Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker

Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker

by Peter Alson
Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker

Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker

by Peter Alson


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An overeducated underachiever, Peter Alson spent his post-college decades doing his best not to grow up. But having just turned fifty, this rambling-gambling bachelor decides it's time to settle down. So he pops the question to his longtime girlfriend, then hatches a plan to pay for their wedding — involving poker and a trip to Las Vegas. Boarding a plane bound for the neon desert and the biggest game in town — the 2005 World Series of Poker — this inveterate gambler and bad boy stares down his past and his future while competing for over $56 million in prize money.

Take Me to the River is a hilarious, wrenching, full-tilt Vegas exploration of one man's obsession with poker and the lessons it has to offer — about probability and luck, good fortune and bad, patience, perseverance, and — most fitting for a man with marriage in his near future — commitment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743288378
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 09/18/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Alson is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie and coauthor 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. Alson's articles have appeared in many national magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Alice, and their daughter Eden.

Read an Excerpt

Take Me to the River

A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker
By Peter Alson


Copyright © 2007 Peter Alson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743288378


Vegas from the Air

At Kennedy, with time to kill, I head into the Brookstone store and plop myself into a souped-up massage chair that not only begins kneading my back but wraps itself around my calves and goes to work on them as well. I'm a little bit more tense than I realized, and this Barcalounger version of the old Magic Fingers really hits the spot. As I sit in it, with my eyes closed, I think of Alice, the way she looked through the tinted back window of the black Lincoln Town Car that whisked me away down our quiet Brooklyn block a little while earlier: slender and blond; unbelievably pretty; wearing a green T-shirt, short skirt, and gray Reef flip-flops; waving good-bye in the dappled light of Second Place.

It's no wonder I'm tense. The wedding. The World Series. My bruised, fickle, and wayward heart. Impending obligations. Responsibilities. Money. I make up my mind that if I win the World Series, I'll buy one of these fabulous massage chairs for the living room of the fabulous West Village apartment that Alice and I will undoubtedly purchase. Check that. If I win the WSOP, I'll hire two strong Swedish women and keep them oncall 24-7 (one for each of us, of course!).

Make no mistake, I'm excited to be going. The World Series of Poker! Six weeks in Vegas! But I'm scared, too. The World Series of Poker! Six weeks in Vegas! A week in Vegas can seem like an eternity. In six weeks I could lose a lot more than my bankroll. Six weeks alone in a room at the semi-seedy Gold Coast hotel, the same place that was the last real residence of the poker legend Stuey Ungar before he died, his body worn out by too many late nights and too much crack -- there's no telling what could happen. Thank God I have a book to write, a purpose beyond playing poker. At the same time, I feel the weight, the oppressiveness of having to do a book. I think of all my friends who are going to the Series simply to play poker. These are my friends who play for a living, who don't have a care in the world beyond the felt. I was like them once. Why do I need all this weight now after all those years without it? Maybe I'm not ready to get married.

Half an hour later, I extricate myself from the chair, a little wobbly-kneed, and browse the array of other cool gadgets that I have absolutely no need for but want anyway. One thing I find amazing is that Brookstone, Sharper Image, Hammacher Schlemmer, and all the other high-end gadget stores now sell the kind of quality poker chips in briefcase-style cases that used to be available only at gaming and casino equipment stores. It's all part of the insane poker mania of the moment. Everybody loves Texas Hold'em. For years only a subculture of mostly hard-core poker players and gamblers even knew about the game. Back in the old days -- and hell, we're going back an eternity in this insta-culture, like almost two years ago -- whenever it would come up at dinner parties that I played hold'em and went to Vegas, it gave me a kind of Rat Packy hipster cred. Now everyone's doing it. It's like yoga. My married friends tell me their preteen kids can't get enough of the game. "Jamie and Henry watch it on TV constantly," my pal David told me recently. "I bought them poker chips for Christmas and that's all they play with their friends now."

"Your seven-year-old kid is playing poker for money?"

