In 2011, Grantland magazine gave bestselling novelist Colson Whitehead $10,000 to play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. It was the assignment of a lifetime, except for one hitch—he’d never played in a casino tournament before. With just six weeks to train, our humble narrator took the Greyhound to Atlantic City to learn the ways of high-stakes Texas Hold’em.
Poker culture, he discovered, is marked by joy, heartbreak, and grizzled veterans playing against teenage hotshots weaned on Internet gambling. Not to mention the not-to-be overlooked issue of coordinating Port Authority bus schedules with your kid’s drop-off and pickup at school. Finally arriving in Vegas for the multimillion-dollar tournament, Whitehead brilliantly details his progress, both literal and existential, through the event’s antes and turns, through its gritty moments of calculation, hope, and spectacle. Entertaining, ironic, and strangely profound, this epic search for meaning at the World Series of Poker is a sure bet.
An NPR Best Book of the Year
Look for Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Harlem Shuffle, coming this September!
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 6, 1969
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Education:Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Hardcover edition
I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.
This thing draped over my skull and fastened by muscle is also a not-too-bad public-transportation face, a kind of wretched camouflage, which would come in handy on my trip to Atlantic City. Flash this mug and people don’t mess with you on buses, and this day I was heading to training camp. I had six weeks to get in shape. I was being staked to play in the World Series of Poker for a magazine, and my regular game was a five-dollar buy-in where catching up with friends took precedence over pulverizing your opponents.
There was no question about taking a bus. I’m of that subset of native New Yorkers who can’t drive. Every spring, I made noises about getting my license and checked out the websites of local driving schools, which as a species embodied the most retrograde web design on the internet, real Galápagos stuff, replete with frenetic logos and fonts they don’t make anymore, the HTML flourishes of the previous century. How could I give my money to a business with so incompetent a portal? My wife and I owned a car, and she drove us everywhere, which came to be a hassle. I used to joke that I was afraid of getting my licensethat I was at a point in my life that the first time I got behind the wheel, I’d just keep driving. The first couple of times I made this joke, people laughed. Then maybe my delivery began to falter, there was a change in tone, and they’d look around nervously, peek over my shoulder for another person to talk to. My wife had the car now. We got divorced four days prior.
I’d been looking forward to a descent into some primo degradation to start my trip, a little atmosphere to match my mood, but of course the Port Authority was cleaned up now, like the rest of the city. In the daytime, anyway. Across the street, the shining New York Times tower watched over the entryway, a beacon of truth and justice and Renzo Piano, and inside the terminal corridors the stores were scrubbed nightly, well-buffed, the reassuring and familiar places you’ve shopped at plenty. Duane Reade, Hudson News, the kiosks of big banks yet to fail. I could be anywhere, starting a journey to anyplace, a new life or a funeral.
I rushed to make the 3:30 bus and thought I’d have to gulp down a hot dog from a street vendorfearing a grim return of said frank hours later at the tablebut had time to pick up an albacore tuna sandwich with dill, capers, and lemon mayo on marbled rye, plus an artisanal root cola, all for ten bucks across the street at Dean and DeLuca. Estimated Probability of Degradation: down 35 percent.
I waited to board and saw I didn’t need a public-transportation face. The other passengers queued up for AC were exfoliated and fit, heading down for Memorial Day fun, not the disreputable lot of Port Authority legend. Their weekend bags gave no indication that they contained their owners’ sole possessions. Where have all the molesters gone, the weenie wagglers and chicken hawks? Whither the diddlers? The only shabby element I registered was the signage at the Greyhound and Peter Pan counters, still showcasing the dependable logos remembered from the bad trips of yore. Returning from a botched assignation or misguided attempt to reconnect with an old friend. Rumbling and put-putting to a scary relative’s house in bleak winter as you peered out into the gray mush through green, trapezoid windows. Greyhounds were raised in deplorable puppy mills and drugged up for the racetrack, I think I read somewhere, and Peter Pan used to enter kids’ bedrooms and entice them, so perhaps there is a core aspect to the bus industry that defies rebranding.
