the people who at that time earned a living playing it for high-stakes. Many of them, like Doyle Brunson, Jack Straus, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim Preston, and Crandell Addington, all inductees in the Poker Hall of Fame and some still active even today, are or were quintessential Texans. Alvarez’s portraits of these cowboys are carefully drawn, reverent, and unobtrusive. His reverence for them comes from his understanding that these men, who live by their wits and ride out their losses almost as casually as they do their victories, are simply cut from a different cloth. He lets them speak for themselves in their identical drawls, which is smart, since each is well-supplied with hard-earned, no-nonsense insights into their profession, and some, notably Jack Straus, are consummate raconteurs.

Alvarez’s unobtrusiveness is part of his provenance, I’d wager. Our reporter at large is as English as Amarillo Slim Preston is southern. The unrelenting heat of Nevada affects Alvarez acutely. When I wrote that he was interned in Glitter Gulch, I did so because Alvarez himself likens his stay to a sentence in a penitentiary. After only a week, he claims to “exhibit symptoms of physical deprivation – nervous tension, disorientation, insomnia, loss of appetite.” A morning stroll leaves him feeling faint. He is clearly not a cowboy. Which is what makes The Biggest Game in Town so powerfully observed – Alvarez’s status as stranger or foreigner, not only to Vegas but to America as well. It affords him a critical distance. During the taxi ride from the airport to his hotel, for example, he’s struck by what he deems a uniquely American phenomenon, “the utter lack of continuity between large towns and their surrounding countryside.” For Alvarez, Vegas is an example of this discontinuity par excellence: the city pops up in the desert like a mirage, as redundant a simile as that is.

Alvarez is also a stranger to high-stakes poker. The first game he observes, he overhears the players betting two dollars, a nickel, and five dollars, which confuses him into thinking he’s watching a small-stakes game until he peers at the numerical values on the chips. As he is informed later, “serious gamblers always leave off the zeroes when they announce their bets.” It must say something about Alvarez’s journalistic approach that he won the confidences of so many of these serious players over the course of his stay in spite of his relative greenness; that he was welcomed into their fold must also say something about the magnanimous personalities of the players themselves.

The contradiction between their big-heartedness away from the table and their aggressive, cutthroat tactics at the table is never lost on Alvarez, either. They’re made up of other contradictions too, these poker professionals or “mental athletes”: they compete tirelessly for big-money prizes and yet are willing to gamble away their winnings almost immediately; they harbor lofty notions of personal liberty that a life outside the system – and inside the gambling hall – services and yet some of them remain slightly wounded by the stigma attached to their vocation by those in the system. By the tournament’s end, Alvarez is as in awe of his subjects as he was when he first arrived.

In 2000, James McManus found himself in circumstances similar to A. Alvarez in 1981 when McManus was sent to Vegas on assignment from Harper’s to cover the Main Event. The story he filed he really expanded into the memoir Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker. Like Alvarez, McManus was a poker player by hobby, uninitiated to the world of high-stakes competition. This did not stop him from spending a quarter of his expenses and advance money from Harper’s on the buy-in to a satellite table in an attempt to play his way into the tournament. The format of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker has not changed since 1972. A player can either pay the steep ten thousand dollar buy-in, thereby paying his or her way into the tournament, or compete at the variously priced satellite tables beforehand in the hopes of clinching a berth. “Satellites,” McManus writes, “are…thought by many players to be the most legitimate route to the final, since they reward poker skill instead of deep pockets.”

McManus’ shallow pockets went a long way in 2000 and at 385 pages, with a glossary, bibliography and an index, Positively Fifth Street is a comprehensive account of his improbable run. Whereas Alvarez remained a railbird or poker spectator throughout his twenty-seven nights in Glitter Gulch, McManus became an unwitting contender for the title in the very tournament he was being paid to report on. His use of the present tense to describe key hands makes it feel as if the action is unfolding as we read it, and his shock and exhilaration after each favorable turn of the card is registered at the same time as ours. We are with McManus as he advances. His total recall for bets, hole cards, and flop cards made me wonder if he was relying on memory alone or if the tournament organizers keep records of every hand played. Either way, the very entertaining play-by-play passages in the book may explain why poker has turned into such a stalwart ratings performer for sports broadcasters these days.

