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June 11, 2014

The Poker Driven Life

Author and player Peter Alson talks about the game he loves.

Michael Gluckstadt

Poker is central in the life of Peter Alson. In 2005, after 50 years of bachelor living, Alson decided to get married. He convinced his bride-to-be, Alice, that the best way to pay for their wedding was to fly to Las Vegas and win money at the World Series of Poker. At one point in the six-week span he was doing so, Alice came in from New York and joined him at the Mandalay Bay. Nine months later, their daughter was born; they named her Eden River.

Peter Alson
"The money you win playing online poker is as real as the money you win playing live, but the experience isn't the same."

Peter Alson

That's the story of Alson's memoir Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker. (For the poker-ignorant, the "river" is the final card dealt in a hand, and, according to at least one poker site, "the most treasured of poker clichés").

Alson, whose other works include a biography of poker great Stuey Ungar co-authored with Nolan Dalla, is a solid player in his own right. He's had seven cashes at the WSOP, and most recently finished 45th in the 2014 Seniors.

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Alson tells Gelf how even great players have tells, what was really behind the boom in the game's popularity, and what it takes for a tourist to beat the best in the game.

Gelf Magazine: As editor at large for PokerNews, what are the biggest issues facing the game right now?

Peter Alson: I think the biggest issue facing poker right now still revolves around its legality, the perception of it as a gambling game rather than a game of skill. There have been advances in what I consider the right direction surrounding that issue, but there's still a ways to go. I myself would define poker as a game of skill with a sizable component of luck in the short-run. But every game and sport (with the possible exception of chess) has an element of luck. So it's really just a matter of degree.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of online poker? Is it just another outlet for the game or a poor facsimile?

Peter Alson: While I absolutely think online poker should be legal, it is far from my favorite form of the game. You can play a simulated round of golf too, where you are actually hitting a real ball with real clubs and a computer is accurately gauging how you're doing. But is that as enjoyable as doing the real thing? It's certainly a lot cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But for me, in the end, a virtual world is an emptier, less happy place than a world in which you might have to look at some ugly mug's face, or smell another guy's B.O., but which also affords you real conversation, real grass under your feet, real cards in your hand or even real rain on your head. The money you win playing online poker is as real as the money you win playing live (although some of the people whose money is still tied up on Full Tilt might disagree), but the experience isn't the same.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think online poker should be regulated?


Peter Alson: Online poker should definitely be regulated. And even that won't completely stop abuses. But I remember arguments I used to get into all the time during the heyday of internet poker in the U.S., where a guy would argue that the online companies were making too much money to cheat people, and I would counter with "the same could be said about Wall Street too."

Gelf Magazine: Will computers eventually be better poker players than humans?

Peter Alson: I think that computers are already better than most humans. That's because most humans kinda suck at poker. The thing is that because poker is not a solvable game, computer algorithms still can't match the best human poker players. But they're getting closer. And eventually, with AI, I think they'll catch up—and, in a protracted session, win—because they'll never get fatigued.

Gelf Magazine: Do any good players have tells a la Teddy KGB?

Peter Alson: Good players do have tells. They're just harder to find. A friend of mine who is a poker player and trained behavioral psychologist is doing groundbreaking work in the area of tells. I took part in a series of games that he filmed from 12 different angles with 12 cameras tracking every move that the players in the game made. Studying the results, he has broken down the kind of behavioral changes that people go through at the table and how to interpret these changes in behavior in a profitable way. Even the pros give away information. If you know what to look for and how to look for it, it can be used to your advantage. Unlike others who have done work with tells, my friend Blake doesn't think that tells are universal. "Everyone is unique," he says, "and it's dangerous to try to categorize behavior too neatly, to say what's true about one person is true about another. What I do is give you the tools to increase your awareness of behavioral changes and then attach those changes to a specific meaning or interpretation based on that individual."

Gelf Magazine: Why do most people seem to think
Phil Ivey
is the best player around?

Peter Alson: Phil Ivey is kind of a freak, and like many of the best poker players perhaps somewhat on the spectrum. I first played with him at Foxwoods in a tournament many years ago, before he was Phil Ivey. He was just a kid then, but the instant he sat down, I could tell there was something different about him. The way he took in every small detail, his focus and concentration, his intentionality. He didn't do anything at the poker table without a reason, and it was clear, just from observing him, that he was thinking about and seeing the game at a higher level than anyone else at the table. In other sports, players are sometimes described as having special field vision—a Magic Johnson, a LeBron James, a Peyton Manning. They see patterns and understand things several moves ahead.

Gelf Magazine:Why has poker caught the general public's imagination?

Peter Alson: The reason poker has gained popularity primarily has to do with the advances in broadcasting it, using the hole-card camera, so that a television audience can play along, much in the way of a reality TV show, and when combined with everyman Chris Moneymaker's $5 million victory in the Main Event from a $39 entry fee, the idea that it's a reality TV show they can participate in and make their fortune at too. Also, poker is just a great game. So once you try it, it's hard not to get hooked.

Gelf Magazine: Could you compare the rise in participation among the general public in tournament poker to the rise of marathon running?

Peter Alson: I don't think poker has much in common with marathon running except in the sense that it gives people who aren't really world-class athletes a chance to participate in an open competition against people who are world-class athletes.

Gelf Magazine: How are pros adjusting their strategy to not be knocked out early by long-shotting tourists?

Peter Alson: I don't think pros worry too much about getting knocked out by tourists. Not that it doesn't happen. It does happen—and frequently. That, as they say, is poker. You get your money in good against the clueless tourist who calls you with only 25 percent chance to win, well, one in four times you're going to lose. Poker is a long-run game, though. The optimal strategy for a pro versus a tourist is not to risk all your money on one hand but rather to grind down the tourist gradually. Conversely, the optimal strategy for a tourist versus a pro is to keep putting him/her to decisions for all their chips.

Gelf Magazine: You named your daughter after the game, how important is poker to your day to day life?

Peter Alson: Poker is very important in my day to day life. I love the game, love to play it, love to think about it, love to write about it. Our daughter was conceived one weekend during the 2005 WSOP while my then-fiance now-wife Alice was visiting me at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. When we were thinking about names later, she shot down "Vegas" or "Nevada" and even "Bay," but for some reason she relented when I suggested "River" as a middle name. And that then became the ultimate reason I titled my book about the 2005 WSOP Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker, because it concludes with the birth of our daughter Eden River.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Mar 13, 17
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- Books
- posted on Mar 13, 17
Jean Irish Escarda

Hi!

Good day,

We are selling the domain name VARSITYPOKER.COM. Let me know if your company is interested in acquiring it.

If you'd like to discuss this domain name in greater detail, feel free to reach out at 1 (724) 610-9008.

Best Regards,
Jean Irish Escarda
Domain Name Broker
DomainVA.com
1 (724) 610-9008


Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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