“Life is not a straight line,” says Peter Alson, author of the new poker novel, The Only Way to Play It, published today by Arbitrary Press.
“There are these enormous swings,” he continues. He’s talking about the plot of his novel. But he’s also referring to how life can resemble poker. And vice-versa.
“How do you navigate those swings? How do you make sense of them? And how do you keep your equilibrium?”
Those are just some of the questions The Only Way to Play It explores.
Alson gives the reader much to consider regarding how the decisions we make affect our futures, and how much luck ultimately determines where we end up. The longtime poker player and writer makes the game central to his story, and with a setting in the New York poker clubs the book in a way provides Rounders fans a new set of characters, scenes, and grippingly presented poker hands to enjoy and scrutinize.
Even Rounders co-screenwriter Brian Koppelman is excited about what Alson has done.
“Here is the poker novel I’ve been waiting years for someone to write,” says Koppelman. “It doesn’t just feel true. It is.”
The Only Way to Play It adds another winning title to a long and varied writing career for Alson. His résumé includes once working as an associate editor for The Paris Review, writing screenplays for film and television, and contributing articles to The New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated among other publications.
Along the way Alson has authored or co-authored five previous books, among them the much liked Take Me to the River, an entertaining memoir recounting his attempt to win enough at the 2005 World Series of Poker to pay for his wedding. (Alson has a number of tournament cashes at the WSOP, the most recent coming just last year.)
Alson also co-wrote the definitive Stu Ungar biography One of a Kind, as well as Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie based on his own experience working as a bookie in New York City.
While Alson has published short stories before, The Only Way to Play It is his first novel. He began it in 2011 or 2012, he remembers, basing it in part on his experiences playing in those NYC underground games.
More than one publisher showed interest, and a deal was nearly made with one a couple of years ago. But like a promising hand sunk by an unfortunate river card — and perhaps because life is not a straight line — that deal fell through.
Since then Alson has launched his own small imprint, Arbitrary Press. In the spring a novel by his 14-year-old daughter was the first book published, now followed by a new edition of his bookie book (retitled The Vig) and The Only Way to Play It.
“I’m glad the novel didn’t get published then,” says Alson of the earlier near-miss. “It has gone through a number of rewrites since, and the book is now coming out is a lot better than it was before.”
In a way, says Alson, the book’s epigraph via Cormac McCarthy — “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from” — doesn’t just relate to story he tells in the novel. It also applies to the story of how the book was written and eventually published.
The Only Way to Play It revolves around an artist, Nate Fischer, who is challenged to balance his time and focus between painting, being a good husband and father to his wife and young daughter, and earning a not insignificant income regularly playing in the NYC poker clubs.
While the character incorporates some of Alson’s own personality and his experiences playing in those games, Nate was more directly inspired by someone else with whom Alson played — an artist, in fact, who Alson rated as one of the most talented players he faced in those games.
“He got married and had a couple of kids,” Alson explains. “I watched him disintegrate as a player. The pressure was just too much, and that was really interesting to me… and painful to watch him lose the ability to do this thing he had done so well. I thought there’s a lot to explore there.”
Further complicating Nate’s life is a gambling father whose self-destructiveness represents a pattern Nate consciously wishes to avoid. That, too, deviates a bit from Alson’s own story, though adds another layer of complexity to Nate’s situation.
It also provides another yet distraction for Nate as he tries to focus on winning at poker. Like Rounders, Alson’s novel features a well-structured narrative in which several episodes are punctuated by engrossing, well presented poker hands.
The scenes in clubs like the Fish Tank are well drawn and full of engaging characters, well chronicling the scene and era (circa mid-2000s through early-2010s). If you’ve wanted to learn more about the atmosphere and vibe of those clubs and games, Alson puts you right at the table to experience all the banter and bravura, as well as the occasional dose of real-life danger.
And the stakes are always meaningful — and ever increasing — affecting both the plot and helping to highlight the various themes related to life and luck, the meaning of money, and perhaps above all the significance of family.
“It’s a domestic drama with poker,” says Alson. “I feel like there has never really been something like that — a poker novel that talks about what marriage is like both from a poker player’s perspective and from the perspective of the person he’s married to.”
Alson brings up a curious point. Not only are “domestic” novels about poker rare, the entire category of “poker novels” generally speaking is not as abundant as one might expect. In our conversation we discussed titles like Jesse May‘s Shut Up and Deal and Rick Bennet‘s King of a Small World as notable examples, but in truth there aren’t that many others to choose from for the person hoping to build a library of poker fiction.
“Poker is such a rich and fertile ground, both for nonfictional and fictional stories,” says Alson. “And there are so many writers who play poker,” he adds. “You would you would think that somewhere along the way, a few more of them would have managed to write great poker novels.”
Meanwhile there are all of the movies and other examples of poker in popular culture, all of which provide an inescapable context for the poker novelist to consider.
“I did want my story to till new ground,” says Alson. “I didn’t want it to be doing the same things that these other folks had done.”
“In a way, doing a poker novel is like doing a sports novel,” says Alson. “It’s all leading to the big game, the big confrontation. And so you’re going to go down certain familiar avenues. But hopefully you are going to do something new, and I think I did.”
Indeed, not to provide any spoilers, but the final climactic hand presents a situation and decision point for Nate that poker players should find fascinating. It’s utterly realistic and relatable. It’s also unlike any other poker hand I’ve encountered in all my years of hunting down poker stories.
There’s an irony associated with Alson’s title, given how many options Nate seems to face in the hands he plays, both literal and figurative. Then again, perhaps it represents a goal that both poker players and others often seek, to discover the “only” or best way to “play” our lives in order to give us the best chance at favorable outcomes.
In any case, your best play is to pick up The Only Way to Play It and decide for yourself what Alson is teaching us — about life, and about poker, too.
And you can also decide what you would do if you were dealt Nate’s cards.
Peter Alson’s The Only Way to Play It is available in a variety of formats — hardcover, paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook. Learn more about Alson and his other works at his website, peteralson.com.