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Monday, July 19, 2004

The Biggest Game in Town (and a Couple Tangents)
I finished The Biggest Game in Town a couple weeks ago, and my thoughts on it have been percolating since then, so this post is gonna be kinda long. For my short-attention-span readers, here's the quick version: On the cover of the book, a reviewer is quoted saying "probably the best book on poker ever written." I agree.

As you may know, there's a quadrilogy of sorts about the World Series of Poker. First, there's The Hand I Played: A Poker Memoir by David Spanier, in which the author described his experience playing in the (1980?) WSOP. (I haven't read this one yet.) Then there's The Biggest Game in Town, by Al Alvarez, which covers the 1981 WSOP. Then there's Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player, by Anthony Holden, in which the author plays in the 1988 WSOP, plays poker for a year, then plays again in the 1989 WSOP. And finally there is Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, which is set during the simultaneously-occurring 2000 WSOP and Ted Binion murder trial.

Given the current poker craze, there will surely be more books about the Word Series of Poker out within the year. Part of my reason for reading The Biggest Game in Town (and soon, The Hand I Played), along with the most highly-recommended how-to poker books, is so that I have a good background to weigh the coming deluge of poker books against. Let us hope that future WSOP books are even half as good as The Biggest Game in Town.

Simply put, The Biggest Game in Town does a brilliant job of capturing why poker--and poker players--are so fascinating. What's more, this book that was first published in 1983 does a better job of describing the excitement and allure of the WSOP than any of the "America's poker craze" articles I've read in the past couple years.

Nuggets of Wisdom

First off, this book has more of the greatest poker quotes all packaged together than anything I've read. Seems like every few pages there was a bit of poker wisdom that really gave you insight into the game. Some of these quotes were no doubt were known in the poker world prior to this book, but I couldn't help but wonder how many first saw print in The Biggest Game in Town and have just been repeated ad infinitum ever since. Here's a couple I just now picked out flipping through the book:
Playing poker for a living gives you a backbone. You cannot survive without that intangible quality we call heart. I don't care how bad you are or how good, you have to stand solid. Poker is a character builder--especially the bad times. The mark of a top player is not how much he wins when he is winning but how he handles his losses. --Bobby Baldwin

If they had wanted you to hold on to money, they'd have made it with handles on. --Jack Straus

It's like any other field; you have to develop yourself and your game. Poker is a skill; it's an art; it's a science. You have to improve continually and know your own weakenesses. To be successful, you must be realistic. . . There can be no self-deception. --Mickey Appleman

I'm willing to play anyone in the world for any amount. It doesn't matter who they are. Once they have a hundred or two hundred throusand dollars' worth of chips in front of them, they all look the same. They all look like dragons to me, and I want to slay them. --Jack Straus
More Like a Documentary Than Other Books

In a previous post, I compared Big Deal to Positively Fifth Street, and explained why I liked Big Deal better. While reading The Biggest Game in Town, I couldn't help but compare it to the other two books. All three books describe the drama of no-limit Hold'Em, the history of the WSOP, and the intensity surrounding the event. Keep in mind the order in which the books were written. The Biggest Game in Town describes the WSOP and the major players in it, providing non-poker players with a wonderful window into the world of professional poker. When Anthony Holden wrote Big Deal, he essentially did the same thing but added a "twist": He played in two WSOPs, and several major major tournaments in between. In Positively Fifth Street, McManus added a different twist, simultaneously chronicling his WSOP experience and the Ted Binion murder trial that was going on just down the street.

So my point is that, reading these books in reverse chronological order as I did, I felt that with each I was reading a "purer" poker chronicle (fewer "twists"). My biggest problems with Positively Fifth Street were that the murder trial seemed like it belonged in a different book, and also McManus wrote a lot about his childhood and such. I was wishing he would just focus on the WSOP, but now I see that he add those other elements at least partly because the definitive WSOP chronicle had already been written by Al Alavarez.

I really, really liked Big Deal, but it was also written from the perspective of a WSOP participant. Holden describes his experiences at the table, and a couple chapters in Big Deal even deal with him visiting a psychiatrist to try and understand why he is so obsessed with poker.

The Biggest Game in Town, however, is written from the perspective of an outsider. Alavarez doesn't play any poker at all in his book, nor does he really discuss himself in any way. He's an observer rather than a particpant, and that gives the book a very distinct tone--it's a lot more like a documentary than a memoir. For example, McManus portrays T.J. Cloutier as a poker legend--but he also described rivering him at least twice in Positively Fifth Street, and that detracts from the dramatic image of poker that he's trying to paint. Similarly, Anthony Holden provides character sketches of several poker greats, but since Holden--whose experience at the time was limited largely to home games--is traveling the poker pro circuit with these greats, it kind of detracts from the view of them as larger-than-life.

Not so with The Biggest Game in Town. Alvarez does an incredible job of capturing the psychology that drives poker greats such as Brunson and Straus without delving into his own interest in the game. Because he doesn't try to live in their world, Alvarez is better able to capture the romance of it.

