“The Biggest Game in Town” Review

[LL] “It’s hard to imagine what poker was like back in the old days”, Leroy the Lion opened.

[RR] “I couldn’t enjoy playing if I was worried about being cheated or robbed all the time”, Roderick the Rock agreed.

[LL] “I don’t even mean the road games. Even when the World Series of Poker was young, it was a very different game.”

[RR] “Yeah, very few players, mostly professionals at that, and the rooms were filled with smoke.”

[LL] “By 1981, the Main Event had all of 75 players. Just eight tables. So small they made seat assignments by drawing names out of a plastic bowl!”

[RR] “How do you know that?”

[LL] “I just finished reading Al Alvarez’s 1983 book, The Biggest Game in Town, which as far as I can tell was the first book to tell the history of the World Series of Poker.”

[RR] “It’s amazing that it took over a dozen years before someone wrote a book about the poker championship of the world.”

[LL] “On the contrary, I think it’s surprising he wrote about it that soon considering how small the event still was. Even more surprising that it was a British author! There was very little press beyond the local Las Vegas newspapers, and CBS had only recently started given the event just a little annual television coverage.

The book goes all the way back to when the area was settled by Brigham Young in 1855 before becoming the city of Las Vegas half a century later.

Along the way, Alvarez explores the fascinating lives of Benny Binion, the founder of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, and several famous poker players including Nick ‘the Greek’ Dandolos, Johnny Moss, Jack Straus, Bobby Baldwin, Doyle Brunson, David Sklansky, and Stu Ungar. Well, maybe Sklansky’s life isn’t that interesting.”

[RR] “I’m sure the others more than make up for it.”

[LL] “Indeed, Alvarez wasn’t wanting for material. Unfortunately, he chose the Dandolos-Moss myth for his title story. In Alvarez’s version, Dandolos, a high roller from Chicago, came to town in 1949 to play the very highest stakes no-limit poker. Binion complied, convincing his childhood friend Moss to make his first trip to Las Vegas from Texas to be his main opponent. Over the course of five months, the two supposedly battled almost non-stop in front of Binion’s casino until Moss broke Dandolos to the tune of a rumored two million dollars.1

Alvarez wasn’t the first to publish the story. Jon Bradshaw covered it in Johnny Moss’s chapter in Fast Company: How Six Master Gamblers Defy the Odds – and Always Win eight years earlier. But Alvarez moves the event from 1951 to 1949, adding another problem to the tale as Binion’s Horseshoe didn’t open until 1951, so the match couldn’t have been ‘thoughtfully positioned near the entrance to the casino… surrounded by crowds six deep’.2 In 2017, Benny’s son Jack confirmed that the story conflates two separate events (a brief, private, backroom Dandolos-Moss game at the Fremont and a larger public event at Binion’s). The amounts of money involved have also probably been exaggerated over time, so even the likely true story of Moss’s huge fifth street bad beat in a Five-Card Stud hand was probably for much less than the half-million dollar pot that the book claims.3

Alvarez’s less excusable error, however, is that he credits this marathon as the inspiration for the World Series of Poker and never mentions the actual predecessor, the 1969 ‘Texas Gamblers Reunion’. Texans Tom Moore and Vic Vickrey had added poker to their 2nd Annual Gaming Fraternity Convention at the Reno Holiday Hotel but remained unhappy with their improved event, as the attendees didn’t gamble enough at the casino outside of the reunion activities. Benny Binion, one of the 36 gamblers who had participated, requested permission to use the idea and debuted the World Series of Poker debuted the next year at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.4

Eleven years later, Alvarez is in town for the 1981 World Series of Poker, and he devotes a third of his book to three of its thirteen events:5 the $5,000 7-Card Stud, the $2,500 Limit Ace to Five Draw, and the $10,000 Main Event. Although he describes a few poker hands, his main focus, as in the rest of the book, is on the players. This wilder era was full of crazier and more colorful characters who didn’t hide behind hoodies and sunglasses, including Stu Ungar6 who had won the previous year’s Main Event.

Outside of the WSOP, other stories involve drug king Jimmy Chagra, who enjoyed playing for high stakes and wasn’t bothered by losing, and Mario Puzo, The Godfather author, who appropriately-enough loved Las Vegas, which was once heavily dominated by the mob, and various unusual characters. Mickey Appleman explains the normalcy of the latter: ‘A lot of people don’t fit in where they are, but Las Vegas takes anybody.’7

The book ends with a short paragraph on the 1982 WSOP Main Event, Jack Straus’s ‘chip and a chair’ miracle that was worthy of a full chapter if not an entire book of its own.

The Biggest Game in Town is an entertaining, well-written classic of poker history, chronicling a time long before thousand-player tournaments, television hole cams, and online poker. Even the six pages unfortunately devoted to the title story are enjoyable and should not detract from the overall value of the content.”

Title The Biggest Game in Town
Author Al Alvarez
Year 1983 (2002 printing)
Skill Level any
Pros Excellent telling of the story of Las Vegas and poker players and the 1981 World Series of Poker.
Cons Not much actual poker. Controversial origin story. No table of contents, chapter names, footnotes, bibliography, or index.
Rating 3.5

Footnotes:

  1. Two million in 1949 dollars was worth about $21 million in 2019.
  2. Page 39.
  3. Page 30.
  4. Source: Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker, page 266.
  5. Alvarez gives the count as twelve, perhaps omitting the $600 Mixed Doubles (the $400 Women’s 7-Card Stud is definitely included, so the exclusion isn’t based on openness).
  6. Stu Ungar would end up wearing sunglasses during the 1997 WSOP Main Event not to hide his eyes but his nose. His cocaine habit had collapsed his nostrils.
  7. Page 134.
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