The Biggest Game in Town
It is the spring of 1951, and I am in the basement of a college dorm playing in an all-night poker game. At the end of a five-card-stud hand I have an ace, a queen, and the low cards showing, and I have a ten in the hole. My only remaining opponent has a jack and two low cards showing. It is, for us and for me especially, a big pot, with about $25 in it before the last bet. I “check,” i.e., pass up my chance to make a bet, and my opponent bets $10. I raise twenty, and he folds, laughing. He had been bluffing, and I, assuming he had something like a pair of jacks to make his bet, had been bluffing too.
None of this would be worth remembering now except that, at the time, my monthly income was $25. I was risking all I had or would have for some time. I have made much larger bets since, but none, perhaps, where I was betting relatively so much, and on a hand where I could have lost. It is as close as I will ever come to making the kind of bets that A. Alvarez describes in his account of no-limit poker in Las Vegas, where the pot may rise to half a million dollars or more.
“The poker tables at Las Vegas,” Alvarez writes, “are called ‘the graveyards of hometown champs.’ Poker players who have beaten their local games in all corners of the United States come to Vegas to test their skills, like tennis players converging on Wimbledon. Nearly all of them go home broke.” My guess is that in different circumstances I might have become one of those hometown champs who went to Las Vegas and returned home broke, but full of stories. Stories of how I beat a much better player or, worse, stories of the hand where I almost beat a much better player. One of Alvarez’s heroes, Jack Straus, rightly says, “I get tired of hearing gamblers tell hero stories about themselves.” Had I tried to write The Biggest Game in Town I feel sure I would have intruded myself too much, insisted on one or two stories that featured me.
Not Alvarez. In his two most recent big books, The Savage God and Life After Marriage, he does tend to intrude himself, and to see others clearly only when their point of view bears on his own. The Savage God is about suicide, Life After Marriage about divorce. If one were to write on these subjects, surely the “natural” order might rather be first gambling, then divorce, and suicide last. In reversing this order, Alvarez could be suggesting that after suicide attempts and divorce, not only big-stakes gambling becomes interesting but self-effacement as well. “For twenty-four of the twenty-seven nights I was in Vegas, I played three-dollar- and six-dollar-limit hold ’em at the Golden Nugget…. It was an exercise in discipline and patience, and had less in common…
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