That's not to knock Holden and McManus. In several ways their books are more realistic. But the fact is that countless poker players view the WSOP as the arena where legends gather and heroes are made--and the The Biggest Game in Town captures that romantic image best.

Interestingly, in Big Deal Anthony Holden mentions Alvarez several times, describing him as a good friend and a regular in his home poker game. So from Big Deal I know that, despite the "outsider" perspective of his book, Alvarez loves poker about as much as Holden; and in writing Big Deal Holden was trying to provide a different perspective than Alvarez had.

Window to the Past

Written more than 20 years ago, The Biggest Game in Town provides a picture of an interesting time for the WSOP, when it was beginning to attract national attention and draw more amateurs. It's interesting to think about the differences between then and now, what's changed and what hasn't. A few things struck me.

First, Doyle Brunson is a bad-ass. This book made that clearer than any other book I've read. I particularly liked Alvarez's account of the difficulty that Brunson had in publishing Super/System. The publishing houses refused to give him more than 10 percent, so he published it on his own and didn't make a profit on it for years. Now it's the bestselling poker book of all time.

Second, all the debates about the WSOP--"Are there too many amateurs in the event?" "Does the luck outweigh the skill?" etc.--certainly did not originate with Moneymaker and instead go back to at least 1981. I really got the impression that the only big change to the WSOP over the years has been its scale.

Third, David Sklansky has always been cocky and loved math. I mention this because Iggy just posted (July 18, 2004, alas the Blogfather has no permalinks) about an argument on the 2+2 forums about Lee Jones's Winning Low-Limit Hold'Em versus a new book by Ed Miller and co-authored by Sklansky. Across several 2+2 posts, Sklansky goes on an on about how Ed Miller graduated from MIT and is therefore an authority on all things math and otherwise. What's perfectly clear in The Biggest Game in Town (if it wasn't already clear from Sklansky's books) is that to Sklansky, poker is math: "Almost anything can be put into a mathematical model, although most people don't know that." Alvarez also notes how proud the young author is of the fact that he went to (but did not graduate from) the University of Pennsylvania (just as he is so proud of Ed Miller being an MIT man). "'Not Penn State,' he insists, 'the University of Pennsylvania. There's a major difference: The University of Pennsylvania is part of the Ivy League."

A Couple Vegas Memories

Okay, have I made myself clear enough? Fantastic book, a real must-read for the poker enthusiast. On a personal note, I liked The Biggest Game in Town because, like the other poker chronicles, it brought back some fond memories.

As I said, it's quite evident that while McManus and Holden were writing their respective WSOP chronicles they were very much aware of their predecessors. One common thread is that both authors make a point of taking a dip in the Binion's rooftop pool, largely because Al Alvarez did so back in 1981. So in The Biggest Game in Town, I finally got to read that first account.

This is interesting to me primarily because Mrs. Cheap Thrills and I stayed at Binion's back in 1999 and did indeed take a couple dips in the rooftop pool. We hadn't read any of the WSOP chronicles at that point, and in fact didn't know much about big-time poker at all -- we just thought a dip in the pool would be nice. The rooftop was hot as hell and we literally ran from the elevator doors to the water. Five years later I've found it pretty cool to read all 3 WSOP chroniclers recount their experiences with the pool: their surprise at how small and spartan it is compared to the Strip; how few people seem to even know that Binion's has a pool; the beautiful view of the mountains; the weird feeling of being above the hubbub of Freemont Street; and the wonderful cold of the water compared to the scorching-hot rooftop. So that's a nifty little experience I share with 3 great poker writers.

That particular Vegas trip stands out in my mind because it was the only time we stayed downtown. (If you love Las Vegas and have never tried staying downtown, I recommend it for a change of pace.)

We were actually there during the WSOP, albeit not the final championship event. To my frustration, I couldn't find the damn event. While B played blackjack, I wondered around the casino and found some full poker tables with some spectators, but the whole affair seemed way too small to be the WSOP. Turns out those were the satellite games. The actual events were going on upstairs, and there weren't even any signs to that effect. Amazing how low-key it all was then. When I came back to check in with B, I told her sheepishly how I couldn't find the WSOP, and the blackjack dealer said he would be on break in a couple minutes and would be happy to take us up to it. Very, very nice guy, and I don't care if it was genuine or he was just looking for a tip, the whole encounter is a perfect example of why I love Las Vegas.

Upstairs turned out to be a large ballroom with hundreds of players seated at what seemed like at least a hundred tables, but was probably less. There were very few spectators. We stood there amazed for a bit, watching all the commotion going on behind maroon velvet ropes. The friendly blackjack dealer pointed out a couple of famous players. We recognized Johnny Chan from Rounders, but were mostly cluess about the rest and just nodded happily. Then the dealer said, "Would you like to take a walk around the floor?" And we said, "Are we allowed past the rope?" And the dealer, in true Vegas fashion, said "I don't see why not." And he unhooked the rope and we strolled righ past Johnny Chan's table, and hoo-boy did we think we were cool. Ahh, memories.

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