Gambling and Poker In Novels: From Dostoyevski to Alvarez

“Between ten and eleven there are still to be found in the gambling halls the genuine desperate gamblers for whom nothing exists at a spa but roulette, who have come for that alone, who scarcely notice what is going on around them and take no interest in anything during the whole season, but play from morning till night and would be ready perhaps to play all night until dawn, too, if it were possible.” This is an excerpt from the very famous book The Gambler (1887), from the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

In his book, Dostoevsky delightfully describes the (almost sick) passion that animates his main character, Alexei Ivanovich when he plays in a casino. But the author also depicts the despair in which the young man drowns when deepening in his obsessive passion. 

Poker Literature

The Gambler, is the reference in terms of literature using gambling as the main decor of a novel. But since the 19th century, many other (more recent ones) have seen light, telling of the thrill of gambling. More precisely, playing poker. From the gambling world, it is poker that stands out. There are many reasons to t​​hat. 

Stakes and Suspense

The most obvious one is that poker is a very popular game, from poor classes to the richest ones. You put at stake money, or even something that is dearer, you play for money or for fun. 

In all cases, suspense is at its highest level. Novels where poker is the decor use the game as an exciting way to explore the intricacies of the game, providing, at the same time, a thrilling story. Poker novels are about strategies and tactics, there is bluff and many turns of events. It is the perfect mise en scène to explore the characters and the stories involved. 

Among the huge literature around that topic, there are books that really shine by their level of writing, plot twists and other suspenseful moments. 

The Biggest Novel of Poker

There is especially one that is a must read for all gambling lovers.  It is The Biggest Game In Town, from Al Alvarez, written in 1983. With his book, Alvarez actually opened the way to the Poker Novel genre. The author himself was an avid poker player, although some of his close friends used to say he was better at writing than at playing. But what’s Alvarez’s novel about? To make it short, It is a riveting tale of the world of high-stakes gambling, embodied in the legendary Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. The book follows the lives of different people all linked to the casino. All are players to some extent. It even includes the owner of the place, Benny Binion. 

Detail Is Key

Of course a poker novel wouldn’t be a poker novel without professional poker players and hustlers. You’ll find all that in the The Biggest Game In Town. What makes the story so good and a reference book in its area is the fact that Alvarez gives us a wonderful, detailed depiction of the gambling kingdom. Line after line, the reader dives into a world where he/she goes from sordid back rooms to luxurious suites. As the story is evolving and the pages are scrolling, the characters open themselves. Alvarez paints a vivid picture of their lives, showing the desperation, the hope and excitement of those who come to the casino. 

Just like Dostoevsky almost a hundred years before Alvarez.

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