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 with gambling than with a term in the salt mines.” That is all we ever hear about Alvarez as a poker player.
What makes such modesty useful here is not just that Alvarez avoids irritating hero stories. He also creates a convincing tone about Las Vegas and about the Texans who invented “hold ‘em,” the main big-time poker game, and who have dominated no-limit poker for many years. Since many Americans easily take superior attitudes about Las Vegas and Texans, one might suspect an educated Englishman of doing so too. Superiority or, worse, its opposite side, sentimentality, as in the view of a man named Mickey Appleman.
I’m a romantic, and for me gambling is a romance. That’s what I enjoy; the rest is by the way. I play and I play and I play; then I pick up the pieces and see how I did. It’s only at that moment that I realize I was playing for real money. How could I play at all if I started thinking about the sums involved? Can you measure the goods and services a ten-thousand-dollar bet is going to buy? No. But you can measure the intrinsic feeling you get from gambling. Everybody has these subtle energies floating around inside…. But there are gamblers here who don’t sublimate them; they let them out. That’s what high rolling is about.
Yet another American myth of self-liberation, one might think, and Alvarez goes this far in indulging it:
They pride themselves on the fact that they survive spectacularly well outside the system: no bosses or government bureaucrats on their backs telling them what they should do and how they should do it, no routine that is not of their own choosing, no success that is not the result of their own unaided talents.
But he does not endorse it. The next voice he quotes is that of Jack Binion who runs the Horseshoe, the only place in Las Vegas that allows unlimited betting. The Horseshoe is downtown, a family business, and the big places are out on the Strip, where the owners prefer to nick middle-class, middle-aged Americans who come to town for a convention or a weekend. Binion describes an old man who had a lucky streak and was $700,000 ahead. Someone suggested that he take a seventh of that and buy himself an annuity that would make him comfortable for life:
“But he didn’t even consider it,” Binion said. “He would rather take his chances of going broke. Which he did, and it didn’t bother him at all. And, when you think about it, he was right. If you go broke here in America, you don’t really starve to death…. There is a far greater difference between you and some poor native in Africa than there is between you and the richest man in the world. We all eat much the same food and sleep on the same brand of mattress as the Hunt brothers down there in Dallas. This shirt of mine is one hundred percent cotton, and that’s all Bunker Hunt is going to be able to wear.”
We can be interested in the people who play no-limit poker, Alvarez seems to say, but we should not think of them as exceptional, just different, particularly in their insulation from the rest of the world. One of the regulars, Eric Drache, says:
It’s utterly unproductive. You can’t even carry on a conversation. The losers say, “Shut up and deal,” and anyway how much input can there be with guys who play twelve hours, then go home and sleep? What’s happened to them? What are they going to talk about? Their dreams? A few years back, there was one old guy, a regular, who didn’t even know there was a war on in Vietnam. That’s why we all enjoy it when someone comes in from out of town. But we don’t get many of them, because the game is too high.
Another regular, Chip Reese, told Alvarez:
Hundred-dollar bills in Vegas are like one-dollar bills anywhere else. I don’t even carry dollar bills except to tip the cocktail waitresses, and I can’t remember the last time I had coins in my pockets.
Las Vegas itself, set down in the middle of the desert, utterly unproductive yet able to support half a million people, does a good deal to create the insulation.
Equally telling is the difference between these people, who play poker for hundreds of thousands of dollars most days of their lives, and what Scott Fitzgerald called the very rich. Hemingway was wrong in part to think that the difference was that the very rich have more money. A journalist once asked Amarillo Slim, one of the top poker players, “why a Texas oil millionaire who could not be scared out of a pot” would not eventually win over the professionals.
“Son,” replied Slim, who has a reputation for vivid, folksy imagery, “that millionaire would have as much chance in a game with us as you would of getting a French kiss out of the Statue of Liberty.” So the journalist was an innocent, and Amarillo Slim, once described as an advance man for a famine, gave a smart answer. My guess, though, is that Alvarez did not suspect the answer to the journalist’s question when he went to Las Vegas; it is certainly true that in asking what no-limit poker is about, The Biggest Game in Town rightly does not give one answer but a number of answers.
We can start with Stu Ungar, who won $375,000 in the World Series of Poker in 1981. Ungar is in his middle twenties but looks like a scrawny teenager, “loose-jointed and deathly pale, with a nervous, rapid-fire, slurring voice and a slightly simian jaw.” He came to Las Vegas with a reputation of being the world’s best gin-rummy player, “so good that he could no longer find anyone willing to play him, even in the Borscht Belt.” His IQ was said to be 185, “but he seemed to use it only to play cards and calculate odds.” When Ungar was asked what he was going to do with his money, he simply answered, “Lose it.” The Texas oil millionaire who could not be scared out of a pot would not have said that, and might not easily have understood it.