The bus was state of the art, like it had wi-fi, and even though I sat two rows up from the lav I did not smell it. It was two and a half hours to AC, plenty of time for me to graze on my inadequacies. Poker eminence Doyle Brunson called Hold’em “the Cadillac of poker,” and I was only qualified to steer a Segway. In one of the fiction-writing manuals, it says that there are only two stories: a hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I don’t know. This being life, and not literature, we’ll have to make do with this: A middle-aged man, already bowing and half broken under his psychic burdens, decides to take on the stress of being one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game. A hapless loser goes on a journey, a strange man comes to gamble.
According to the two crew cuts in the row in front of me, the weekly pool party at their casino was killer, but I wasn’t going to make it over there. I hit my poker book, cramming. “Big raises make big pots.” “Before you enter a pot, think about who the likely flop bettor will be.” The highway bored through miles of Jersey’s old growth, as if the forests had been mowed down specifically for passage to our destination, a tunnel to the Land of Atrocious Odds, and then we broke off the expressway and the big gambling houses burst up, looming over the gray water. We passed the one- and two-story buildings of downtown Atlantic Cityclapboard homes, broken chapels, purveyors of quick cashthat seemed washed up against the casinos like driftwood and soda bottles. Then we pulled into the Leisure Industrial Complex.
Growing up in the city, I never went to a lot of malls, so I didn’t have the psychological scars of my Midwestern friends, who cringed at the thought of all the adolescent afternoons spent mindlessly drifting across the buffed tile. I like the Leisure Industrial Complex when I can find it, those meticulously arranged consumer arenas. I don’t care if it’s a suburban galleria sucking the human plankton into itself from the exit ramps or a metro-area monolith stuffed with escalators to convey the herd to the multiple price-pointed retail outlets, food court stalls, and movie screens.
Gimme a red-brick pedestrian mall reclaimed from urban blight and dolled up to commemorate some location of inflated historical importI love those guys. There is the multiplicity of diversion, sure, but more important is that a sector of human endeavor is diligently trying to improve itself and succeeding spectacularly. Consumer theorists, commercial architects, scientists of demography are working hard to make the LIC better, more efficient, more perfect. They analyze the traffic patterns and microscopic eye movements of shoppers, the implications of rest room and water fountain placement, and disseminate their innovations for the universal good. Even if we fail ourselves in a thousand ways every day, we can depend on this one grace in our lives. We are in good hands.
Anyone who’s gambled in the past twenty years knows that casinos are high rollers in the LIC. The contemporary casino is more than a gambling destination; it’s a multifarious pleasure enclosure intended to satisfy every member of the family unit. Reimagined as resorts, there’s moderate-stakes blackjack for Dad, a sea-salt spa scrub for Mom, the cortex-agitating arcade for the youngstersor the Men’s Mani-Pedi Suite for Dad, Pai Gau Poker for Mom, and Highly Supervised Kidz Camp for the little ones (once you sign the liability waiver).
A mall with living rooms. The concept of such a thing, to eat, drink, and play, and then dream inside its walls. No windows, for what sight could be more inspiring than your true self laid bare, with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations. Stroll past the high-end shops with accented names, recognizable theme restaurants owned by TV chefs, indoor Big Tops, man-made wave pools, and find nourishment for any desire zipping through your brain. If there’s a gap in perimeter through which an unfulfilled wish might escape, it will be plugged by your next trip.
They even have bus depots. Some casinos are equipped with snap-on bus depots, an optional component for the base model. Like the Tropicana. Today’s outpost of the LIC was the Tropicana, local franchise of the famous Vegas standby, where James Bond busted heads in Diamonds Are Forever. Methinks he did not arrive on Greyhound. You might escape if the bus didn’t pull directly into the building itself, so the depot was a worthy investment. Some of the passengers stood and funneled to the door, causing a scandal. “Where is he going?” “They’re not waiting for their bonus?” Meaning the twenty-dollar voucher they give you to play upstairsit’s worked out between Greyhound and the casino (they really want you to stay). For what kind of inhuman monster didn’t wait for their bonusit’s free money.
I jumped up and joined the apostates. I was vibrating with newly acquired poker knowledge and couldn’t wait. The smell of ancient cigarette smoke and the mellow undertones of men’s room disinfectant were an intoxicant. I checked in, chucked in some buffalo wings for fuel, and soon I was in the Tropicana Poker Room.
I found my degradation. You can rubble the old Times Square and erect magnificent corporate towers, hose down Port Authority and clean under its fingernails, but you can’t change people. I was among gamblers.
