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"The Biggest Game in Town" Review

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TitleThe Biggest Game in Town
AuthorAl Alvarez
Year1983 (2002 printing)
Skill Levelany
ProsExcellent telling of the story of Las Vegas and poker players and the 1981 World Series of Poker.
ConsNot much actual poker. Controversial origin story. No table of contents, chapter names, footnotes, bibliography, or index.

Table of Contents
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9Binion's Horseshoe, traveling from England, history of Las Vegas1
25Benny Binion, WSOP history, Nick the Greek Dandolos and his duel with Johnny Moss, Texas Hold 'Em Rules2
43Jack Straus, Jimmy Chagra (poker-playing cocaine dealer)3
65Staying at Golden Nugget, theft4
731981 WSOP, $5,000 Seven-Card Stud event5
81Mario Puzo (as gambler), Bobby Baldwin6
95Doyle Brunson7
1191981 WSOP (including Ace-to-Five event with Jack Straus)8
133Random Las Vegas stories, David Sklansky9
1471981 WSOP, Stu Ungar, Brunson, Jack Straus; Main Event to Day 310
1731981 WSOP Main Event, brief paragraph on 1982 WSOP Main Event11

Note: The book has neither a Table of Contents nor chapter names.

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Al Alvarez's 1983 book, The Biggest Game in Town, may have been the first book to tell the history of the World Series of Poker. It also features detailed coverage of the 1981 Main Event, which had grown to 75 players, still small enough that they assigned players to the eight tables by drawing names out of a plastic bowl.

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

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 Seven-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.

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