Author Interviews
8:52 am
Sat May 3, 2014

'The Noble Hustle': In Vegas And In Life, We Play The Cards We're Dealt

Originally published on Sat May 3, 2014 11:33 am

Poker is a favorite metaphor for life, and Colson Whitehead says it's not a bad comparison — especially for big city life. "I think you survive in New York just by having fewer bad things happen to you," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "And I think that's true for poker as well: If you can play your good cards your bad cards decently and hope that your other player is not as adept at riding these currents of luck and circumstance, you're in good shape."

Whitehead is the author of the novels Zone One and The Institutionist, and a devoted, but casual poker player. In 2011 Grantland magazine gave him the assignment to write about the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas — by being in it. That experience inspired his new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death.

Whitehead has an excellent poker face. "I have a good poker face because I'm half dead inside," he writes. "My particular combo of of slack features, negligible affect and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing 20 years ago."

His poker face hasn't helped him "human relationships-wise over the years," but he's sure he's not alone. "Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc.," he writes. "You make the best of the hand your dealt."


Interview Highlights

On how he prepared for the World Series of Poker in just six weeks

When I got the assignment it seemed like the assignment of a lifetime. Then I realized I had never played tournament poker before, which is very different than your home game. There are different rules, different rhythms, different ways of betting — and I only had six weeks.

I tried to attack it scientifically. I bought a bunch of books and they were all the wrong books — they were money game books and not tournament books. And so I started to lose sleep. One of my friends knew someone who had played in a World Series and she agreed to talk to me and she became my coach and she taught me where to go in Las Vegas, the better books to read, and basically how to keep my head together.

On building up his physical and mental endurance

Nutrition is very important. The World Series is a 12-hour stretch that you're at the tables so it seemed a physical trainer might help me. So another friend recommended a woman ... who helped me with some yoga poses so I could keep limber. ... Breathing exercises were most handy — when I was freaking out at the table I would take a deep breath, hold it, and then let it out.

On his evolving relationship with Las Vegas

When I first went to Vegas in '91 after college, I thought it was campy and kitschy and I thought I'd have fun making fun of the sort of culture there. But somehow I felt I fit right in — I'm not sure what that says about me — I felt I was a part of this weird, arcane, bizarre culture. And I guess in the years as I've gone back and the city has grown and there are more permutations of Vegas, I admire it. I admire this sort of great kingdom in the desert.

On glimpses of gambling addiction

There was one time when I was coming out of Caesars in Atlantic City and there was a man in his 60s who needed to gamble, and his friends were trying to usher him back into their rental car. And he was shouting, "I need to gamble!" ... And it was sort of a glimpse into the kind of gambling addiction I hadn't seen that much.

I'd seen these poker scientists enjoy the game and spin their great narratives and seen their dexterous moves on the felt. But there are people who don't win, and there are people who don't get to the final tables, or make it to Vegas at all. They're [the ones] coming to Atlantic City, to the cheaper casinos ... who are the casualties.

On whether he played differently at the World Series because he didn't have any real money in the game — Grantland was paying his way and writing off his loses

I went in intending to write about the experience and then once the game started I realized it was more than an assignment. It meant much more to me than I had realized. Hopefully in those final 30 pages ... the reader sort of sees how much I was invested and how much it meant to me. Because it was very profound and I knew that once I finished writing the article for Grantland, that it was a much bigger story in there that I didn't have time to tell.

On who he was playing for

It's the World Series of Poker so I was trying to figure out what country I was representing. I'm an American usually, but I think my true allegiance is to my homeland of The Republic of Anhedonia. Anhedonia — the inability to experience pleasure. And it seemed like even though we don't really have borders around our country there are a lot of us who sort of stumble around with great poker faces because we've never learned any other way to hide our half deadness inside. And if I could play for them, I was accomplishing something at least.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Colson Whitehead has a great poker face. Let him tell you about it.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: I have a good poker face because I'm half-dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing 20 years ago.

It has not helped me human-relationships-wise over the years, but certainly I'm not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formula of experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you're dealt.

SIMON: Ouch. Mr. Whitehead is the award-winning, best-selling author of novels, including "Zone One" and "The Intuitionist" and a MacArthur Fellow. He's a poker player, but the kind who usually has a group of guys over like a scene from "The Odd Couple."

