Poker Book Review: Peter Alson’s The Only Way to Play It

By Amanda Botfeld
August 25, 2021

When I first started playing poker, I was told that luck happens in streaks. So does life — especially if you read Peter Alson’s poker-infused novel The Only Way to Play It.

The Only Way to Play It

The book opens with our character on a high (which I initially thought was strange for a poker novel… aren’t the characters supposed to start down on their luck and head towards an upwards trajectory?) and it’s fair to say this book is fittingly unpredictable. It’s hard to know exactly what’s coming next. Again, like life.

Alson weaves in scenes from various poker clubs in New York with everyday home life. One of my favorite points of reflection in the book was this: “In a weird dislocating way, everything seemed to carry the same weight—Facebook feeds that juxtaposed someone’s vacation in Boca with an earthquake in Haiti, or a celebrity’s plastic surgery with mass rape in Congo.”

Absolutely. Poker changes your relationship with money ($12 for a latte? Ridiculous! But let’s double straddle to $20), thereby changing your relationship with perspective. Alson takes this one step further into the world of priorities.

This book is truly made for people who live and breathe the game

He paces the book well and it’s a fair balance between card clubs and the real world. If you like poker stories but shy away from strategy books, The Only Way to Play It may just be a winner. It’s definitely relatable in terms of “pokerbrain” — what it feels like to be winning, praying for playable cards, thinking about life expenses secretly as you place that c-bet. He doesn’t dumb down the poker talk either — this book is truly made for people who live and breathe the game.

My favorite parts were the moments of analysis. Like this thought point here: “I rarely had these thoughts when I was winning. But during a prolonged downswing like the one I’d been going through, it was all too possible to believe that my assumptions were wrong, that I had merely developed elaborate rationales and constructs surrounding my skill and mastery and level of control over my destiny. Maybe poker was my drug, my way to avoid confronting my inability to truly connect or commit, to live passionately or feel deeply, to be open to hurt and pain.”

Or, even simpler, “I worried constantly about how to make this crazy world a better place for Hannah, but I couldn’t even seem to get a handle on my own small problems.”

Haven’t we all felt that way? How are we supposed to do X when we can’t accomplish Y?

What makes poker an even greater medium for exploring life’s questions is that all of our decision-making is amplified.

As the author writes, “We liked to think we were in control. Certainly, we wanted to be. Sometimes we were. You could look back through your life and replay things a thousand times, trying to figure out what might have happened if you had done one thing differently. Poker players always did that, especially after a loss. It might not change the outcome, but it did provide a way to think about the future.”

Alson really nails that poker and life are simply a series of decision-making. Then the rest is up to the deck.

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Amanda Botfeld poker author
Written By.

Amanda Botfeld

Amanda Botfeld graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and went on to write articles for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post. After trying her hand at poker, she soon won her first poker tournament and has been writing about poker ever since.

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