Fans of the poker movie Rounders have been clamoring for a sequel for years.
One reason for the film’s continued popularity is its depiction of New York City underground poker, circa the late 1990s. With scenes in clubs based on the famous Mayfair and others, the film provides a detailed look at the games’ atmosphere and some of the characters who populated them.
There are some great hands, too.
While Rounders 2 seems unlikely any time soon, Peter Alson’s new poker novel The Only Way to Play It should more than satisfy in the meantime. Partly set in those same NYC poker clubs, Alson’s novel smartly interweaves several intense poker sessions with a domestic drama involving a struggling artist trying to balance card-playing with family obligations.
It’s a page-turner. Poker players and gamblers alike will enjoy how Alson invites the reader to contemplate the difficult decisions his central character is forced to make, both in the hands he plays and when he is away from the tables.
The Only Way to Play It tells the story of an artist in his late 30s named Nate Fischer, a regular player in the NYC games. Nate has enjoyed modest success as a painter, but he derives a more consistent income from poker.
The action begins in the middle of a hand, with Alson immediately sitting the reader at the table with Nate, Freckles, Drunk Mike, Fifty-Cent Bill, and other colorful characters.
Throughout the novel, Nate plays in a variety of locations. Alson draws on his own extensive experience playing in the NYC clubs to help set the scenes with vivid description and table talk.
The novel also begins with Nate caught in the middle of various pressures involving his career, his marriage and young daughter, and a father who unlike Nate (or at least Nate hopes) is a truly degenerate gambler.
Making matters worse, Nate hits a cold streak at the tables, making it even harder for him to focus on these other “real life” problems.
The story mostly takes place during the late 2000s and early 2010s, and thus does pick up the NYC scene right after the conclusion of Rounders. Beyond Nate’s personal situation, various other factors constantly affect the games including intermittent raids, security concerns, and the possibility of crooked games.
Nate even delves into online poker for a time, which if you recall was itself an interesting, “underground”-like place to play during that period. It was bookended by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and Black Friday in April 2011.
Wherever the games Nate plays occur, they always matter. And the stakes are constantly increasing. Once you start reading his story, you are going to want to be there for that last river card.
A first novel for the career writer and longtime poker player
The Only Way to Play It is Alson’s first novel, although he brings to it a lengthy history of writing about poker and gambling (and other topics, too).
Among poker-playing readers, Alson’s Take Me to the River is a much-liked narrative of the poker “boom” era. In this, he tells the story of trying to earn enough at the 2005 World Series of Poker to pay for his wedding.
Alson also co-wrote Stu Ungar’s biography One of a Kind with Nolan Dalla.
He wrote another autobiographical work, Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie, which was recently reissued on its 25th anniversary as The Vig. That book tells of a younger Alson’s struggle to finish a first novel, and then turning to help run a bookmaking operation in New York.
“My dream was to be a novelist. I had a couple of short stories published, but when I started a novel in my 20s I could never get it into publishable shape,” Alson says.
He shifted to nonfiction, eventually writing five books and contributing articles to:
- The New York Times
- Sports Illustrated
- The Village Voice
- Rolling Stone
He also worked as an editor, including a stint at The Paris Review.
Around eight or nine years ago, he gave novel writing another go. He began work on what would eventually become The Only Way to Play It, and says it wasn’t until 2016 or so that the writing really began in earnest. He finished a first version a couple of years after that.
More revising followed, with the finished version finally making it to publication this month.
Peter Alson explores what poker can teach us about life, and vice-versa
All along Alson regularly played poker in the New York clubs. The character of Nate, he explains, was based in part on a particularly tough opponent he faced in those games.
“If he wasn’t the best, he was one of the best two or three players,” says Alson.”He also happened to be a painter.”
However, after getting married and quickly having a couple of children, his game fell apart.
Alson marveled at how those external pressures so clearly affected the painter’s poker game.
“His weakness as a poker player was that he was temperamental, anyway,” says Alson. “But here he was, folding under the pressure. I thought there was a lot to explore there.”
Alson furthers the analogy between life and poker in interesting ways throughout the book. Nate can run a bluff with the best of them, but confesses he is “a lousy liar away from the poker table.”
The metaphor surfaces elsewhere, too, as Nate (and others) alternately get “dealt good cards” or endure “bad beats.”
There’s also an interesting implied comparison between the city’s poker clubs and its art galleries. Superficially they are very different, though Nate’s experiences show parallels emerging in the “games” played in each.
Ultimately, the story shows how much life — like poker — can be a “skill game” in which luck matters. Our decisions might be well reasoned or recklessly determined. Either way chance events outside our control can (and often do) affect our results.
“I wanted the poker in it to have a purpose, with each hand that I describe. I wanted this to be a novel in a traditional sense — to give a feeling of poker, but within the context of story and plot.”
‘It’s up to you… New York, New York’
Besides being a poker story, The Only Way to Play It is a New York City story, too.
As someone with an extensive acquaintance with poker and other types of gambling — legal and otherwise — Alson would certainly like to see the state’s gaming laws become less restrictive. At the least, he wants them more consistent with what is allowed and what is not.
“I sort of love the underground clubs and always have, even as they change in nature,” says Alson. “Unfortunately there is danger associated with the underground clubs, especially when they got too popular.”
That, too, comes up in The Only Way to Play It. Alson doesn’t shy away from showing the reader both the good and the bad of the games.
As in Rounders, though, those real-life perils enhance the story in The Only Way to Play It. They further illustrate ways risk-versus-reward at the poker table resembles the same negotiations we often make in other contexts.
There’s also a lesson in there about the challenge to own our decisions and accept the consequences, however things play out.
Whether you love Rounders or simply enjoy great poker-centric storytelling, Alson’s book is well worth picking up.