From 1981 to 2000, the number of Main Event contestants rose steadily from seventy-five to 512. During McManus’s run, the tournament was held at Binion’s Horseshoe and still very much a family affair, as it was during Alvarez’s stay. Alvarez distinguishes Binion’s from other Strip casinos not just geographically but also on the basis of it being a family-run operation, uncorrupted by corporate bureaucracy. In 1981, Binion’s did not put a limit on the size of a gambler’s bet, making it the single exception to all other Vegas casinos. This laxity with respect to a prevalent rule that the corporate casinos impose on high-rollers in order to protect themselves against big losses epitomized, for Alvarez, the more exceptional experience a gambler had at Binion’s back then. Alvarez is charmed by its “down-home” atmosphere, as are the serious players who win and lose there, many of whom, according to Alvarez, are friends of the Binion clan.

Reading Positively Fifth Street today, one can sense the imminent corporatization of the World Series of Poker. McManus mentions how the playing field is populated by younger players schooled on computer programs; some wear hats – baseball hats, not Stetsons – emblazoned with the names of corporate sponsors. With its patriarch dead for over a decade, the Binion empire appears to be crumbling too. McManus uses the trial of the murder of Ted Binion, the family’s youngest and wildest, as a backdrop. One of the accused, his live-in girlfriend, claims in court that Ted had once put a hit out on his sister Becky, then president of the Horseshoe. It is a claim Becky does not dispute.

Recent telecasts of the World Series of Poker reveal players who are mostly young and sartorially-challenged. The proven ones are almost as covered in corporate logos as NASCAR drivers. So it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the humble beginnings of the World Series of Poker while reading The Biggest Game in Town, when hold’em was not well-known and thus the Main Event retained a certain exclusive air despite its rising popularity. Positively Fifth Street represents a transitional period in the tournament’s and hold’em’s corresponding histories. It would be just three years before Chris Moneymaker claimed the title, effectively breaking the tournament and the game wide open. The following year, the World Series of Poker had a new home and sponsor, and the number of Main Event contestants tripled. Hold’em is now ubiquitous and the World Series of Poker continues to determine its best player.

It makes perfect sense, then, that in 2011 the sports and entertainment website Grantland felt the time was ripe to send a reporter of its own to cover the tournament as it exists today, thereby adding its name to the short list of estimable publications who also recognized the literary merit of the assignment. The result is Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. Minus a flashback about the author’s first trip to Vegas, originally published in Harper’s, the book more or less exists online in the Grantland archives under the non-self-explanatory title of Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia. The Republic of Anhedonia is our reporter’s imaginary nationality, which suggests he may suffer from depression. Whether or not it’s clinical, and therefore deadly serious, he does not say; in fact, anhedonia’s relevance to The Noble Hustle remains frustratingly unclear in spite of how often Whitehead brings it up.

Grantland didn’t just send Whitehead to cover the event, they paid his ten-thousand dollar buy-in to compete in the tournament, which does not get him very far. In this sense, The Noble Hustle is like Positively Fifth Street without the improbable and exhilarating run by its author. If Whitehead didn’t spend so much time warming us up to his tournament appearance, perhaps his early exit would have felt less anticlimactic, even if he coyly prepares us for what happens to him. For a memoir, The Noble Hustle is remarkably aloof as well. Whitehead doesn’t tell us the name of his daughter, instead referring to her as “the kid” throughout. In contrast, McManus’s 385 page poker memoir includes a disquisition on his family tree and ends with his cringe-worthy confession to his wife that he received a lap dance during his Vegas stay.

There are several missed opportunities in The Noble Hustle. In 2011, the Feds shut down the major American online poker sites; known as Black Friday among poker insiders, the shutdown had major financial implications on the game and its players. Whitehead refers to Black Friday only offhandedly and fails to explore its impact on the 2011 tournament. We also don’t get any real insight into the type of people who make a living off poker, as we do in McManus’s and Alvarez’s books.

As a breezy and sarcasm-soaked account of one man’s very unsuccessful attempt to repeat what McManus accomplished in 2000, The Noble Hustle does not earn a rightful place in a tradition begun by Alvarez and continued by McManus. Whitehead is as capable a writer as they are. But his forerunners had a more probing and contagious interest in the game and the people who play it.

Image credit: Joo0ey/Flickr

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