"No, no, just for fun," he said. "Although," he added, as if the thought had just occurred to him, and a bit uncomfortably at that, "I have noticed a few toys around the house that I don't remember buying for them."

Apparently, the only thing left I have going for me in the cool department is that I've actually played in the World Series of Poker. I've sat at a table with Negreanu, Seidel, Hellmuth, and the rest of them. But even that is conferring less glamour on me than it once did. When I played in the World Series, the one and only time, in May 2001, there were 613 players in the main event. This year, if registration goes as expected, over 5,000 people will be able to say that they took part. You're playing in the World Series? That's funny, so is my dry cleaner. He won his seat on Party Poker.

Somehow I cannot manage to leave the Brookstone store without purchasing something. I have gotten it in my head that what I am really going to need when I get to the Vegas tables is a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. My friend Nicky Dileo, an artist-turned-poker pro, has told me that it will be the best $300 I've ever spent. "Dude, believe me," he said in his thick Boston accent, "you need to shut out all the moronic chattah. It's the only way to maintain your sanity." Another guy I know, Wes, says that in his opinion the Bose headphones and the iPod are the two greatest inventions of the past twenty years. "And the really great thing," he says, "is that they work together." Since my sister already gave me an iPod Shuffle for my birthday, I'm halfway home. What better time to purchase the crucial complement than before a long flight, where the headphones will pay the added dividend of dampening the obnoxious roar of the jet engines?

On the other hand, it's not as if I don't have a conscience; I am aware that I am living in a culture of pathological, materialistic narcissists, that there are people in this country without enough to eat or warm clothes to wear in winter. I wonder what my mother, a child of the Depression, would say about her son spending 300 clams on friggin' headphones when he already has the perfectly serviceable white Earbuds that the Shuffle comes with? On the other hand, why sweat $300 when I am about to invest $10,000 and possibly a lot more in a poker tournament?

In the end, I reach a compromise with my conscience and purchase a pair of Sennheiser noise-canceling headphones for a much more prudent $150.

Several hours later, I'm somewhere over the Midwest, buckled into seat 31F, my head enveloped by the sound of the Ohio Player's "Love Rollercoaster" (part of a mix that Alice put together for me). I gape out the porthole window at the green and brown patchwork quilt of Middle America slipping by below. I have been jotting down my thoughts in one of the five spiral notebooks I've brought along with me. It seems not at all coincidental that my two favorite books about the World Series of Poker, A. Alvarez's The Biggest Game in Town and James McManus's Positively Fifth Street both start out with the narrator/hero flying into Vegas, trying to make sense of the world he left behind -- in Alvarez's case, England; in McManus's, Chicago -- each of which is in the grip of cold weather and a very different reality. Alvarez, when he disembarks from his plane, and learns that in this new world $1,000 is called a dime, can only utter the words, "Welcome to Dreamland." McManus finds himself comparing the new experience with the virtual unreality of the Masque video game that he has been playing at home in Chicago all winter.

The truth is that there may be no other way to tell the story of a trip to Vegas and the World Series of Poker than by using the Joseph Campbell template of the classic adventure in which the hero leaves the known world behind and heads out into the unknown, there to do battle with a host of memorable pirates and scalawags while at the same time fighting the forces of good and evil within himself.

Although Alvarez did not actually participate in the action, his account of the 1981 WSOP makes extensive use of the first person, and for a reader aware of Alvarez's history (particularly an unsuccessful suicide attempt that was chronicled in his fine book The Savage God), his romantic take on the larger-than-life gamblers he encountered in Vegas can be seen almost as an antidote to the dark urges in himself. Poker exhilarates him in an uncomplicated way: so when the gambler Mickey Appleman tells him that poker proved to be a more successful cure for his own depression than psychoanalysis, Alvarez never for a moment doubts the notion's validity.

