The compulsive characters; the cool ping of the argot – tells and tilts, flops and folds; the glam grimness of the atmosphere; the built-in tension of chance: Smart money says you can count on the poker table, and the minds it attracts, for a seductive story.
In the case of Andy Bellin’s Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure Into the Heart of a Gambling Country – the memoir of a onetime Paris Review editor and longtime ”degenerate gambler” – the juiced-up vibe of the game has transformed the very prose. The reader must suffer Bellin’s get it?s and but heys, his guy’s-guy quips, and his slumming grammar. But what Poker Nation lacks in elegance it makes up for in low-end snazziness. Bellin’s prose shimmers – it just does so in the manner of a red satin tracksuit.
A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town, a newly reissued classic that first appeared in 1983, is more like a silk blazer. Suave and dry, Alvarez sees chips stacked baroquely on the baize as ”grim desert fortresses” and keenly understands their value: ”Money is no longer money to the professionals; it is like a wrench to a plumber – a tool of the trade.” He takes us to downtown Las Vegas, unluxurious Glitter Gulch, for the World Series of Poker. The game is Texas Hold’em, a variation known (at least in Bellin’s circles) as ”seven-card crack.” The host is Benny Binion, a bootlegger and thief who made good as the proprietor of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. First prize is $375,000, which is only okay, considering that anyone likely to win it is accustomed to gambling ”deranged sums.”
As explained by Alvarez, high-level poker is an epic antidrama, Beckett with cocktail waitresses: ”After you have spent a period of time in Glitter Gulch, even the mountains off on the horizon no longer seem real; nor do the jet trails high above them. Everything is swallowed up by the fiction of action and a vast, insatiable narcissism.” In this milieu, thorough monotony coexists with extreme anxiety. Everyone sits in place for hours on end, praying for his cards to come in. Everyone has one thing on his mind, and Alvarez turns The Biggest Game into a linked series of subtly freakish portraits – a family portrait. ”’Part of the tension of the game,”’ one player tells him, ”’is not created by the size of the stakes; it’s a family tension, a terrible intimacy.”’
Bellin, though a superb player, is unworthy of the ultra-high-stakes clan. He wistfully surmises that ”there are about 135,000 people shuffling cards at this very moment who are better than me.” A player since age 8, when he would ante up mini-marshmallows with his mother, Bellin entered the poker life in earnest after being forced to quit an astrophysics masters program. As he recounts in his typical tone – louche posturing somehow inseparable from humble candor – ”I used to play poker because I had a tough time holding down a real job and I wanted to have something to do during the day and maybe make a little money.” He guesses he’s lost about 200,000 hands.
Leading us through New York card clubs and lost Vegas weekends, Poker Nation is, on one level, a how-to guide; it offers tips on bluffing, facts on probability theory, and sleazy dish on the techniques of card cheats. On another level, it is a cautionary tale, portraying such addicts as the famed Crazy Rich, whose arc took him from Wall Street to an Atlantic City pawnshop and then on the lam. But, most compellingly, Poker Nation is a first-person case study of a talented, masochistic, monomaniacal freak. Bellin writes that at the end of a hand, waiting to see his opponents’ cards, he is often filled by ”a loathing for everything that I’ve done in my life that led me to that moment of waiting.” He describes the feeling of realizing that his cards aren’t as strong as he thought they were as a ”wave of nausea” crashing on top of his head and reports that the sensation ”is honestly charging me up.” He doesn’t want your pity. What he wants is to play the next hand.
Which is in the high-rolling spirit of the psyches expertly shown at work/play in The Biggest Game. For the true professionals, the game itself is all, the mere fact of poker’s existence seemingly more important than the outcome of any one round. Alvarez writes that World Series champion Stu Ungar was asked, at a post-tournament press conference, what he’d do with the money: ”Ungar ducked his head again, giggled, and muttered into his chest, ‘Lose it.”’ Poker Nation: B+ The Biggest Game in Town: A-