A look into poker photography and the man behind the lens who defined it.
If you ever notice the walls as you walk down the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino Las Vegas, you will see photos of the World Series of Poker from the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the man behind the camera was just taking snapshots of yet another event during that bygone era.
Poker rooms remained roped off and elusive behind all that cigar smoke and closed doors. However, four decades ago, the community opened doors to the lenses of Ulvis Alberts, the first photographer to be granted unlimited access to the Binions.
Born in Latvia, Alberts immigrated to the United States in 1949. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in radio and television from the University of Washington. By the late 1960s he was snapping legends such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Jimi Hendrix in his frames.
With such iconic photos to his name, it wasn’t long before Alberts moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He already had a stellar career and then came an opportunity knocking on his door. It was an invitation from Jack Binion to photograph the World Series of Poker for the first time.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at first but it certainly gave Alberts a chance to enter a world he was not familiar with. He captured good photographs of these different characters and cowboys smoking their cigars and cigarettes. The smoke certainly enhanced the pictures and Alberts had just discovered a new world of photography that he thought he fit right into.
Poker photography wasn’t a thing at his time, it was only for the occasional winner photo or tourist picture which was basically the winning cards, the winner and the cash prize! On experiencing the world of poker, Alberts knew there was a lot more to show from the world of poker. It was this lens that gave poker photography a new beginning; one that photographers such as Joe Giron, Drew Amato, Eric Harkins, Neil Stoddart, Danny Maxwell, Hayley Hochstetler, and others have made respected careers out of.
Capitalizing on the access and proximity he had with his subjects (poker players), Ulvis set out to capture a little more intimate and a little more character oriented photographs. He went the extra mile even if it meant he was under a player’s armpit to capture these moments! Alberts’s photos certainly captured special moments in poker history, ones filled with fabled characters like Stu Unger, Puggy Pearson, and Amarillo Slim.
This experience helped Alberts understand how such access allowed him to capture and share a side of the game that couldn’t be experienced from afar. Being on the other side of the rail, the crowds were kept out. The photographer had the entire field to himself and more importantly poker players who were welcoming of letting him keep doing what he did.
Alberts collected many of his photos into his first fine art photography book titled Poker Face in 1981. Today, the book sells for as much as $2,500 on the aftermarket. Poker has certainly provided Ulvis a wealth of fond memories and the multitude of great photos chronicling important moments in the game’s history certainly changed the way the outside world perceived it. After that, he pivoted away from poker to pursue other passions. To creating legends on the other side of the rail!