Unlike Alvarez, McManus, during his trip to the 2000 WSOP, which he recounts in his book Positively Fifth Street, does not stand on the sidelines observing but actually plays in the $10,000 buy-in main event. While he isn't the first writer to do so -- Tony Holden took on the pros and described his experiences in his fine book Big Deal, ten years earlier, and Michael Konik wrote of his numerous WSOP experiences in the novella-length title piece from his collection Telling Lies and Getting Paid -- McManus is without question the first literary man to make it to the final table of the Big One (where he finishes fifth and collects a healthy $247,000). His gripping account of the action, played off against his internal conflict, the battle between the two sides of himself (characterized as "Good Jim" and "Bad Jim"), shows poker to be a territory for explorations that go far beyond a deck of cards and some chips.

Interestingly, during an extended contemplation of Alvarez's book in the pages of his own, McManus gently chides the trailblazing master for devoting less attention than he might have to the kamikaze wunderkind Stuey "the Kid" Ungar, who wound up winning the 1981 WSOP. Since I myself found Ungar so compelling that I wound up writing a biography of him (in collaboration with Nolan Dalla), I'm inclined to agree. At the same time, I can see why a self-destructive soul like Stuey, who could not readily articulate or divine the nature of his psychic pain, might be less appealing to Alvarez than a self-reflective intellectual misfit like Mickey Appleman.

I might as well get something off my chest right at the outset of this adventure. It irks me that I am following in such well-traveled footsteps. Every writer wants to be the Magellan or Columbus of his subject. At the same time, it is also true that terrain can change -- as the poker world most certainly has in the past couple of years -- and that even in the familiar we can discover the new. Thus it was that before leaving New York, I decided that it would be a good idea, from a financial as well as a literary perspective, to try and win a seat online just as the past two world champions, the amateurs Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, had done.

Moneymaker's 2003 parlay of a $40 PokerStars tournament into a $10,000 WSOP seat and then into a championship bracelet and a first prize of $2.5 million is near legend by now, probably the seminal event in the recent history of the game -- and certainly, when combined with the powers of television and the Internet, responsible for the huge surge in poker's popularity. If you were going to create an eye for this perfect poker storm, you could do no better than to name it Moneymaker. The message had been clear enough in 2002, when an amateur from Brooklyn, Robert Varkonyi, won, but the message, after Moneymaker, turned into a scream, a yell, an invocation: "Anybody can win this thing! Anyone!"

You didn't even have to go to Vegas anymore to gain entry. All you had to do was get lucky in an Internet super the way Moneymaker did. So get off that couch, Bubba. Turn off the Packers game. Pull up a chair to your desktop and start betting and raising. Or hell, don't get off the couch. Stay right where you are and keep the game on. You can watch television and play poker online at the same time.

Remarkably, in just a few short years, Internet poker has become so hugely popular and lucrative that the biggest site, PartyPoker.com, and its parent company PartyGaming, were able to go public with an initial public offering that made billionaires out of its ragtag crew of founders and majority stockholders, one of whom got her start in online pornography and phone-sex lines. Of PartyPoker's $600 million in annual revenue and $350 million in profit in 2004 (think about those gross-to-net numbers), nearly 90 percent came from the wallets and bank accounts of American gamblers. Never mind that the U.S. government -- rather than trying to regulate and tax online gambling -- has been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to squash it. It's hard to keep a good vice down.

As for myself, I am not an Internet poker virgin. In fact, I was a relatively early participant, despite my basic aversion to technology. Did I say aversion? (Yes, I know -- the Sennheiser headphones, the iPod Shuffle.) Let me correct myself: despite my love-hate relationship with technology (similar probably to the relationship alcoholics have to booze). The fact is that I love technology but suspect it is not healthy for me. I tend to abuse it. Several years ago, like any other 12-step candidate, I finally surrendered to my television set's power over me, admitted I was unable to regulate my watching habits, and canceled my Time Warner Cable account. While I still maintain a subscription to Netflix, I use the set now only as a video monitor to watch movies and last year's HBO (and, yes, the occasional porno). There are times -- Sundays during football season particularly -- when I miss live television. But I read all the time now. I get more work done. My brain is in better shape. I'm happier.

