In 2011, newly launched sports magazine Grantland asked author and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Colson Whitehead if he would cover the World Series of Poker that July. He said no. Then they told him they'd stake him into the tournament itself. It was an offer that Whitehead, a semi-serious poker player since college, couldn't refuse.
With only a few months to raise his skills enough to avoid complete humiliation, he begins his quest in Atlantic City. After placing third in a lo-stakes game, acquiring a sensei and browsing a few poker manuals, it's off to Las Vegas. The journey coincides with Whitehead's divorce, and his relationship with his young daughter provides an emotional tether as he bungees into the realm of high-stakes Texas hold 'em, the "Cadillac of poker."
No doubt our Cro-Magnon forbearers bet on who would bring home the biggest mammoth — loser paints the cave. In ancient India, gambling was considered one of the four great vices of lust (along with wine, sex and hunting), but gods and heroes wagered their lives and kingdoms. As a Vedic poem puts it: "… when the brown dice raise their voice as they are throw down, I run at once to the rendezvous with them, like a woman to her lover." Poker first appeared in multi-culti New Orleans in the 1820s and soon became a frontier staple, most notoriously when Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down holding aces and eights, the "dead-man's hand" forever after.
In the modern world, poker didn't exactly make for riveting spectacle — jowly white dudes at a table farting and cussing. Then, technology. Suddenly, via "hold-card" or "lipstick" cam, you could see the "hole" cards. In 2003, the WSOP victory of a relative amateur, one Chris Moneymaker, set off a poker stampede. With the rise of Internet gambling, any obsessed teenager could cram a decade of expertise into a few months online in his parents' basement, and many did. The rise of poker can be followed in the WSOP purses — in 1998 the winner took home $1 million, a decade later it was a cool $12 million.
Whitehead, a humorist of the New York deadpan variety, poses here as a castaway from the "Kingdom of Anhedonia" ("an ancient land, founded during the original disappointments, when the first person met another person"). In his role as "Whitehead" — who may or may not possess certain resemblances to the actual writer — he plays a hyper-intellectual schlub filled with immense self-hatred. (Some of my best friends in NYC are these people; in Los Angeles, they do not exist.)
Despite his lack of card chops, "Whitehead" claims to possess one natural advantage: "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside." Also, he's quite fond of jerky. In Atlantic City, he encounters three poker types: Big Mitch, the suburban dad on a weekend bender, Methy Mike, the lounge lizard, and young "Robotrons" with their sunglasses, earbuds and hoodies — "Why leave the house at all, between the poker sites and the porn sites?"
Whitehead's character reprises the protagonist in his novel "John Henry Days" (the young Woody Allen comes to mind). He's also channeling Twain and above all A.J. Liebling, who could smoothly land a gag involving Gillette razor blades and the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun.
Yet a shtick diet is not a nourishing one. Whitehead has the steady hand needed to wield a razor wit, but by the fourth or fifth go-round, even as entertaining a concept as the Leisure-Industrial Complex tires. Whitehead barely delves into the history of poker or the non-shtick reasons for its appeal. He admits as much: The article would "be like one of those piece where someone does a thing for a year and then writes about it. … But instead of one year, it would be two months, because of time constraints and my short attention span on account of the internet." Two months in, "Noble Hustle" out. There may be a sub-rosa contempt here for the genre — he's a novelist, and journalism, well, that's just a gig. His "This being life, and not literature…" pretty much sums it up.
It's in the DNA of American writers to pose as the everyman: I'm Huck Finn, just another guy, happy to be here. Yet Whitehead , who has gone from prep school to Harvard to the MacArthur, doesn't wear this guise well. He fails most in his inability to portray anyone not named Whitehead. A hundred pages in, you can't connect the blurry figures to the names — the best he can do with his sensei is compliment her dapper outfits: "She wore a black dress with a white collar, pearl bracelet on her wrist."
The gap between literary novelists and the rest of America has never been greater, and Whitehead is unwilling, or unable, to bridge it. We don't talk about class in this country, but the folks who play poker and buy poker books by the millions don't read literary novels. Both sides are worse off for it.
As with the essays of kindred spirit David Foster Wallace, Whitehead's self-regard can be viewed as ironic commentary on the displacement of his profession. What's most infuriating is that a meaningful book glimmers beneath the dazzling snark. He could have used his exploits as a backdrop for the unraveling of his marriage, dropped in a few of colorful casino figures, and bam, you've got a substantial book.
Instead, he leaves the reader with a magazine article on steroids: bulging beach muscle but the same weak skeleton underneath. "Noble Hustle" is a charming but slight bit of high-brow hustle from a talented writer playing his readers for rubes.
Anasi is the author of "The Last Bohemia" and "The Gloves."
Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death
Doubleday: 256 pp., $24.95