The Biggest Game in Town

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The Early Days of Big Money: A Review of A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town

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.

Millions Meta-Data 2007

I was going through the site analytics, checking out what kind of year The Millions had and I thought it might be fun to share some of the stuff I found out.Looking at the site's most visited pages, there were some "evergreen" favorites in the top spots:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: In August 2006, we unwittingly struck a chord with the reading public. We don't know how to pronounce our favorite writers' names, but we want to be able to discuss them. We took a first stab at creating a list, but after much debate about proper pronunciation, we hit the library and came back with this definitive version. It remains our most popular post and may stay that way for a long time.A Year in Reading 2007: This post only went up on December 1st, but thanks to dozens of great contributors, it was our best year-end series yet.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Our first, abortive attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.The Most Anticipated Books of 2007: Readers got the year started with a look at the books we were most excited about. 2008's installment is now posted.Keepers of the Flame: A Reply to n+1: Back in March, we noted N+1's essay that took on the "litblogs." It ignited a mini-controversy and The Millions was ground zero.We get a lot of traffic from Google, of course, but quite a few of our visitors arrive from other sites. These were the top 5 sites to send us traffic in 2007:The Elegant VariationConversational ReadingKottke.orgNPR.orgGawkerThose who take the Google route, however, come from these searches:the millionsbook blogsbook blogthe millions bloghow to pronounce namesFinally, I also thought it would be interesting to see which books were most popular on the site last year. We link to all the book titles mentioned on the site, and these were the ones that got the most clicks:The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisReporting: Writings from The New Yorker by David RemnickPastoralia by George SaundersThe Cottagers by Marshall N. KlimasewiskiThe Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez

Bookfinding

Today I happened to walk by one of those thrift stores connected to a hospital, and, thinking they might have a couple of shelves of books, I decided to stop in. I'm glad I did. The books were way in the back in this weird garage-like annex, and the room smelled pretty bad. This made browsing unpleasant, but I had a theory that the odor might have kept prospective shoppers out - more books for me. The store was also right on with their pricing: 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardcovers, which, in my opinion, should be the standard pricing scheme if the customer has to sift through messy, disorganized shelves. The selection turned out to be pretty great, and I had to restrict myself to only the best books I could find - books that I was surprised enough to see on the shelves that I felt passing them up would be criminal, so I ended up leaving a lot of pretty good stuff behind. If I had bought everything I wanted, I would have had a hard time getting home on the el, and furthermore, empty bookshelf space is somewhat scarce in my apartment these days. So it was only the cream of the crop for me.I grabbed three hardcovers: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez. I was working at the bookstore when the poker craze started getting pretty big, and this classic from 1983 was one of the books we recommended to people wanting to read up on the game. I also found a copy of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which I've been told is one of his best. And I was delighted to spot baseball guru Bill James' out of print treatise on the Hall of Fame, Politics of Glory. I also snagged a pocket paperback edition of John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy. All in all, a pretty good haul.

Ask a Book Question: The Eighteenth in a Series (Showing Your Cards)

My good and old friend Hot Face, I mean, "Larry 'Boom Boom' Delvechhio" writes in with this question about going for broke and laying it all out on the line.Howyadoin'. I was recently in beyootyful Atlantic City--business trip--and I'm thinkin', geez, this crap is fascinatin'. Is there any, like, books on the subject of gambling/casinos/slots/A.C./Vegas youse might know about? I'm thinkin' like a New Yorkery piece of joinalism with an eye for the math and the drama of the whole thing.Mr. Delvechhio, fresh off celebrating his swiftly disappearing bachelorhood, must have caught the gambling bug in Atlantic City last weekend. I know because I had a similar experience during my celebrations in Vegas about a month ago. Remember? At the time I discussed a number of books that are related to Sin City in one way or another, but I left out books about gambling. Nonetheless, I can recommend three that might serve Mr. Delvechhio's purposes, though I'm sure there are countless others. The first is one that I have read, or rather listened to as an audiobook. In 2000 James McManus arrived in Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for Harper's. He would leave a lot richer and with a seed for book to be called Positively Fifth Street planted in his brain. A poker player his whole life, McManus couldn't resist jumping into the fray. He used his advance to pay the entrance fee for the tournament. Remarkably, McManus, an unassuming family man, makes it to the final table of the tournament, and in the process is able to give a great insider's view of a grueling tournament that features bizarre personalities and incredibly high stakes. He also weaves into the narrative the intrigue and murder surrounding the Binions, the family whose casino hosts the tournament. It's a fantastic, quick read that will get you hooked on poker if you aren't already. Another poker book is called The Biggest Game in Town by the mysterious A. Alvarez. This book also focuses on the World Series of Poker, though it hails from an earlier era. Though I haven't read it, I've had this book recommended to me dozens of times since I started working at the book store. By all accounts it is a very quality book; in fact, large portions of it originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1981 or so. And finally, a blackjack book: Ben Mezrich uncovered a pretty remarkable story last year when he wrote about the M.I.T. blackjack team in his book Bringing Down the House. I haven't read this one either, but I heard Mizrach several times on the radio last year. The revelation: apparently, for years, there has been a highly secretive blackjack team at M.I.T. Created, recruited, and originally bankrolled by a professor, the team used their considerable math skills to make a killing counting cards in Vegas. Before the operation was permanently blackballed from the casinos, they racked up millions. It got to the point where they were traveling with suitcases full of cash and sitting next to NBA stars at the blackjack table. If you see yourself as a money-making, mathematical genius, this might be the book for you. Oh, and, Delvechhio, I'm looking forward to the nuptuals.The Hype ContinuesMore news in a story that is sure to dominate the book-related headlines for months to come: it has been announced that former prez Bill Clinton has completed his a 900-page manuscript for his memoir due out this June, putting an end to fears that he wouldn't finish on time. They have also released the cover photo, which is just a standard portrait. The remaining intrigue surrounds how revelatory this memoir will be and the timing of the memoir's release, with some conspiracy theorists claiming that Clinton's stealing of the spotlight is meant to sabotage John Kerry in an attempt to clear the way for Hillary in 2008.

Paperback Notes

Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today's new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami's stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that's really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it's being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I'm mentioning today, I'll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a "New Fiction" issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I'm foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.
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