If television is like heroin for me, online poker is crack. I opened a PokerStars account several years ago, downloaded the program onto my computer (the same now-ancient computer on which I compose these words), and proceeded to play so much poker over the course of the next two weeks that I began to feel physically ill. Like too much of anything pleasurable but solitary (think masturbation), the activity was accompanied by a growing feeling of self-loathing -- particularly when added to the fact that I couldn't seem to win. The other players, true to what I'd heard, were terrible, but still I managed to consistently lose to them in excruciatingly painful ways. Before I could get too caught up in conspiracy theories or paranoia, however, I obliterated the program. To have the game right there on my computer, the same computer on which I did my writing, was suicidal. I would never produce another word. In fact, I hadn't produced anything in two weeks. So I hit the delete key.

Now, two years later, I called my friend Shane Schleger to ask him if he'd let me play for a WSOP seat using my old account and his computer (my five-year-old VAIO, as I say, was now too old and decrepit). Shane -- or "Shaniac," as he was known on PokerStars -- was, at the age of twenty-eight, a full twenty-two years my junior. Along with a few other mostly younger players I knew, he had been having great success online. Smart, good-looking (think Jewish JFK Jr.), with a strong nose, square jaw, thick curly brown hair, and five-day stubble, Shane was also a bit of a lost boy and a stoner with a pre-poker résumé; that included a drug-induced psychotic breakdown. His introduction to the poker world came courtesy of another poker friend of mine, Tristan Baum, whom he met at the Central Park tennis courts in the summer of 2000. Tri brought him to the PlayStation, an underground poker club on Fourteenth Street, which is where we first met. Shane was a poker neophyte at that point and seemingly without much aptitude. Over time, however, he got a bit better, his reckless style serving him well in the PlayStation's weekly Sunday tournament, where he began cashing in with a fair amount of regularity.

Ironically, he claims to have been inspired to play online by something I said to him during my two-week Internet submersion in 2002, though I can't for the life of me think what it was. Shane lost online at first, just as he was losing in live action. But he kept at it and improved. He improved so much, in fact, that he was able, after some months, to quit his job as a waiter at Blue Ribbon Sushi in Park Slope, Brooklyn. For the past year, Shane had been supporting himself solely by playing online tournaments and sit'n'go's, which are single-table tournaments with first-, second-, and third-place payouts. Though he didn't keep records, his big scores in the past twelve months included a couple of $18,000 wins in $200 buy-in tournaments; $10,000 in an $11 rebuy tournament that had a field of over 1,000 people; and, most recently, four $10,000 World Series of Poker seats (plus plane fare), three of which he had taken in cash, one of which he was going to use.

"I've made enough money to live on and live pretty well," he told me the week before I left for Vegas. He and his girlfriend, Sheila, and I were sitting in the living room of their cozy, art-filled one-bedroom Park Slope apartment. It was my first time meeting Sheila, a pretty brown-haired, blue-eyed Irish filmmaker/barmaid thirteen years Shane's senior.


But you know what I'm like. I'm a gambler," Shane said. "As long as I can stay in action I'm happy. I travel, I eat well, I do pretty much what I want. So far this year, I've gone to the Bahamas for nine days, L.A. for two weeks, Lake Tahoe for a week, all to play poker. In the Bahamas, I started off sleeping on a friend's hotel room floor, but then I won ten thousand playing blackjack the second night, moved into a suite, and flew Sheila down."

Sheila and Shane first met at the bar at Blue Ribbon one night during the winter. Though Shane no longer worked there, he still dropped in occasionally for a meal. The night he met her, he had pried himself away from his computer screen long enough to walk over and grab a quick bite. Sheila was at the bar doing the same thing. They began talking, and before the night was over, they were on their way to becoming a couple.

I'd been hearing about her for the past few months, usually when Shane and I got together to play tennis in Prospect Park. As she left now for her job tending bar at Puffy's in downtown Manhattan, she regarded the two of us, bent over the liquid color screen of Shane's state-of-the-art Dell laptop and said, "Good-bye, you two poker nerds."

