So, if someone offered to pay $10,000 to buy you a seat at the World Series of Poker where you might win $8.7 million dollars, would you do it? Why not, right? The only real question would be why on earth someone would spend $10,000 on such an adventure.
The answer in the case of Colson Whitehead, a novelist with an off-center view of the world, was so he’d write about the experience for his sponsor, Grantland magazine. In The Noble Hustle; Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, Whitehead expands on the original magazine piece, explaining what he did to prepare for this lark and adding more of his entertaining observations about gamblers, gambling, Vegas and Atlantic City.
Best known for such praised novels novels as Zone One, John Henry Days, Sag Harbor and The Intuitionist and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2002, Whitehead starts his tale with his efforts to prepare to stack his chips up against the famous and often flamboyant card sharks who dominate the televised WSOP. He finds a poker coach and a yoga trainer.
“Could someone gimme a hand in my new self-improvement scheme?” Whitehead wonders. “Up until now, my idea of ‘making a new start’ was not importing my bookmarks to a new browser. My torpor had stretch marks.”
Whitehead looks to his predecessors James McManus, who wrote the highly acclaimed Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion’s World Series of Poker, and Al Alvarez, who wrote the first great poker book, The Biggest Game in Town. The problem Whitehead faces is that both books set a high bar for poker tales, and both were written before the World Series of Poker became the event that every guy at every weekly game with his buddies aspires to win. McManus parlayed a $200 satellite seat into third place — and almost $250,000 — and his book came out in 2003, the same year that an unknown accountant named Chris Moneymaker wiped out the pros to win the main event.
This spawned the Moneymaker Effect, and the popularity of the World Series of Poker shot up. Just 839 players competed in the main event in 2003. More than three times as many showed up the next year, with 6,352 people competing last year. That’s just down slightly from the 6,865 who played in 2011, when Grantland magazine staked Whitehead’s seat at the competition.
“The guys at home — Miller Lite wisping out of their pores and into the upholstery of their fave recliners, the latest arguments with the wife and the most recent workplace humiliations buzzing in their brains — said to themselves: I can do that,” Whitehead explains.
Whitehead says he has become one of those guys now, an occasional poker player who has only played in a handful of tournaments, and even those weren’t real casino tournaments. And he has an even bigger problem competing with McManus in writing about his experience: McManus went to Vegas to cover the event and a flashy murder trial.
“The only crimes I witnessed during my stay this time were some ill-considered shirts and multiple counts of misdemeanor hairdos,” Whitehead wrote.
A lot has changed about poker, and particularly about the World Series of Poker, since those early books came out. Cameras show the television-viewing audience what cards each player has, and the wildly popular event has attracted sponsors for the big-name players. As Whitehead noted, they often resemble steam trunks, with patches all over their shirts and hats.
But overall, The Noble Hustle holds up despite Whitehead’s disadvantages. It’s clever and entertaining, and Whitehead employs entertaining throw-away lines that make you think but not too hard: “Memory is the past with volume control, turn it up, turn it down.”
Whitehead also creates a fantasy homeland to explain his particular poker face. The Republic of Anhedonia, named after the condition of being unable to feel pleasure, is a little distracting and not quite as funny as the rest of the book.
And like everyone who writes about Vegas, Whitehead writes about the city’s ridiculousness.
“The mere fact of Vegas, its necessity, was an indictment of our normal lives,” he writes. “If we needed this place — to transform into a high roller or a sexy swinger, to be someone else, a winner for once — then certainly the world beyond the desert was a small and mealy place indeed.”
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.