Then, in 2011, Grantland Magazine gave him the assignment to write about the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas by being in it. He's now produced a book "The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, And Death." Colson Whitehead joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

WHITEHEAD: Hey. Howdy. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You had just six weeks to prepare. So mentally and physically, what did you do?

WHITEHEAD: When I got the assignment, it seemed like the assignment of a lifetime. Then I realized I had never played tournament poker before, which is very different than your home game. There are different rules, different rhythms, different ways of betting. And I only had six weeks.

So I tried to attack it scientifically. I bought a bunch of books, and they were all the wrong books. They were money game books and not tournament books. And so I started to lose sleep. One of my friends knew someone who'd played in a World Series, and she agreed to talk to me. And she became my coach. And she taught me where to go in Las Vegas, the better books to read and just basically how to keep my head together.

SIMON: Better food buffets to go to also?

WHITEHEAD: Well, yes, nutrition is very important. You know, the World Series is a 12-hour stretch that you're at the tables. So it seemed my physical trainer might help me. Some other friend recommended a woman in Park Slope, and she helped me with some yoga poses so I could keep limber, some breathing exercises. And actually, the breathing exercises were most handy. When I was freaking out at the table, I would take a deep breath, hold it, and then let it out. And hopefully no one on either side of me would think I was too much of a freak.

SIMON: You at one point quote an old bit of poker wisdom, that winning is a battle of mistakes. And I want to go easy on the metaphors between poker and life, but is that a good one?

WHITEHEAD: Well, definitely for life in the big city. I mean, I think you survive in New York by just having fewer bad things happen to you. And I think that that's true for poker as well. If you can play your good cards, your bad cards, decently and hope that your other player is not as adept at riding these currents of luck and circumstance, you're in good shape.

SIMON: You're not one of those writers or cultural observers who mock Las Vegas. You like Las Vegas.

WHITEHEAD: I think when I first went to Las Vegas in '91 right after college, I thought it was campy and kitschy. And I thought I'd, you know, have fun making fun of the sort of culture there. But somehow, I felt I fit right in. I'm not sure what that says about me, that I felt I was a part of this weird, arcane, bizarre culture. And I guess in the years as I've gone back and the city has grown and there are more sort of permutations of Vegas, I admire it. I admire this sort of great kingdom the desert.

SIMON: Can I get you, though, to tell the story about the guy who wanted a wheelchair?

WHITEHEAD: I don't dwell on the more negative aspects of gambling, of which there are many. But there was one time when I was coming out of Caesar's in Atlantic City, and there was a man in his 60s who needed to gamble. And his friends were trying to usher him back into their rental car. And he was just shouting, I need to gamble. And they were like, you can't stand up. I guess there was something wrong with him.

And it seemed that it was a sort of a glimpse into the kind of world of gambling addiction I hadn't really seen that much. I'd seen, you know, these poker scientists enjoy the game and spin their great narratives and seen their dexterous moves on the felt. But there are people who don't win, and there are people who don't get to the final tables or make it to Vegas at all. And they're coming to Atlantic City to the cheaper casinos, hopefully not spending their Social Security check, who are the casualties.

SIMON: I wondered about something, though, all throughout the book, really. Do think you played any differently? Do you think your emotional identification was any less with the game because after all, you didn't have your own skin in it? I mean, you were playing on money from Grantland, which is owned by Disney, which was willing to write off your losses.

WHITEHEAD: Well, I mean, I think I went in intending to write about the experience. And then once the game started, I realized it was more than an assignment, and it meant much more to me than I had realized. And hopefully in those final 30 pages when I describe sort of being eaten away by the wave of mutilation which is the attrition of the rising cost of each hand and fought back, that the reader sort of sees how much I was invested and how much it meant to me because it was very profound. And I knew that once I finished writing articles for Grantland, that there was a much bigger story in there that I didn't have time to tell.

SIMON: Poker screws you even more deeply into your usual state of being, or what?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I think it's the World Series of Poker. So I was trying to figure out what country I was representing. I'm an American usually, but I think my true allegiance is to my homeland of the Republican of Anhedonia. Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.

And it seemed like, even though we don't really have borders around our country, there are a lot of us who sort of stumble around with great poker faces because we've never learned any other way to hide our half-deadness inside. And if I could play for them, I was accomplishing something, at least.

SIMON: Colson Whitehead. His new book "The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, And Death." Thanks so much for being with us.

WHITEHEAD: No, thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.