I sat down at a $1/$2 table with types I would encounter with some frequency during my training. Like Big Mitch. Big Mitch is a potbellied endomorph in fabric-softened khaki shorts and polo shirt, a middle-aged white guy here with his wife, who was off dropping chips on the roulette felt according to her patented system. Fully equipped with a mortgage, a decent job, and disposable income. The segments of his thick metal watchband chick-chicked on his hairy wrist each time he entered the pot. Your average home player. What Big Mitch wants the most, apart from coming home to see that young Kaitlyn hasn’t had a party and wrecked the house while they were away (she’s really been acting out lately, but Pat says all girls go through that stage), is to brag to his home-game buddies and certain guys at the office of how much he won tonight, with a breakdown of a Really Big Hand or two. He will be less vocal about his failures, as we all are.
Next to two Big Mitches was a Methy Mike, a harrowed man who had been tested in untold skirmishes, of which the poker table was only one. If Methy Mike had been hitched, the lady had packed her bags long ago, and if they had spawned, their parenting goals probably ended with making sure their kid didn’t get a tattoo on her face, and they did not always succeed. Often locals, Methy Mikes are on a first-name basis with the bosses and dealers and cocktail waitresses, and you can count on hearing a little catching up. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” “I’ve been . . . had some stuff come up.” So I see. Iggy Pop takes a look at these guys and says, “Wow, he’s really let himself go.”
They are weathered by the sun, by their lifestyles, which you can only guess at, the underlying narrative of their decay, and resemble unfortunates who have been dragged on chains from the back of a beat-up van and left to desiccate in the desert, like one of the down-and-outers in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Undone by their hardwired inclinations and undying dream of a new start. “Can you help a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” Luckthey believe in luck, its patterns, its unknowable rules. They will, seeing pocket Jacks demolish some weekend punter, tell the table, “Let me tell you a sad story about a pair a Jacks.” A sad story for every hand, every one of the 1,326 possible starting combinations.
And then there was Robotron, wedged in there, lean and wiry and hunkered down, a young man with sunglasses and earbuds, his hoodie cinched tight around his face like a school shooter or a bathroom loiterer. Weaned on internet play, Robotron is only here tonight because the Feds shut down all the U.S. online poker sites a month ago. Black Friday, something about money laundering. Here with the humans. Otherwise the Robotrons would be back in their childhood rooms, eight pixelated tables open on the screen; he can play eight games at once, zip zip. It’s not so hard once you retrain those pathways in the brain, cramming decades of poker experience into eighteen months. Why leave the house at all, between the poker sites and the porn sites? What are other people for, but for robbing or fucking? (The goddamned Feds, breeding a new generation of libertarians in the subdivs.) Real people, talking, breathing, it must be so weird to them. Their earbuds help keep ’em out, playing music, self-help manuals, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? as read by Edward James Olmos, or the latest invasion plans transmitted from their home planet.
There was one woman at the table, a quiet sixty-something lady with bright red hair, the follicles of which it was perhaps possible to count. Five percent of commercially available hair dyes actually match a color that occurs in nature. Hers was not one of them. I liked her.
I will now take a moment to explain Hold’em to the lay reader, I don’t mind. In my home games, I often assumed the mantle of the Explainer, laying out the rules for the newbiesthe indulging girlfriend, the language poet in town for the weekend, and, maddeningly, people I had played with dozens of times before. I wrote the hand rankings on a little piece of paper for them to keep by their chips, reminded them it’s “one or two or none from your hand, and three or four or five from the board.” I stopped being so amenable once my kid started talking because I was explaining shit all the time now. “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” “Daddy, how do fish swim?” “Daddy, where shall I keep my secret fears of the world, and tend to them like my private garden?” Nowadays my poker neophytes are on their own.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Colson Whitehead
Like Mark Twain's, my friend Colson Whitehead's writing declines to commit itself to any one form, but sprawls easily across them, defying convention, borrowing from genre, always remaining his alone. He has written five novels, a slew of essays personal, humorous, and cultural, and frequently a blend of all three and The Colossus of New York, a nonfiction ode to New York City.
He's said that he casually started taking the notes that turned into Colossus before September 11, 2001, and after that day found himself dedicated to the project. For me Colossus still stirs up more than anything else I've read the kind of fierce protective devotion inhabitants of the city felt at that time, when so many people around the world were mapping their own narratives onto what had happened here. Colossus is seven parts love letter, two parts kvetch, one part satire, and all poetry. It claims the city and it allows you to claim it, too. The voice roves; the perspective shifts; no one is the protagonist. Every change is a fair change to mourn in your own personal New York.
