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Three Great Poker Writers Meet for First Time

Al Alvarez, Anthony Holden, and James McManus Have Dinner Last Month

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Here’s a brief look into the history of three of poker’s great narratives.

Authors of The Biggest Game in Town, Big Deal and Positively Fifth Street met for the first time. Photo by Natalie Galustian

David Spanier, Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden had been playing in a Tuesday night poker game in north London for over a decade when Spanier’s book Total Poker came out in 1977. Impressed by its favorable reviews and decent sales, Alvarez persuaded his New York agent, Candida Donadio, to persuade William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, to make an unlikely match — to hire a London poet and literary critic to cover the 1981 World Series of Poker.

The book Alvarez produced, The Biggest Game in Town, is a comprehensive account of the championship as it began to mature into its second decade. Few books on any game have been received with as much enthusiasm over so long a period. Casual poker players and world-class professionals continue to revel in its lapidary prose, sage hold’em insight, and droll use of cowboy patois.

Biggest Game naturally concludes with the main event, in which seventy-five players competed for shares of a record $750,000 purse, half of it reserved for first place. The winner for the second straight year was perhaps the best no-limit hold’em player in history, Stu Ungar. As James McManus later wrote of the book: “Infusing the hand-to-hand combat with as much drama as any sporting event, Alvarez demonstrates once and for all that an understated prose account of poker action is quite a bit more exciting than watching the game in person, or even on television with hole cards revealed.”

In 1988, inspired by the success of Biggest Game, Holden’s agent procured him a big enough advance to take a thirteen-month sabbatical from literary London to play the pro tournament circuit, bookended by a pair of World Series championships. Big Deal, an account of his high-stakes odyssey through Britain, Malta, Morocco, and across the U.S., makes for, according to McManus, “spirited, often hilarious reading.” On the very first hand of the ‘88 championship, Holden found himself in a big pot with Ungar himself, whom he described as “a diminutive stick-insect of thirty-four-going-on-twelve…his wrists so emaciated that his championship bracelets all but pinned them to the table.” Holden acquits himself impressively in the hand, relieving the emaciated insect of $1,850. The author even survives the first day of the tournament (as Ungar does not), going to bed with $8,000 in chips. Yet his luck doesn’t hold and the best he can manage in two tries in the main event is ninetieth out of 167.

McManus had both books in mind when he flew to Las Vegas in the spring of 2000 with an assignment to cover the WSOP and the Ted Binion murder trial for Harper’s. He famously took his advance and managed to win a $10,000 seat in a one-table satellite. Trotting back and forth between courtroom and tournament, he was lucky enough to finish fifth in the main event; the following morning he accompanied the Binion and Behnen families into court for the reading of the guilty verdicts against Sandy Murphy and Rick tabish, which were later overturned in a retrial. McManus’s report appeared on the cover of the December Harper’s and was anthologized. The book version, Positively Fifth Street, came out in 2003 and is widely considered a classic.

Although McManus and Holden became friends about five years ago, their long-planned dinner with Alvarez finally occurred on Sept. 22, 2011 at Goldfish, a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead, London, not far from where the original Tuesday night games had been played.

Note: Spanier, unfortunately, died in 2000