I had decided to take two cracks at winning a World Series seat in the $160 buy-in double shootouts, which were, according to Shane, the best value play. The way it worked was that you put up $160 and then had to beat a virtual table of eight other players. The winner went on to the next round, another table of nine players. All the players at the final table got their buy-ins back; the winner got a $10,000 main event seat plus a $1,000 in cash. Shane had lost track of how many of these he'd played, but the $40,000 he'd won had put him, after his entry fees, "quite a bit ahead."

I had been around poker long enough to know that he might just be riding a hot streak, that it could all go south for him at any moment. But maybe not. Maybe he had more going for him than luck. I was still somewhat dismissive of his skills, because of my experience with him in live games, but I was also aware that he'd played an awful lot recently, and that online poker can speed the learning curve exponentially. Where it once took years to play the number of hands required to gain a poker education, an online player can now cram it into a few months. Shane told me about friends of his, most of whom he first met in cyberspace, who were playing eight sit'n'go's at once and making $200 to $300 an hour, which translates into several hundred thousand dollars a year. Eight games at once! It boggled my mind. During my two-week experience online I got a headache trying to play more than two at the same time, jogging between screens.

"They're the compulsive types," Shane said. "They'll sit there ten hours a day."

"What about you?" I asked. "How many hours are you playing?"

"Probably fifty or sixty a week."

"Isn't that close to ten hours a day?"

"Yeah, I guess it is," he said with a laugh.

I found myself fascinated by the online poker world; it was its own strange subculture, with heroes and celebrities, villains and fools, a place where you could start with a clean slate and reimagine yourself not just once, but countless times -- a new persona for each new site. At Empire Poker, you could be Loose Lester, the raising machine; at PokerStars, Sexxy Suzee, the femme fatale who liked to check-raise bluff. Even in live games, poker had always been an invitation to invent or reinvent a persona, to put on funny hats and weird sunglasses, but in Internet poker, you could stay in the shadows forever if you liked, growing your own myth.*

My own PokerStars handle, resurrected now on Shaniac's computer, was Mortallock, a sort of puffed-up version of "the nuts" with Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons overtones. I wasn't sure what kind of reaction it had originally been intended to elicit, but if discouraging my opponents from contesting hands with me was one of them, it wasn't working: Five minutes into my first $160 double shootout, I moved in with middle set and got called by a player named KrackPot, whose top pair sucked out a runner-runner full house to relieve me of all my chips. On rec.gambling.poker, an Internet newsgroup devoted to discussions of poker, this is known as getting "PokerStarred." For me, it recalled the rash of similar bad beats I had received on the site during my abbreviated tenure three years ago.

"This is what always happens to me on this fucking site," I said to Shane.

"You're not one of those people who thinks it's rigged, are you?"

"No, I'm just saying it happens a lot."

"I thought you deleted the program after two weeks."

"I did."

"So how can you make that kind of assessment?"

I knew what I was saying made no sense. I couldn't possibly argue the point with him. It was just the feeling I remembered. A sense of the outcome somehow being predetermined no matter what I did. The deeper truth was, I had gone into this exercise without really believing that I would win a seat this way. Not because it was impossible or rigged, but because it wasn't my karma. I needed to suffer more. I needed to commit myself more deeply, and another $160 probably wasn't deep enough. Sure enough, my second $160 bullet resulted in another quick flameout (though this time it was more a case of user error than bad luck).

"We are beginning our descent into the Las Vegas Airport," the flight captain intones over the plane's intercom. I put down my pen and gaze once again out the porthole window. My descent into Las Vegas. Yes, that sounds about right.

Vegas has a skyline unlike any other American city. There are no skyscrapers, no business or financial center, just the glitzed-up gambling casinos of the Strip, which lie on the baked earth, as Alvarez described them, "like extravagant toys discarded on a beach." And the signs -- the millions of signs! -- flashing, eddying, twisting, revolving, pulsing with electricity and pixilated video images.

Seen from the air, the signs, and the edifices of the colorful, monolithic, monstrous 5,000-room hotels, the bright green facade of the MGM Grand with its sphinxlike entrance, or the fairy-tale magic towers of the Excalibur, or the black modern-day pyramid of the Luxor (which if it were night would project a single white beam of light from its pointy apex to the heavens), can stir the blood of even the most jaded sophisticate.

