If you’ve ever considered a career in poker, novelist Colson Whitehead has a helpful test to evaluate your odds of success. “Ever said, ‘Cute baby,’ about some newborn who’d found a portal between their Hell Dimension and our world?” If you answered “yes,” you might have a career in poker. The game demands a gift for deception.
Friends had been telling Whitehead, a dedicated amateur player, for years that he had a good poker face. So when the magazine Grantland proposed that he enter the 2011 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, he took the assignment. They put up the $10,000 buy-in; he brought the face.
The result of his exploration of the world of professional poker is a new book, “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death.’’ Mingling memoir, reportage, and essayistic musing, Whitehead’s account follows the structure of a mock epic, charting his journey from scrappy training (an early foray involves a casino with the ambience of a “combo KFC-Taco Bell-Donate Blood Here”) to heroic combat in a swanky Vegas casino.
Whitehead proves a brilliant sociologist of the poker world. He evokes the physical atmosphere vividly, “the sleek whisper of laminated paper jetting across the table” as the dealer shuffles. But he also conjures the human terrain, laying bare his own psychology and imagining his way into the minds of others. His book affirms what David Foster Wallace’s best nonfiction pieces made so clear: It’s a great idea for magazine editors to turn a gifted novelist loose on an odd American subculture and see what riches are unearthed.
While other players are making abstruse calculations of probability, Whitehead sees the stakes in the tangible terms of players’ lives. Despite the many cool exteriors, all of the players come to the game with their own motives and vulnerabilities. For one, he imagines, losing is “draining Loretta’s college fund, letting the plumber’s invoice slide until next month.” These are precisely the sorts of concerns that casinos want you to forget. Plastic poker chips are at two removes from reality: They represent money, and money represents things. It’s easier to keep gambling with this double buffer.
Whitehead drops the slang of the game’s junkies, and he takes us through the math-heavy strategy books that are the bibles of the pros. He also traces the rise in popularity of big-money poker. Seven people competed in the 1970 series. By 2011, the competition drew 6,856 contestants, and the winner took home $8 million.
All of that is partly owing to the game’s populism. Unlike, say, basketball, where a lucky amateur will never play Kobe Bryant, poker occasionally allows fans to enter a major event and compete against their idols — as is the case in the series. Skill and strategy matter, but sometimes luck just takes over, and an amateur ends up being competitive with the pros.
Like almost every sport, poker can be read as a metaphor for life. Whitehead plays with this trope: “Life! What Inscrutable Card Shall Ye Throw Next Upon the Soft Felt of Our Days?” He also finds darker resonances: “We all go out sooner or later,” he writes after a player is eliminated.
Just as he intuits the humanizing details behind his competitors, he also reveals some personal information of his own. When two players shoot him dirty looks in a game, he says: “I hadn’t been glared at with such hatred by two people since couples therapy.”
Whitehead writes in a cool but cultured prose, his allusions scavenged everywhere from “Dora the Explorer’' to “Scarface.’’ By the end of the book, you understand the perverse psychology that pulls so many to the game: “Stop. This is insane. Feels great.”
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.