The Biggest Game in Town

The Biggest Game in Town



The Pequod Review:

Al Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town is an excellent book about not just poker but also the development of Las Vegas and the growth of gambling in 20th century America. Alvarez's book is structured as a profile of the 1981 World Series of Poker (which was in its eleventh year and would only have 75 entrants for its $10,000 Main Event -- as compared to 8,569 participants in 2019). While Alvarez includes some very good sections detailing specific poker hands, the best parts go far beyond simple play-by-play. Witness for example these passages detailing the psychology of successful poker players, which necessitates a high disregard for the enormous sums of money that are frequently at stake:

[A.J. Myers] turned to poker, which he had played for years in relatively small-stakes games in California. "At first, I was very much in awe of the professionals and consequently found it hard to compete," he told me. "I'm not really talking about the level of their skill, I'm talking about money. The games were of a size I wasn't used to, and until you get used to the high stakes you pull in your horns and play too conservatively. The money freezes you up, and you become tight-weak. You try not to play until you have an unbeatable hand, and when someone makes a big bet at you you automatically assume the worst. The tight-weak player is the kind the pros most love to play with; they run rings around him. But in time I got used to the size of the game. It is a question of respect, not fear. I'm a wealthy guy, and I don't believe I was ever really afraid of the big money. But it took me a while to realize that if I had too much respect for the money I couldn't play properly. Chips are like a bag of beans; they have a relative value and are worthless until the game is over. That is the only attitude you can have in high-stakes poker."


The degree to which [Chip] Reese fails to think about these things is famous around town. He is rumored to have lost in his own house, every piece of jewelry he has ever owned, and for a period to have paid without question a monthly water bill of two thousand dollars. After some time, the water company discovered that the pipe supplying his house had broken and was flooding the area for acres around. Reese himself had not noticed.

"Money means nothing," he told me. "If you really cared abut it, you wouldn't be able to sit down at a poker table and bluff off fifty thousand dollars. If I thought what that could buy me, 1 could not be a good player. Money is just the yardstick by which you measure your success. In Monopoly, you try to win all the cash by the end of the game. It's the same in poker: you treat chips like play money and don't think about it until it's all over."


"In order to play high-stakes poker, you need to have a total disregard for money," Doyle Brunson said. "It is just an instrument, and the only time you notice it is when you run out." Among the top players, however, running out of money is a relative concept. Although they all announce, with pride, that every real pro has gone broke more times than he can count, being out of money does not seem to affect their spendthrift habits. Johnny Moss told me that when he was younger he had had no difficulty in borrowing $10,000 to play poker but had known no one he could ask for $500 simply to get out of town. He also said that gamblers drove the best cars, wore the best clothes, stayed at the best hotels, got the best-looking women, and lived like millionaires even when they were broke; the amount of money they had at any particular moment did not alter their habits one jot.


Money is no longer money to the professionals; it is like a wrench to a plumber — a tool of the trade.

Alvarez also steps back to consider the economics of gambling, as when he discusses how the focus of Las Vegas casinos on middle-class consumers was essential to its development:

The typical guest at a Strip hotel is middle-aged and middle class -- over a quarter of the guests are college graduates, a fifth are self-employed -- and that is how the casinos want it. They are more interested in turnover than in the really high rollers. This is why they have failed to attract the oil-rich Arabs who fuel the gambling economy of Europe, The Arabs, I was told, find Las Vegas rules too restrictive. If they bet the table limit on a single number at roulette, they are not allowed to double that bet on a split number, or treble or quadruple it on a three-way or four-way chance, as they can in London. The conglomerates that now own most of the casinos do not want million-dollar winners, or even million-dollar losers. They want steadier, more moderate customers -- those who will win or lose tens of thousands of dollars at most. Which is, of course, more than enough to wipe out the majority of us. But in the world of really big-time gambling they order these things differently, and Las Vegas has lost out as a result. Its casinos turn over more than a billion dollars a year, but democratically, from twelve million weekenders, conventioneers, and passing tourists and some sixty thousand couples served annually by the town's second industry -- quick marriages.

Later he has some great images of downtown Las Vegas in the early 1980s:

The Horseshoe belongs to downtown Las Vegas, a geographically separate entity, otherwise known as Glitter Gulch -- eight dollars by taxi from Caesars or twenty minutes by bus -- to which the punters are ferried in from Los Angeles by the coachload, like migrant workers to the California fruit farms, and where the hotels have no tennis courts or golf courses or gymnasiums, and only a couple of them have swimming pools (smaller than average backyard pools in suburban Phoenix) tucked away on their roofs. Downtown Las Vegas is strictly for gambling; there is nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. Fremont Street is lined with shops peddling cheap clothes and hideous souvenirs and zircon rings and pornography. In an area of about four blocks, there are more pawnshops than in the whole of Greater London. But I discovered only one drugstore, one five-and-ten, and nowhere at all to buy groceries or fruit. Ordinary shops are banished, like ordinary life, to the shopping centers and the suburbs.

Glitter Gulch is for transients, most of them elderly and dressed to kill old women in lime green or banana yellow or Florida orange pants suits clutching Dixie cups of small change in one hand, the lever of one of Vegas's fifty thousand slot machines in the other; old men with plastic teeth and sky blue plastic suits shooting craps for a dollar, playing fifty-cent blackjack and three-dollar-limit stud poker; wrecks in wheelchairs or with walking frames, the humped, the bent, the skeleton thin, and the obese, cashing in their Social Security checks, disability allowances, and pensions, waiting out their time in the hope of a miracle jackpot to transform their last pinched days. All of them are animated by a terrible Walpurgis-nacht jollity, gamblers' optimism compounded by nostalgia. THB GOOD OLD DAYS, Say the neon signs, and 50¢ BAR DRINKS, WIN A CAR 25¢, FREE ASPIRIN & TENDER SYMPATHY. For the Snopeses of this world, Glitter Gulch is the absurd last stop on the slow train to the grave.

The young are fewer and not much more presentable. The trim, straight-backed young people who roam with such extraordinary grace and confidence around the rest of the United States and seem to be America's most triumphant export to Europe have mostly bypassed downtown Vegas. Instead, the rule for both sexes is big bottoms, beer bellies, and skin muddied by Big Macs and French fries. The boys have tattoos on their arms, and the girls heads are permed and dyed so relentlessly that a natural head of hair seems like a visitation; you stare after it, thinking, who is that?

None of them, young or old, are any more awful than the tourists on the Strip; they are simply less obviously affluent and considerably more single-minded. For Glitter Gulch is where the real action is, the thing in itself, with no pretensions to glamour or luxury, or even holiday making. The people are there simply to gamble, and most of them, sooner or later, try their luck at the Horseshoe. It is the natural setting for the World Series of Poker.

There is also a great line about the Las Vegas Strip:  “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.” Highly recommended.