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"Take Me to the River" Review

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TitleTake Me to the River
AuthorPeter Alson
Skill Levelany
ProsVicarious ride to and through the World Series of Poker ending with the Main Event.
ConsAlson neglects to finish telling the story of the 2005 WSOP Main Event, misspells a few player names, and occasionally loses track of position at the table.

Table of Contents
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10Vegas From the Air1
26Heart of Ice2
48A Thin Slice of Nothing3
79The Troglodyte on the Couch4
107Something Bright and Shiny and Worth the Pain5
119The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter6
140Seduction, Fantasy, and Getting Lucky7
165Almost All of Them Are Tough8
188Strangers When We Meet9
210A Senior Moment10
226The Perfect Path11
239The Quick and the Dead12
257The Might Casey13
267The Single Most Depressing Day of the Year14

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Peter Alson is just months away from marrying his long-term girlfriend and has written the screenplay for a movie that's about to start filming in New York, but that doesn't stop him from going to Las Vegas to play poker for a month. His interest in the World Series of Poker began when he read a Sports Illustrated article way back in college in 1976, and now, nearly three decades later, he's managed to get an advance to write a book about his experience playing in the world's most famous poker tournament.

Some players scrape up $10,000 to buy directly into the Main Event, some satellite in, and apparently at least once a year, a writer bamboozles a publisher to get paid to play it.

Alson acknowledges The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez (who would write about the WSOP a second time from a player's perspective in Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats), Big Deal by Anthony Holden, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, but each writer brings his own perspective to the task. Alson was inspired by Alvarez to play poker, and over a quarter century later, to try to qualify for the Main Event via a PokerStars online satellite a la Chris Moneymaker.

Alson provides the requisite summary of the history of the WSOP from the early days up through Greg Raymer's 2004 victory, which was the final full event at the Horseshoe1 (conveniently replaying on ESPN on the hotel room television). But his journey begins far from Vegas, on his laptop playing on PokerStars. After a particularly tough run, he deletes the app in frustration and, after a break, resumes his quest on the computer of poker pro Shane Schleger,2 who also gives him advice.

The story returns to Las Vegas, starting with the cliche flying-into-Las-Vegas chapter. Alson had been to the WSOP way back in the late 1980s to cover the World Series of Poker (and the Super Bowl of Poker) for The Village Voice and Esquire and played in the Media Tournament a few times without reaching the final table. He finally played in an open event in 2001 and cashed in one preliminary event; he even played in the Main Event but didn't cash.

Alson's actually a pretty good player who honed his game at New York City's Mayfair Club among others.3 He already knew what M and inflection points were before reading Dan Harrington's books (the second of which Alson was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of). On the other hand, he didn't take Harrington's lessons to heart, as in one event he allowed himself to blind down to two orbits worth of chips (M=2, the Dead Zone that he should never be in except after an all-in).

One of the most interesting tidbits in the entire book is relegated to a footnote. Alson administered the Gambler's Anonymous 20-question compulsive gambler test to his tablemates, and they averaged 14 positives, two more than Alson and double the amount needed to be considered a compulsive gambler.

Of all the writer-gets-paid-to-chronicle-playing-in-the-WSOP books, only two have truly happy endings: Positively Fifth Street ends with McManus's excellent finish, and Alson's tale, albeit not because of his play in the Main Event. He ends up playing a dozen or so satellites and six WSOP events. You can read the book to find out how he did, but if you've followed poker for a while, you already know he didn't get far enough in the Main Event to turn pro as a poker player. If you seek inspiration though, Alson's "Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker" (as it's subtitled) is worth reading more for the trip than the destination.

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