Journalistic impressions of Las Vegas and, in particular, the 1981 World Series of Poker--in an intermittently intriguing but often lackluster report from the author of The Savage God and Life After Marriage. Disappointingly, Alvarez spends a good deal of time here trotting out the most overworked Las-Vegas-journalism motifs: everything in Vegas is ""unreal""; ""Welcome to Dreamland""; ""time has been annihilated in this city without clocks""; sex in Vegas is degradingly marketed; Tom Wolfe and Mario Puzo are quoted. Stale, too, is a story about the debasements of a conventional businessman-type who becomes a fantasy-seeking compulsive gambler. (""In less than a year Joel has been transformed from a walk-on uncle in Goodbye, Columbus into a tormented Dostoevskian, weeping helplessly on the sofa while his whore tore up bank notes and threw them on the fire."") And Alvarez harps, to the point of diminishing returns, on the oh-wow unreality of the huge sums played for in the no-limit poker games at Binion's Horseshoe Casino--while he never really manages to wrap us up in the tensions of the actual hand-by-hand play. Still, the New Yorker-style interview/profiles of the world's top poker players do offer an engaging variety of portraits: Doyle Brunson, who miraculously beat cancer, sees himself as invincible, and is a genial guy with a sweet tooth (but a guru of ""aggression, constant aggression"" at the table); Eric Drache, who ""looked more like an Oxford don than like a gambler"" (""He also looked bored""--and confides his boredom in disarming detail); Mickey Appleman, a N.Y. intellectual among the cowboys; dissimilar others--but all ""mental athletes"" pursuing ""the romance of personal liberty."" And Alvarez does find a few new Vegas phenomena--the fascinating Gamblers' Book Club, a dealer who has had two sex-changes (to female and back again)--before ending up with the $750,000 last round of the World Series. A moderately diverting sideshow, with obvious extra-appeal to hard-core poker players--but without the shape, focus, or fresh prose of a top-notch exercise in the profile/report manner of The New Yorker (where some of this material originally appeared).