When Alvarez landed at McCarran in 1981, he found the airport almost empty. It was a Tuesday and the weekend rush was over. In the summer of 2005, the old rules no longer seem to apply. It doesn't matter what day of the week it is, or what season; the airport is always bustling, crowded as if for the holidays, with a jangly, giddy, casinolike energy. As always, I find myself marveling at the desperate suckers spinning their quarters and dollars into the airport slot machines. Everyone knows by now that the slot machines at McCarran give the lowest payouts in the entire city, but these withdrawing slot junkies still can't stop themselves from taking one last crack at ringing the bell and leaving town a winner.

By the time I get to baggage claim, a crowd has assembled around the carousel. Ten minutes go by. Restless, I look around to see whom I've just been traveling with. Several young guys are standing together. They're wearing T-shirts, jeans, baseball caps, sunglasses. The new poker uniform. One of them says, "Ten bucks my bag comes off first." Another says, "You're on." Finally, the siren sounds and the conveyor belt rumbles to life. To my amazement, maybe for the first time in the history of my life, my bags -- all three of them! -- are the very first to tumble down the chute. Give me some of that action! I want to shout to the young poker studs.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I believe in omens. I mean, I don't really believe in them; empirically, logically, I know better. At the same time, I can't stop myself from taking the first-off arrival of my bags as an auspicious sign for the success of my mission here. The Oxford American Dictionary defines this kind of thinking as "a belief that events [read: my poker results here in Vegas] can be influenced by certain acts or circumstances that have no demonstrable connection with them." The part of me that is susceptible to this sort of thinking finds further reinforcement at the Alamo Rent-A-Car lot when I am upgraded from a Geo Metro to an electric blue PT Cruiser.

I once had a girlfriend who saw omens in everything this way, and it so appalled me -- offended me, actually -- that it was one of the things that I used to rationalize breaking up with her (I'm not proud of that, but then I've broken up with women for infinitely more ludicrous reasons).

So how does a supposedly serious poker player get caught up in patent nonsense like omens and superstition? In a word -- luck. The luck factor. It's such a huge part of poker that it sometimes actually makes me hate the game. It makes me question the most basic elements of what I'm doing. Like: Is there too much luck? Am I deluding myself into thinking that my skill can compensate, that it is as much of a factor as I would like to believe? For years I used to dismiss the uninitiated who foolishly talked of poker in relation to luck. Poker, I insisted, was a game of skill. I could say this because I consistently won. And other skilled players I knew also consistently won. Bookies consistently win, too, in a similarly random environment. The slight edge the vig gave them over bettors (5 percent) equates roughly to the edge superior skill gives a winning poker player over his opponents. But bookies can lose. They can lose for extended periods. Sometimes they lose so much they have to leave town. Poker players are vulnerable to the same fluctuations. (The truth is that poker is a game of luck -- with a component of skill. Football and baseball? Those are games of skill -- with a component of luck. Chess? Purely a game of skill. No luck at all. Skill counts in poker, but as Nassim Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness, it "counts less in [a] highly random environment than it would in, say, dentistry.")

In poker, particularly in the short term, luck will annihilate skill. You can totally outplay an opponent, get your money in as a 60-40 favorite, and four times out of ten your outfoxed opponent will beat you -- statistically, is supposed to beat you. But if luck inordinately favors him -- and luck, for the purposes of this discussion, shall be defined as a short-term statistical variance during an ongoing series of events -- he might win all ten.

Let me repeat that: You can outplay your opponent ten straight times, and ten times running he can get lucky and beat you. I've seen it happen. It's happened to me. It's unlikely. The odds are against it. But it can happen. It's not going to happen in tennis or golf, but it can happen in poker. Why? Luck.*

Since luck fluctuates, collecting randomly in runs both good and bad, it defies prediction. But since most of us like predictions (a lot of weathermen would be out of jobs if we didn't), especially when we are about to participate in endeavors requiring luck, we often find ourselves looking to unrelated phenomena to get a handle on our receptivity to luck. Are we under a black cloud? Yes? Then we're probably not going to be lucky (and we might get wet to boot). Is Dame Fortune smiling on us? Does the good but otherwise nonrelevant thing that just happened mean she's smiling, or is it just a slight grin?

