SportsJam with Doug Doyle: Author and Former Professional Poker Player Peter Alson

Oct 24, 2020

Peter Alson joined SportsJam host Doug Doyle to talk about his first novel. Alson is the nephew of the late Norman Mailer and a former professional poker player.
Credit Zoom/Doug Doyle

The Only Way To Play It is Peter Alson's first novel, but the former professional poker player has been writing books for a long time and has contributed articles to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Esquire, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone.

Alson has also launched his own publishing company Arbitrary Press which simultaneously reissued his first book, Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie, under a new title, The Vig.

Alson is the latest guest on SportsJam with Doug Doyle.  He was a guest on the podcast back in 2011 when he and his colleague  Amy Handelsman were launching the U.S. Poker Federation.

"The Only Way To Play It" is Peter Alson's first novel.
Credit Arbitrary Press

The Only Way To Play It tells the story of artist Nate Fischer and it's set against the backdrop of the underground poker world in New York City circa 2011.  That's an atmosphere Alson was very familiar with.

"I have been playing in the underground clubs in New York since the '90's and you know I played at the Mayfair Club and the Diamond Club.  The Mayfair had been around for many years and spawned many great and legendary poker players including Eric Seidel and Jay Heimowitz, Billy Horan and Jason Lester and Howard Lederer and so I knew all those guys.  Back then the game was in its infancy really.  It didn't bear any resemblance to the math-oriented game that we see today.  I would like to go back to those days more than anything."

So why did Alson choose "Nate Fischer" to be the main character in his first novel?

Alson says he based "Nate" on a real-life friend and his own life experiences as a poker player in the clubs.

"I had a friend who was a very serious artist but he hadn't had real success as an artist and like many other young artists he was trying to figure out how to support himself.  He had been doing construction and various odd jobs and sort of fell into poker.  It was a revelation to him that he can make as much in a single night playing poker as he would make in an entire week doing construction.  It was really an ideal way to support his painting career.  He was an incredible talent although tempermentally he was a little shaky.  He was a bit of a hot head and that was his achilles heel.  But I watched him became one of the top two or three underground poker players in the clubs in New York City.  Then he got married and very quickly they had a couple of kids and with all the pressure  and responsibility that fatherhood brought to him I saw him trying to deal with that.  His game began to wilt under that pressure.  You know I had been playing poker for many years and then I found myself going through the same thing and I think tempermentally I was a better suited to dealing with that kind of pressure than he was. I thought it was an interesting departure point for a novel to write about a character like that.  That was the genesis of Nate  Then of course you can't help as the writer imbuing the character with some of the issues you're dealing with and so he was really an amalgam of me and this friend of mine.  And then it takes on a life of its own which is the wonderful and mysterious magic of it."  

Peter Alson has played poker against the top competitors in the world.
Credit Peter Alson

Alson is the nephew of the late acclaimed writer Norman Mailer.  Would his famous uncle give his novel a great review?

"I'd love to know what he would think.  I think he would like it.  Late in life he became enamored with playing Texas Hold 'Em and I think he would feel like this novel game him an understanding of the game that he had hadn't had prior to reading it.  It would feel more like an entree into a world we wanted to know more about."

Peter's 93-year old mother Barbara Mailer Wasserman, Norman's sister, plans to publish her memoir soon through Arbitrary Press.  That memoir that Alson is editing is highlighted by his mom's tale of rescuing political prisoners from Spain in 1948 along with her friend and writer Barbara Probst Solomon.  Peter's stepfather is Al Wasserman, the Academy Award-winning producer for 60 Minutes.  

The talent doesn't stop there.  Alson's wife is accomplished screenwriter and television writer Alice O'Neill.  Peter and Alice's 14-year old daughter Eden is already working on her second novel.  Eden's first novel The Novice Twins was published by Arbitrary Press.

So with Eden's early success it prompts the question,  Can you learn to be a great writer or is it inside you?  

The three women in Peter Alson's life. Daughter Eden, wife Alice O'Neill and mother Barbara Mailer Wasserman
Credit Peter Alson

"That's a really tough question to answer since I feel like for me in a lot of ways I was joining the family business and for that reason was resistent to do it for many years while I was growing up.  I didn't come to writing really until I was 17.  I think there are writers who are certainly more naturally inclined toward it and more naturally gifted than I am.  I don't think I was a born writer.  I think I started writing because it was something done in my family.  I do have some talent but I've also worked incredibly hard at it.  So I think it is something you can learn.  But then I look at my daughter and she has a gift for it.  Both her mother and I are writers.  Her mother is a very successful television and movie writer and yet Eden seems to have been gifted with a storytelling gene.  She understands story.  When we would watch TV show or movies together, she would always be interjecting saying here's what going to happen and it was uncanny.  She always knew.  Where does that come from?  Neither of us know. How does she know? She does.  She's also a voracious reader.  So she's absorbed in story-telling technique and it's just part of who she is now."

Arbritary Press is Peter Alson's pubishing company that he launched in March of 2020
Credit Arbitrary Press

Eden's second novel will have Arbitrary Press to fall back on as a pubilsher, but her father says the young writer wants to find a new publisher this time around. 

Alson is also the co-author of One of a Kind, a biography of the poker champion Stuey Ungar, and Atlas: From the Street to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man.  His Take Me to the River tells the story of trying to earn enough at the 2005 World Series of Poker to pay for his wedding.

If given a choice, Alson says he would enjoy playing Phil Hellmuth again.  Hellmuth  has won a record 15 World Series of Poker bracelets. 

"I first met Phil back in 1989 when he finished runner-up to Johnny Chan at Binion's (Hotel and Casino) and I pegged him as an up and comer.  I was pretty sure he was going to win the World Series someday and in fact it happened a lot sooner that anyone expected. He was sort of born to be a poker player."

The talented Alson family
Credit Peter Alson

Peter Alson's The Only Way To Play it can be obtained in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audiobook versions via Amazon.  You can find out more about Alson and his other books here.

Find out more about Peter Alson, his career and his famous family by clicking at the top of the page.  The VIDEO version of the show is available on the SportsJam with Doug Doyle Facebook page.