Poker players are traditionally segregated into two groups (aside from winners and losers, of course): analytical players and feel players. The analytical—or "math"—grinders put their trust in probability, game theory, and statistics. Make the mathematically optimal play, they believe, and eventually the money will be theirs. Feel players are a little more old-school, what movies romantically portray as the wise table veteran, able to read an opponent's soul.
Novelist Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist, Zone One) somehow manages to elide both of these categories. In The Noble Hustle (Doubleday), his new account of being staked by Grantland to play in the 2011 World Series of Poker, he admits that he can't follow the math advice he receives from textbooks and coaching. And, as he says in the book's opening line, "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside." So it's not likely he's going to emotionally connect with the bluffer across the felt from him. The challenge for Whitehead in writing this book, then, is making that connection with the reader, an effort that proves as difficult for the accomplished novelist as calculating the pot odds to an open-ended straight.
The book's story line is straightforward: Bill Simmons's sports and culture site offered to pay Whitehead's $10,000 entry fee to the World Series of Poker Main Event, the biggest game in the world, which typically attracts several thousand participants and a multimillion-dollar prize pool. A home-game hero who plays in a monthly tilt with other Brooklyn novelists, Whitehead knows his shortcomings, so in preparation he makes pilgrimages to "Vegas's little cousin," Atlantic City, and hires both a pro player to up his skills and a personal trainer to yogify his body, to prep for long hours on the poker floor.
But the conceit of the book is less familiar: Whitehead claims to be anhedonian, unable to experience pleasure. He jokes that he's from the Republic of Anhedonia, "an ancient land, founded during the original disappointments, when the first person met another person." His innate pessimism doesn't exactly make the prose sing with anticipation for the big game, and it quickly devolves into shtick. He claims his only experience in competition is playing the "Who Had the Most Withholding Father contest with chums," and that "The part of the brain these guys used for cards, I used to keep meticulous account of my regrets." So ever-present is Whitehead's anhedonian mask that it feels dishonest, more like character than author.
- Courtesy Doubleday
- Colson Whitehead
Though Whitehead often repeats that he loves Texas Holdem, the variety played at the Main Event, there's little actual love in the book. One of his analogies for explaining the game is actually sitting through an excruciating dinner party. Another is walking slowly behind tourists. Of course, in the Republic of Anhedonia, recounting being miserable in those situations may be an expression of love. Contrast this to poker as presented in James McManus's lively Positively Fifth Street—in which the School of the Art Institute professor was sent on the same assignment by Harper's in 2000—and you have, essentially, two entirely different dinner parties.
Halfway through The Noble Hustle, I began to think that maybe this is the book that gamblers, the soulless land of Las Vegas, and the pyramid scheme that is the World Series of Poker deserve. The federal government banned online poker a few years back, thanks—one could argue—to some savvy lobbying by casino magnates. And if you follow the right Twitter feeds or message boards, there are stories every day of pro poker players colluding, welshing, or running some low-level cheat. Texas Holdem may be one of America's great games, but the nobility of this particular hustle lies nowhere but in the game's legends, and in the poker literature of the last 30 years (for instance, last year's Ship It Holla Ballas!, which made heroes of a bunch of online poker bros). Whitehead, reporting from Anhedonia, largely strips all of that away.
But to what end? Whether we're seated at the poker table, or reading a book about the game, we want action. We want someone to put money in the pot, challenge us, make an investment in what's happening in front of us. Whitehead's cool distance from the game, and even from his own enjoyment of it, provides no action, no real hustle. Poker players often bemoan the presence of "nits," overcautious players for whom poker is an exercise in losing the minimum. I would never accuse Whitehead the novelist of being such a nit, but one gets the sense that with this book, he was ready to fold before he'd even had the heart to play.