Whitehead's The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death is his first book-length work of autobiography, and it too invites the reader this reader, at least to identify. Having squandered far too many of my own Saturday nights playing hold 'em in Carroll Gardens, I read it with recognition and delight (and also with relief that our poker circles never overlapped. It's a "male-dominated game," he writes, "where female players often affect an Annie Oakley tomboy thing to fit in." True and ouch. Never does the long-lost sassy Texan accent of my toddlerhood surface more than when I have cards in one hand and some bourbon on ice in the other.)
I've known Whitehead since I first read his work and sent him fan mail about ten years ago; now he's married to my agent. I am consequently in no way objective, but my enjoyment of this book is genuine. Like Whitehead, I had terrible college relationships during the era of " '90s High Slackitude." I too suffer from an inability to participate in actual sports, owing to a condition I've had since birth ("unathleticism"). I too struggled to do the best job I could at parenting (my beloved stepdaughter turns twenty-one later this year), to do good rather than harm while working within the constraints of a depressive, self-flagellating personality.
The Noble Hustle centers on Whitehead's time competing at the World Series of Poker, an experience funded by the website Grantland, for which he wrote a series of dispatches. The book is about being thrown from a regular friendly home game into the most major of the poker tournaments with only six weeks to prepare. It's about his badass poker coach, Helen Ellis, a novelist who in contrast to us Annie Oakley types identifies herself as a housewife when she competes. ("The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. 'A lot of people don't think women will bluff,' Helen said. She was bluffing the minute she walked into the room.") It's about cramming: reading strategy, playing at low- stakes tables in Atlantic City, and consulting a physical trainer steeped in the Alexander Technique. It's about major poker tournaments and the ways computer gamers are changing them. But The Noble Hustle was written after Whitehead's divorce, and it's also about loneliness and longing, our attachment to our children and the ways we try to distance and distract ourselves from emotional pain. (At one tournament table, "I hadn't been glared at with such hate by two people since couples therapy.")
When Whitehead and I met up to talk briefly about the book last month, I asked how the process of writing it contrasted with his previous books. "I had to do what I normally do," he told me, "figure out how to fit into what the genre's demanding. I had the article and the article had a voice, had a point of view, a beginning, middle and end, and so the hard part was, two years later, going back an impersonating myself from 2011, having to recollect it, to keep the same voice and the same perspective even though I've moved on and things have changed in my life."
The character he reinhabited, the Colson Whitehead of 2011, was given, he says, to "performative despair" and "absurd jokes" and was trying to figure out how to be a good parent to his daughter. "Hanging out with her and being a single dad" he told me, was the "psychological backdrop" of that period of his life. Writing The Noble Hustle meant having to reenact that time on a bigger scale.
"The really exhilarating parts, like the time at the World Series of Poker, were already done" when he started writing. He was left with the "pick-and-shovel work of explaining poker to laypeople, creating a more linear chronology," slowing down the action, and looking back into his past, to his college days, his first trip to Vegas, his early years playing poker with pals who dreamed about success as writers and artists, and in his later years playing with these same buddies now successful but still fundamentally the same dreamers.
As with most good books about games, the real subject of The Noble Hustle is one that seems to be on the story's periphery: fatherhood. Whitehead's daughter is a major presence throughout the book, mostly through his thinking of her in her absence. "My ex-wife and the kid were upstate, engaged in holiday-weekend goodness. Here I was acting as if I had nobody," he writes, of a practice jaunt to Atlantic City. On rejecting Grantland's initial offer to send him to the WSOP to report from the sidelines after just having mastered "the rules of solo parenthood": "It was a hard job, tracing a safe route through the minefield of face-painting, peanut-free caroling, and assorted pony bullshit that would get us safely to dinnertime and the organic hot dogs. A trip to Las Vegas would cut into our summer hang, which I'd come to idealize." His greatest regret as he gears up for the big game: "I left for the World Series of Poker without hugging the kid one more time."
In my reading, his daughter, and the force of his love for her, are this oblique memoir's secret, surprisingly tender heart. Whitehead calls himself an Anhedonian, a good poker player because he's "half-dead inside," but don't be fooled: he's all in.