Ungar might lose the money in a bad run of cards; everyone gets them. He might lose it by making a mistake, or by going up against someone who, on that night, was playing better. He might lose it, as many high rollers do, betting on horses, or golf, or football games, situations where they are not expert or cannot control the outcome. Ungar and the others, however, are willing to lose all they have, and most of the very rich aren’t willing. For the high roller money is power, is interesting, only within the confines of the game.
As a game, poker is nowhere nearly as interesting as bridge or chess. Limit poker gets very dull after a while because it is a game for technicians, who know the odds and probabilities, and who discipline their game accordingly. The odds are not hard to learn, though the discipline can be, and the rest is repetition. You could never have an interesting poker column in a newspaper. When the limit is taken off, the odds don’t alter, or the runs of good and bad cards, but everything else changes. Alvarez tells a story about the game that was the first unofficial poker championship, one that should show the difference.
In 1949 Nick the Greek Dandalos arrived in Las Vegas wanting to play no-limit poker with a single opponent. Jack Binion got Johnny Moss, one of the most skillful Texans, to fly in from Dallas. On the night in question the game is five-card stud. In the biggest hand, Moss gets a nine down and a six up; the Greek shows a seven. Moss, whose “sentences are as economical as telegraphs,” told Alvarez:
The next card comes, I catch a nine, he catches a six. I got two nines then. I make a good bet—five thousand, maybe—an’ he plays back at me, twenny-five thousand. I jus’ call him [i.e., match him]. I’m figurin’ to take all that money of his, an’ I don’t wanna scare him none.
On the fourth card Moss gets a deuce and the Greek a three. No change. Moss checks, the Greek makes a big bet, and Moss makes a big raise, which the Greek calls. Moss has two nines and the most the Greek can have is a pair of sevens. On the last card Moss gets a three and the Greek a jack.
He’s high now with the jack an’ he bets fifty thousand. I cain’t put him on no jack in the hole, you know. [That is, he can’t believe he has a jack face down on the table.] He ain’t gonna pay all that money jus’ for the chance to outdraw me…. So I move in with the rest of my money.
There is silence, and over $300,000 in the pot. The Greek says, “Mr. Moss, I think I have a jack in the hole.” “Greek,” Moss replies, “if you got a jack down there, you’re liable to win yourself one hell of a pot.” The Greek calls Moss’s bet and turns over the jack of diamonds.
The Greek’s play is wholly contrary to what a technician of the game would do. He not only calls but raises when he has only one card, the jack in the hole, that he can use to beat what he must take to be Moss’s pair of nines. The odds are twelve to one against him. But he does two things at once playing as he does. If he loses, he sets himself up as someone who is playing loosely and can be had; it is an expensive way to establish that, but an even bigger hand may come along where Moss might get greedy. And, of course, he might win “one hell of a pot.”
For the very rich the Greek’s play would be just mystifying. Playing Moss’s cards, the oil millionaire probably would make too big a bet too soon, winning with the pair of nines, and driving the Greek out before there is much action. If he were playing the Greek’s cards and wanting to bluff, the millionaire might keep going, but the moment Moss makes his big raise on the fourth card, it certainly would seem time to stop. At which point the bluff has lost its meaning. It neither establishes anything in the eyes of the opponent, who is left free to surmise that the Greek had a lower pair, nor leaves open the possibility of hitting the jack on the fifth card.
Of all poker games, five-card stud is the most restrictive, the one in which the technician or the millionaire could hold out longer against the high rollers. The Texas game, hold ‘em, has many more possibilities for bluffing, and for out-drawing an opponent late. And even the Greek eventually was worn down. After five months of almost continuous play, he had to smile courteously and say, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Rumor says he lost $2 million, a lot of money back in 1949.
Alvarez does not try to “explain” bigtime poker by using one dramatic game for illustration. He lets the players talk enough to show how they are collectively alike yet individually different, and describes enough so that we can see how the game and the players are different from us. I wish he had included more hands, but that is a minor cavil. Throughout the country and the world right now, a pair of jacks is beating a pair of nines in hands no one will remember five minutes after they are over. Only in very big games will anyone be doing what Nick the Greek did with such paltry cards.
No-limit poker is a more restricted subject than suicide or divorce, but Alvarez has done better by it than by the other two. The players are fascinating, but not heroes; the game is exciting, but never glamorous; the world is charged, but unreal. Any gambler will know how difficult a feat Alvarez has performed, and anyone at all can admire the restraint in Alvarez’s reporting, and feel an uneasy amazement that every word is probably true.