“Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats” Review

[LL] “The New Yorker magazine paid Al Alvarez to return to the World Series of Poker Main Event in 1994,1” Leroy the Lion related, “and his account of the tournament is one of the two sections of the coffee table book, Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats, published in 2001.

[RR] “Another long reporting delay like Fading Hearts on the River?” Roderick the Rock supposed.

[LL] “Yes, but it didn’t strike me as odd this time. Maybe because it’s an older book and the focus isn’t on how Alvarez plays poker.

But he’s also forgiven a little because he needed some of the time to write the other half of the book, which is basically a pictorial history of poker.

Alvarez begins by explaining how to play the game and how he learned to play the game primarily from Herbert O. Yardley’s 1957 book, The Education of a Poker Player.

While Las Vegas was the focus of his previous poker book, the rest of the country and other parts of the world get into the act here. Alvarez reproduces playing cards, postcards, paintings, posters, pages of books, and a panoply of other poker-related paraphernalia. Amongst the treasures are the illustrated Shakespeare on Poker, which attempts to link quotes from the Bard to the game.2

He then covers the history of poker, including the German game brag, the introduction of the 52-card deck (which added straights and flushes to the game in 1837), the first description of poker in a book (1844), jackpots, stud, Hold ‘Em (which he dates back to the 19th century), and Omaha.

Among the many memorable quotes in the book are Amarillo Slim Preston’s attitude toward playing the master of Five-Card Stud (‘I’d rather catch frost on my winter peaches than play stud with Bill Boyd.’)3 and Puggy Pearson’s assessment of what a great poker player needs (‘A gambler’s ace is his ability to think clearly under stress. That’s very important, because, you see, fear is the basis of all mankind.’).”

[RR] “He had over a dozen years to prepare after The Biggest Game in Town, right?”

[LL] “He claims he prepared for about fifteen months, far longer than Colson Whitehead, at least.

Alvarez’s own poker story recounts how he satellites into and plays two preliminary events ($1,500 Pot-Limit Hold ‘Em and $2,500 No-Limit Hold ‘Em) before entering the Main Event on his publisher’s dime. The warm ups do not help; he says he played bad, worse, and worst, mostly by being too tight-weak. But the show goes on without him, and the crowning of the champion ends up being quite a weighty topic.”

[RR] “Oh, was that the one that Russ Hamilton won and got his massive weight in silver as a bonus?”

[LL] “Indeed. The book unfortunately neglects to include the wonderful caricature that accompanied the original New Yorker article. Hamilton appears significantly bigger than his last two opponents, Hugh Vincent and John Spadavecchia, combined. Alvarez reported that the Horseshoe had prepared 300 pounds of silver ingots but were still 30 pounds short (for a bonus prize worth $28,512).”

Title Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats
Author Al Alvarez
Year 2001
Skill Level any
Pros Photographic history of poker plus details of the 1994 World Series of Poker.
Cons Fairly short book, especially given how much space is taken by photos.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. Alvarez’s article, “No Limit” is The Sporting Scene section of the August 8, 1994 issue of The New Yorker.
  2. The attempted humor is rather dry, but you can laugh at the author instead of with him when he shows the Draw Poker hand 5♣4♣3♣2♣Q♦ with the caption, “Woman, get thee to a nunnery” (Hamlet Act III, Scene I).
  3. The Five-Card Stud event at the World Series of Poker was discontinued after Boyd had won it each of the four times it was contested.
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