Al Alvarez — who elevated poker to a subject worthy of serious literary attention through his seminal book The Biggest Game in Town — has died at age 90 of pneumonia.
Alvarez’s much-loved 1983 work is credited with popularizing Texas Hold’em and bringing the game — and its biggest characters at the time, such as Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Stuey Ungar, and Jack Strauss — to the attention of a wider audience.
It was the first book about poker that was not focused purely on strategy and, almost 40 years later, many still rate it as the best book about poker ever written.
Through it, Alvarez also single-handedly invented poker journalism — and The Biggest Game in Town was very much a work of journalism.
‘Cowboys in Alligator Boots’
Englishman Alvarez was already a celebrated poet, author, essayist, and critic when he, as a passionate player of the game, was commissioned by The New Yorker to write a behind-the-scenes report on the 1981 World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas.
Initially published as a series of two long articles in The New Yorker, Alvarez’s account of the tournament was a big hit with readers, which inspired him two years later to adapt them into a book. Unlike many books about poker, it has never been out of print.
“I felt like I had walked into a Sam Peckinpah movie,” Alvarez later wrote in his memoir ‘Where Did It All Go Right?’, as he recalled a literary Englishman’s first experience of the Las Vegas high-stakes poker demi-monde of the early 1980s.
“Cowboys in alligator boots, wildcatters wearing Stetsons and Dior ties, gnarled good old boys with eyes like ferrets who farmed in West Texas,” he marveled.
Born in London to a long-established Sephardic Jewish family, Alvarez was, by his own description, a “fragile child,” so he made a point of “ceasing to be one,” and throughout his life embraced danger and risk, taking up boxing, mountain climbing – and poker.
He graduated from Oxford University with a first in English Literature and quickly became a literary critic with maverick tendencies. He dismissed much of contemporary British poetry as staid and genteel, instead championing work that was emotional and which often tackled themes of rage and self-destruction.
He discovered and championed American poet Sylvia Plath and was the last person, apart from her own children, to see her alive before her tragic suicide in 1963.
His own writing encompassed volumes of poetry and three novels, as well essays, criticism, and notable studies on divorce and suicide.
‘I Hate Writing’
Despite the sometimes somber choice of subject matter, he was an exuberant lover of life, but not always of writing.
“I hate writing. I’m glacially slow at it,” he once told The Writer’s Voice. “The Biggest Game was the only book I enjoyed writing.”
Of life, he said, “It’s going to finish when I fold my hand and go up to the big poker game in the sky.”
As Alvarez knew only too well, poker is a game played not in the short term, but over a lifetime, and the ultimate bad beat will always get you in the end.