Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Rereading The Biggest Game in Town: Prelude (1 of 6)

Rereading 'The Biggest Game in Town'About a month ago I wrote a post titled “The Test of Time” in which I talked a bit about blogs and writing and this desire I have to write something “meaningful and lasting about poker.” As we all know, poker can inspire in so many different ways, and over the years the game has encouraged a number of gifted writers to dedicate time and effort to producing some genuinely enduring works, having been moved to do so by their experiences with poker as well as by its history and culture.

One of the great benefits of teaching this “Poker in American Film and Culture” class this spring has been getting to assign some of these great writers’ works and reread them along with my students. It is fun and informative to hear their responses to the stories and ideas we’re reading together. It is also interesting to reread these works with an eye toward leading discussions about them, which necessarily requires that I read much more attentively and critically than I might have previously.

We’ve reached the midpoint of the semester and are now in the middle of The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez (first published in 1983). I’m having the students read the entire book, which for us is serving as a kind of bridge between the historical material on which we’ve mostly been concentrating thus far and the fictional stories, novel, and films we’re about to encounter.

Alvarez is a literary critic and poet. Thus it isn’t surprising that his book -- a nonfictional, journalistic account of the 1981 WSOP -- is also quite “literary” in many ways, with a great deal of description, the exploration of various symbols and themes, characterization and dramatic plotting, and other such elements. Sure it’s history, but it often reads like an episodic novel, too, and therefore fits neatly into this little space I’ve carved out for it in the course.

Al AlvarezThe Biggest Game in Town is also about a lot more than just the 1981 WSOP. A slim volume of 55,000 words or so, the book includes many, many insights about poker, gambling, human nature, Las Vegas, American culture, and more, delivered both by Alvarez -- the visiting Englishman -- and by the dozens of players and others he interviewed for the book.

I’d read the book at least twice before, and had gone back to look at several sections again for various reasons, including when alluding to The Biggest Game in Town for posts I’ve written here and for other articles I’ve written elsewhere. However, rereading with my class has further proven to me how deserving it is to be accorded such a high place in most folks’ “best poker writing” lists.

Having been inspired somewhat during this most recent trip back through Alvarez’s narrative, I had an idea that I would devote a short series of posts to the book here both to respond to some of the stories and insights Alvarez is sharing and perhaps also to encourage others who haven’t read The Biggest Game in Town to pick it up.

In fact, in these posts I’m actually going to focus most of my attention on a single chapter (Chapter 3). At just over 20 pages, it is one of the longer chapters in the book, containing numerous anecdotes and brief interviews as it pursues a number of different themes already suggested in the first two chapters. Over the next week, I’m going to pull out five different topics from this chapter, do a little close reading of what is written, and then offer my own responses to issues raised.

Those five topics are as follows: (1) the way poker, especially when played for high stakes, challenges traditional ideas of “reality”; (2) living with adversity, most particularly dealing with losing; (3) the Jimmy Chagra story; (4) Mickey Appelman on the “romance” of poker and gambling; and (5) how in America gambling can be viewed as a form of patriotism.

This little excursion will necessarily carry us away from the news of the day over the next little while. But I trust you’ll be able to find plenty of information elsewhere on things like the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship happening this weekend, the latest developments and revelations in the UB insider cheating scandal, the conclusion of the WPT L.A. Poker Classic and the start of the don’t-call-it-NAPT-anymore event at the Bike, and/or whatever Charlie Sheen tweets next.

Most of that stuff will hold our attention for a little while before evaporating soon enough, I’m going to guess. Meanwhile, starting tomorrow, I’m going to see if I can successfully address (with the help of Alvarez) a few relatively more “timeless” topics inspired by poker.

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