The Only Way to Play It, by Peter Alson

the only way to play it by peter alson

In one review of The Only Way to Play It, Chad Holloway tells us “I’m usually not one for fiction books.” (You can just say New York, he told the tourist.) Well, exactly. Poker has been somewhat down on the creative side of things for a few years, saving its passions for embarrassing crypto projects and its addiction to sleep-inducing “content,” but more ambitious projects still linger in the private lives and minds of its players.

Chad is right, though: truth in poker is often as good as or better than fiction, and so we have a healthy non-fiction department here; James McManus and Martin Harris have dazzled. Still, writers such as Jesse May and Jane Stanton Hitchcock have told and sold meaningful stories to us. One of these noted writers, Peter Alson, added The Only Way to Play It (Arbitary Press 2020) a few years back. Its paperback followed me and my travels for two years, stowed in a cardboard box in my car’s trunk, then popped into my hands last week. I’m glad it did, as Alson has a lot to do in the poker writing world, even if this book suffers from a few appropriately underground defects.

What the poker reader will enjoy – and various reviews confirm – is that Alson can write about the live East Coast poker scene very convincingly. I’m not talking about poker strategy commentary – Alson could have leaned heavier on consultant Matt Matros, but it’s sage that he didn’t. After all, his narrator is very good, but not great, at poker. What the author works and shapes so cleanly is the feel of a world that can be too easily caricatured. After all, the players demand caricature, with their foolish and lovable names and traits. Alson “paints” this part of his world with love and knowledge in The Only Way.

That makes sense, because to be fair, my description is a few words too long – Alson can simply write. This book is an easy read, one with little or no inertia. Alson is not only good with his spell of words, but his chapters are short and subdivided cleverly – his editors are magic, too.

Which brings us to the downside of what is also a slightly irritating story. As much as Alson has a talent for smoothing surfaces, he needs to spend some time on inner logic if he wants to knock one into the stands – where the big money is and the people are. The book is minorly known (at the moment) and no masterpiece because of flaws which if ironed out just one more time, would have left us one hell of a poker culture artifact.

First off, the lead character is not who he is, he is not a painter. You can tell me he is, but he’s not. He doesn’t talk like a painter, he doesn’t act like a painter. He cites more books than colors. He thinks in references, not visions. He is not developed in this way and it makes him, well, a sillier man than intended, another schmuck in a city full of them. That of course, would be fine if it was intentional. Alson, after all, gives Nate thinning hair and half a conscience, which are fine and good characterizations. However, you can’t just add this ridiculous and pretentious layer to his character without severe consequences. I’m forced to often hate Nate, and above all, hate his stupid painting, which, at least, the author probably somewhat intended: a man with a smart phone BUT HE’S IN A JUNGLE!!! DO YOU GET IT?

Part of what is happening is that New York thing. I remember a short memoir of that blessed and cursed place, one wherein a woman described so many “charming men… all around forty… all literate and wearing their pants well” or something like that, in one of those great summations no one talks about. Alson is no doubt one of these men and so is Nate. However, they are also petty monsters who don’t need to be made more unlikeable. Of course the pathetic shicksa is waiting for him, literally moist, when he chases her down. Then she’s prude and bourgeois, worried what will happen to their daughter under the patriarchal regime of a gambler. Then she’s the ambitious literati. Then she’s the sinner who he must forgive. Ok, but where are any hints of the truth? What is Nate’s interpretation and what is Laura’s reality?

This world revolves around Nate’s view of Laura. It is the view of a selfish talent, another Manhattan d-bag who thinks pizza slices like giant triangles of artificial skin are the bomb and that the right steamed pastry is culture and that certain bridges lead to nowhere. He and his creator are stuck on this world and we see its distortions in the unreliable view of the wife. Where one often sees the cliche of the so called Madonna/Whore complex, here we have the cosmopolitan’s worthy/unworthy complex. All this would be fine, of course, but will resolution literally bring things into a clearer picture?

Consequences matter, whether it’s the fake painting stuff or the characterization of the love interest as “unknowable” and multi-faced, not -faceted. The stakes lower themselves when the details are off and leave the wind-up wanting. In fact, the book concludes with an absurd and probably rushed scene of artistic denouement, where his paintings are on sale, his family is in tow, the potential mistress chiding her own sexuality for his benefit, the shady agent comeuppanced and bamboozled by his own bambo.

Thus, to answer our question, no; our resolution sentimentalizes Laura. Nate was right to treat her badly, the novel implies. She is a moody doll. Being a selfish ass, as long as you bring home the bacon (eventually) is fine.

There’s a million details I wanted to go over but I think I will skip most of them and refocus on the strength of Alson’s writing because this is the guy who could write the next big poker story. He has the feel of the scene, and that is something that can’t be faked easily. Or rather, the point is that it can! The strength of a good writer is to make the unbelievable believable. While many fail, Alson can write poker.

To set our man to the task, however, Alson needs to attend to some of the problems I’ve pointed out. He also needs to rely less on tropes – the book practically bleeds Rounders at several points, as well as several other plotlines lifted from our mutual memories. The irony, of course, is that you can’t exactly escape Rounders, nor all the clichés of the underground scene, because all the games are the same and all the people the same. Joan Rivers got it all too right: we have no last names and are nobody. What that means is, the characterizations have to be right, must be even better, because so many details are shared and the same in poker and poker life. Sometimes it’s just QQ vs AK and no one can change that.

Alson delivers big when the stakes are high, and Nate must suffer. Not everyone can both write smoothly and deliver on the plot maze, but our man here can. He traps Nate with the gangsters just when he needed to get out, tying the plot to his father rather nicely. So, the pain on the poker front and the origin of the main character’s wound is there. Refocus, therefore, on the relationship and denouement problems, both which must be more realistic, and thus, more powerful. More awe, fewer tears, John Wayne might say.

The irony is, the only way to play that is what would really happen: Nate and Laura would separate and the ending would become tragic instead of Oprah Book of the Month. The horrifying last paragraphs, a sort of Of Human Bondage reflection but for idiots needs to go. I sound harsh, but people forget Rounders abandoned and destroyed Worm, while leaving the love interest behind for greed and glory. The Only Way to Play It in poker is to go all the way, like Nate did in the big game against Henri. If Alson can follow his man to the end, we may really get that Rounders sequel, or rather, something better than a sequel, a sequel in spirit: the next great poker story.

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