A. Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town

The Biggest Game in Town


A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town, a newly reissued classic that first appeared in 1983, is like a silk blazer. Suave and dry, Alvarez sees chips stacked baroquely on the baize as ”grim desert fortresses” and keenly understands their value: ”Money is no longer money to the professionals; it is like a wrench to a plumber — a tool of the trade.” He takes us to downtown Las Vegas, unluxurious Glitter Gulch, for the World Series of Poker. The game is Texas Hold’em, a variation known as ”seven-card crack.” The host is Benny Binion, a bootlegger and thief who made good as the proprietor of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. First prize is $375,000, which is only okay, considering that anyone likely to win it is accustomed to gambling ”deranged sums.”

As explained by Alvarez, high-level poker is an epic antidrama, Beckett with cocktail waitresses: ”After you have spent a period of time in Glitter Gulch, even the mountains off on the horizon no longer seem real; nor do the jet trails high above them. Everything is swallowed up by the fiction of action and a vast, insatiable narcissism.” In this milieu, thorough monotony coexists with extreme anxiety. Everyone sits in place for hours on end, praying for his cards to come in. Everyone has one thing on his mind, and Alvarez turns ”The Biggest Game” into a linked series of subtly freakish portraits — a family portrait. ”’Part of the tension of the game,”’ one player tells him, ”’is not created by the size of the stakes; it’s a family tension, a terrible intimacy.”’

For the true professionals, the game itself is all, the mere fact of poker’s existence seemingly more important than the outcome of any one round. Alvarez writes that World Series champion Stu Ungar was asked, at a post-tournament press conference, what he’d do with the money: ”Ungar ducked his head again, giggled, and muttered into his chest, ‘Lose it.”’

The Biggest Game in Town
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