‘A gentleman at the poker table’: Al Alvarez remembered by Patrick Marber

The renowned playwright remembers the former Observer poetry editor as an influence, a poker partner and a gracious wit

• Al Alvarez remembered by his publisher Alexandra Pringle

I met Al in 1995 when he came to my first play, Dealer’s Choice, which is about poker. He was very nice about the play, and then I was able to bore him about what an enormous influence he’d had on me. I first encountered Al’s writing when I was very young, reading his 1962 anthology The New Poetry. The way he wrote about writing was a real turn-on for a wannabe writer and it was because of Al that I started reading Sylvia Plath and Beckett – his taste to an extent formed my taste. He was so rich and varied in his interests, writing books about suicide, divorce, poker, climbing and nightlife. He was a proper old-style Hampstead intellectual.

Over the next 25 years, I played cards with Al a few times and got to know him a bit, and loved the man as most people who encountered Al did. He must have been 65 when I met him and he was a very wise sage, full of good stories and twinkliness. Anyone you speak to about Al would say what an amazing smile he had. He was sly and funny and wouldn’t have been out of place in a Scorsese movie, playing the smart one, the wisecracker, the kibitzer.

Al was a better writer than a poker player. He was cagey, with occasional lapses of madness. That’s how most of us writers play: with restrained discipline and occasional lapses of gross stupidity. He was fond of risks and every now and then he’d take a big one. Sometimes it would pay off and sometimes it wouldn’t.

I’ll always regret this, but pretty much the last hand Al ever played in any seriously competitive way was in a showdown with me. He had four aces, which is pretty much unbeatable, but I beat him with a straight flush. And there was quite a lot of swearing, it was like, “Fuck, this is probably the last fucking hand I’ll ever play, and the fucker drew me.” I still feel bad about it. But that’s poker.

He had a reputation for being combative, but with me he was charming. Professionally he had firm beliefs about what constituted good writing and what didn’t, and he wasn’t afraid of a scrap, but I never saw it at our poker games. It was all wisdom and light and fun. He was a gentleman at the table.

Patrick Marber

The GuardianTramp

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