As far as I’m concerned, the whole poker craze has been milked way past dry and needs to go away. Love the game, love McManus, but fake celebrities playing with fake money on Bravo? No game is interesting enough to prop that up.
However, the media milking has had at least one solid-gold benefit: ushering back into print A. Alvarez’s 1983 book on the World Series of Poker, The Biggest Game in Town. Originally published as a two-part essay in The New Yorker, Alvarez’s book first came to my attention in 1992. The book had gone out of print, and I had to order the New Yorker back issues in order to read it. Sadly, these got lost somewhere between Manhattan and Chicago when I moved the following year.
How thrilled I was, then, to learn that Chronicle Books has brought back The Biggest Game in book form. They also happen to have done so, as is their wont, in great style–the new trade paper edition is lovingly and bewitchingly designed, from the stylized tumbling poker chips on the front cover to the pretty club-heart, spade-diamond patterns gracing the endpapers. It’s so nice to see a book this good get the really head-turning production it deserves.
Alvarez, best known for his literary criticism and his friendship with Sylvia Plath, ranges as widely in his interests as any writer I can think of, and writes better than most of them. In addition to poetry, fiction, and criticism, he has books on suicide, divorce, sleep, and North Sea oil rigs. His indelible portrait of the WSOP and its setting, Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, is a historical portrait now that the casino (and the tournament) have new corporate owners. The Horseshoe will never again be as Alvarez described it: “down-home,” family-owned, “shabby, ill-lit, and crowded at all hours,” with patriarch Benny holding court in a restaurant upstairs and one of his sons always visible down on the floor, running things while chatting up the dealers and players all the while. Now that the Horseshoe’s body has been snatched by Harrah’s, Alvarez’s book has documentary as well as literary value. It also pioneered a literary sub-sub-genre that has turned out to have surprising legs. It observes a critical distance from its subject, however, that most poker narratives are helpless to maintain in the face of the game’s seductiveness. This is what makes it essential, and what makes it of interest even to readers who couldn’t care less about poker but would walk a mile for a perfect sentence.
Representative quotation: “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.”
Another poker book that fell out of print for several years is back in circulation: Anthony Holden’s comparatively workmanlike but compulsively readable Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. Big Deal is sort of the competent but comparatively dull older brother to Jim McManus’s flashily virtuosic Positively Fifth Street, which steals its predecessor’s concept but buffs it to such a high gloss that nobody much remembers the original. Like McManus, Holden is a professional writer and amateur player who finagled his way into the granddaddy game and then chronicled the experience. Alvarez appears in these pages as a character, the dean of the nominally friendly Tuesday night game in London where Holden cuts his teeth before storming Las Vegas. This is a book for people who have gobbled up Alvarez and McManus and still hunger for more of the same. If not as artful as Biggest Game nor as gripping as Fifth Street, Holden’s book is a fun ramble.
Representative quotation: “This event is the only one in the poker calendar which has the pros visibly on edge, anxious about their reputations, wondering if this could at last be their year. At Table Eight, Seat One, sat the most apprehensive of the lot–a lone, pallid Briton whose life had been building towards this moment for as long as he could remember. At this moment all his long and careful months of psychological preparation flew straight out the air-conditioning vents. He was a hopeless bundle of nerves, unsure of his tactics, confused about odds and outs, wondering what had possessed him to put himself through this ordeal.”
If Alvarez’s and Holden’s books never would have been reprinted without ESPN airing the WSOP in prime time and Positively Fifth Street taking off the way it did, Katy Lederer’s Poker Face: A Girlhood among Gamblers is a book that might never have been written at all. Lederer is little sister to two of the best and best-known poker players in the world. She dabbled in the game herself after college and probably had the native talent to go pro, but became a poet instead of a player. Her life story shuttles from the fusty private school in New Hampshire where her father taught English to poetry seminars at Berkeley to the gleaming McMansion on the outskirts of Vegas where her brother and mother ran a sports book in between poker nights. These are the raw materials of an amazing book. Poker Face, unfortunately, is not that book.
That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading. Lederer is a good writer and a brave one; it can’t have been easy to portray her family as unflatteringly as she sometimes does. But the book is full of promising moments and beginnings of insights that pass into the ether, maddeningly underexplored. A tough editor clearly could have done wonders for the book simply by pressing Lederer to say more–more about everything–and to work harder to unearth the connections between, for instance, the board games her family constantly played for fun and the casino games they later played for profit. Or between the allure of Vegas and the pull of writing. Or, to get at the heart of the matter, between these people’s gambling talent, their gambling compulsion, and their failure as a family.
I won’t tell you not to read Poker Face, even though it disappointed me medium-deeply. Its ingredients are fascinating even if sadly undercooked. I think I’d actually have enjoyed it enormously if I hadn’t felt haunted by the greatish book it might have been.
Representative quotation: “My brother kept asking me what I thought, how I liked [Las Vegas], and I beamed. Polished and proud, he was unafraid of anything. I was unafraid of anything. I stood at the brink of the casino floor, the lights and dings of the slot machines ringing in my ears, the cranks of roulette wheels spinning and spinning. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel lied to.”