|Title||The Biggest Game in Town|
|Year||1983 (2002 printing)|
|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.|
|9||Binion's Horseshoe, traveling from England, history of Las Vegas||1|
|25||Benny Binion, WSOP history, Nick the Greek Dandolos and his duel with Johnny Moss, Texas Hold 'Em Rules||2|
|43||Jack Straus, Jimmy Chagra (poker-playing cocaine dealer)||3|
|65||Staying at Golden Nugget, theft||4|
|73||1981 WSOP, $5,000 Seven-Card Stud event||5|
|81||Mario Puzo (as gambler), Bobby Baldwin||6|
|119||1981 WSOP (including Ace-to-Five event with Jack Straus)||8|
|133||Random Las Vegas stories, David Sklansky||9|
|147||1981 WSOP, Stu Ungar, Brunson, Jack Straus; Main Event to Day 3||10|
|173||1981 WSOP Main Event, brief paragraph on 1982 WSOP Main Event||11|
Note: The book has neither a Table of Contents nor chapter names.
For the WSOP's first dozen years, no reporters attended beyond the local Las Vegas newspapers, and CBS had only recently started giving the event a little annual television coverage. Surprisingly, a Brit and not an American became the first to write the history down in a book.
Alvarez begins with the settling of the Las Vegas area by Brigham Young in 1855, explores the fascinating lives of Benny Binion, and several famous poker players including Nick "the Greek" Dandolos, Johnny Moss, Jack Straus, Bobby Baldwin, Doyle Brunson, and Stu Ungar.
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
Two million in 1949 dollars was worth about $21 million in 2019.
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
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
Source: Cowboys Full - The Story of Poker, page 266.
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).
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.
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.