Omens are what we look for in the universe to help point the way and let us believe that there is a plan. They are also often a means of finding justification for what we want or need to believe. Lord, I need a sign. Show me a sign. In Vegas signs are all over the place, flashing and pulsating in a rainbow of neon.

Superstitions are related to omens, but also quite different. They're meant to attract good luck, or to avoid repelling it. "You've been incredibly lucky today." Oh, shit, don't say that. Better knock on wood (or I'll scare the good luck away and attract the bad).

Some people (like me) are more prone to believe in omens than they are to practice superstitions. But if you consider all the things you do in the course of your daily life that might actually be deemed superstitious, you could well be surprised. I've noticed, for example, that if I wear suede, it's almost sure to rain. If I carry an umbrella when rain is forecast, it won't rain. If I talk about something before it's official, it'll fall through. These have become superstitions of a sort, in that I notice them, I think about them. I don't have a lucky rabbit's foot or a talismanic coin. But plenty of gamblers and poker players do. Not just the suckers, either. The great Johnny Chan, aka the Oriental Express, who has won the World Series of Poker twice, and has seven other bracelets in his safe-deposit box, kept a "lucky" orange next to him during his two championship runs (and during several subsequent attempts -- although he now seems to have abandoned it, having perhaps decided that its luck got used up). Did Chan really believe in the power of the orange? Probably not. But as the actor and comedian Lou Jacobi likes to say, "It couldn't hurt." Besides, the perception that Chan created with the orange that he was lucky gave him a psychological edge over his opponents.

Mike Caro, aka the Mad Professor, the author of numerous poker manuals, including Caro's Book of Poker Tells, advises his students that he doesn't believe in superstition and isn't a fan of affirmations. On the other hand, he does end his seminars by teaching his students an affirmation -- "I am a lucky player. A powerful winning force surrounds me" -- that is intended to combat "one of the worst things you can do at a poker table," which is to complain about bad luck. "Complaining about bad luck," Caro writes, "doesn't win you any sympathy. All it does is make your opponents think, 'Hey, there's someone even unluckier than me -- someone I can beat.' What you need to do," he continues, "is the opposite. There's nothing [your opponents] fear more than luck, not even skill. The luckier they think you are, the more they will fear you."

Like Chan with his orange, it's the idea that luck favors you that you want to convey. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt if the idea that luck is favoring you finds a little bit of reality to support it. Like your bags coming off the chute first. Or an unexpected upgrade to a PT Cruiser. Or a beautiful woman back in New York having foolishly agreed to marry you.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Peter Alson


Excerpted from Take Me to the River by Peter Alson Copyright © 2007 by Peter Alson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Forward by Brian Koppelman ix

Prologue 1

1 Vegas from the Air 9

2 Heart of Ice 26

3 A Thin Slice of Nothing 48

4 The Troglodyte on the Couch 79

5 Something Bright and Shiny and Worth the Pain 107

6 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 119

7 Seduction, Fantasy, and Getting Lucky (Not Necessarily in That Order) 140

8 Almost All of Them Are Tough 165

9 Strangers When We Meet 188

10 A Senior Moment 210

11 The Perfect Path 226

12 The Quick and the Dead 239

13 The Mighty Casey 257

14 The Single Most Depressing Day of the Year 267

Epilogue 281

Acknowledgments 285

Selected Reading 289

What People are Saying About This

High on Poker Blog Site

"I finished the Peter Alson book, Take Me to the River. I have to say, it is a ... great book. I highly recommend it once it's out in stores. I also will probably read the other books from Atria. It's refreshing to read a poker book that is about the game, but not about how to play the game. I'm still feeling like the how to books are not really in my best interest right now. Really though, it's just that those How To books just don't keep my interest long enough to be useful, and I half-adopt their ideas, hurting my usual game."

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