The Biggest Game in Townby A. Alvarez
Chronicle Books, TPB, © 1983, 188 pp, ISBN #0-8118-3434-4
Reviewed July 2006
Al Alvarez' book is the seminal look at the World Series of Poker, written during the 1983 tournament, and the characters and culture involved in it. It's a quick read, and covers a lot of ground: Benny Binion, an old-time gambler and founder of the World Series at his Las Vegas casino in 1970; Doyle Brunson, who - then and still today - is widely considered the godfather of poker; David Slansky, who epitomized the new breed of intellectual poker players (20 years before Internet poker players made their big splash in the Series); the history of Las Vegas and the culture of gamblers and poker players (who aren't quite the same thing, but are very similar).
The Biggest Game in Town is the Doyle Brunson of books about poker culture: Its reputation looms large above its competition. Unlike Brunson, though, I'd say that Game has been unequivocally surpassed in quality since, as compared to James McManus' Positively Fifth Street it feels skimpy and unsatisfying, neither delving deeply into many of its interesting topics (its biography of Brunson being the major exception), nor really getting the reader inside the tournament itself. The tournament is a backdrop for a wider look at poker generally, yet the book cries out for a focus on the tournament itself, but that's left to a relatively short few chapters towards the end of the narrative.
To be sure, Game is an entertaining book with some informative sections, but it's a little bit dated and, as I said, not as good as McManus' book (which occurs during the 2000 Series). It's worth a read, and isn't a bad place to start to read about poker culture, but it's no longer the last or best word.
Positively Fifth Streetby James McManus
Picador, TPB, © 2003, 399 pp, ISBN #0-312-42252-0
Reviewed May 2006
As I started playing poker earlier this year, a friend of mine recommended this book to me. McManus went to Las Vegas in 2000 to cover the progress of women in the World Series of Poker and also the trial of two people accused of murdering Ted Binion, the one-time host of the annual event. Once there, he spent his advance money entering a "satellite" table to win an entry into the tournament itself, and won the table. Then he managed to advance farther into the tournament than perhaps anyone imagined he could.
While the women-in-poker element is not deeply considered in the book, the other elements are woven together in a terrific narrative about the author, the lure and danger of "sin city", and the culture of high-stakes poker.
The Binion murder trial is about as sordid and disgusting an affair as I can recall reading in the media, and McManus presents it in all its 'glory', with background on Ted Binion's death and the principals in the trial. He also presents the history of the Binion family and the start of the World Series of Poker at their casino in the 1970s.
But the book really gets rolling when McManus enters the tournament and starts writing about his own history, the history of poker, the personalities of poker, and the tournament itself. McManus is a guy after my own heart: Constantly questioning everything he's doing, wondering if his baser instincts are leading him awry - but (unlike me) he spends much of the book going out on one limb after another and (to mix metaphors) having it pay off. He ends up at tables with some of the best players in the world, including T.J. Cloutier, who wrote the book McManus studies during the narrative to learn how to play in the tournament. He presents the basics of Texas Hold 'Em poker (which is the variety played in the WSoP Main Event) and goes through the key hands he plays along with a running commentary on what he was thinking at he time. And I don't mean what his strategies were, but his worries and little neurosies and his occasional surprise when he makes an audacious move that he's not sure was the right one.
As a portrait of a man who finds he can swim with much bigger fish than he ever thought he could, it's a terrific piece of writing. Even when the games are over for the day and he socializes or goes back to his room, it's still riveting writing.
The Binion trial doesn't fare quite as well in the narrative, but even by the time the book was published the eventual outcome of the appeals were still in doubt. But to McManus' eye, everything here is really a process anyway: How people start heading down the wrong path, how they might turn themselves away from it, how they react when they realize what a position they've gotten themselves into. McManus conjectures about how various figures in the Binion case might have been thinking, and links back to this in small ways during his own time at the poker tables, and in a chapter about his family and how he started playing poker in the first place.
Positively Fifth Street doesn't offer any concrete answers or solutions to any particular issues or problems, it's all about the journey; McManus can go home again, but Binion and some others never can. And it's a helluva ride.
Poker Nationby Andy Bellin
Perennial, TPB, © 2002, 251 pp, ISBN #0-06-095847-2
Reviewed July 2006
Bellin provides a look at poker culture that's different from that of The Biggest Game in Town or Positively Fifth Street, being in some ways more seedy and more real than either book. Bellin is clearly influenced by Game in his approach to providing extensive background on the culture of poker (such as the history of Benny Binion and the World Series of Poker), but he's coming from a different place: He lives in New York City, where playing poker is illegal, so he mostly plays in underground clubs. This makes his adventures as a poker player seem a little more desperate and exciting.
Bellin also covers some ground his predecessors don't: Cheating at cards, gambling addiction, living on the edge as a small-time pro, sex and poker. This look at the day-to-day life of poker players (both himself and some of the people he interviews) brings an entirely different perspective to his narrative compared to the detached approach of Alvarez or the somewhat highbrow (and intensely personal) account of McManus.
Poker Nation is also clearly angled towards people who are not very familiar with poker other than perhaps the basic rules of playing. It provides much basic insight into calculating the odds, the concerns that players have when playing, when and how to bluff (and hopefully not get caught), etc. These sections of the book are not very interesting for anyone who's read even a couple of low-limit poker strategy books, but they do provide plenty of context for the novice who just wants to read about the poker world.
The book is at its best when it's getting inside the heads of gamblers, not least Bellin's own, as he often wonders how he got into some situation or other, be it deciding to make an all-in call at a single poker game, or dealing with other aspects of his gambling life. But the talk about the high-stakes gamblers (like poker legend Doyle Brunson) making proposition bets in all sorts of things, or what it was like being a poker regular in New York City when clubs might come and go depending on whether the law was cracking down on them, or how sex and poker interrelate is also fascinating.
Overall, Poker Nation is not a great historical document so much as it's an interesting psychological document of how gamblers of the poker-playing stripe thing. There's some good trivia, many funny or entertaining stories, and it's a quick read. It's worth a look.
hits since 7 May 2006.
|© 2006 Michael Rawdon (email@example.com) http://www.leftfield.org/~rawdon/|