I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.
Colson Whitehead writes uniquely brilliant and wordy novels, centering around such oddball and brilliant concepts it’s difficult not to wonder if something is going on with this guy. In The Noble Hustle, Whitehead’s secret is revealed under the pretense of poker memoir–he hails from the Republic of Anhedonia, where a poker face comes naturally. This revelation sets the tone for the book, in which Whitehead explores the rapid evolution of poker post-online gambling as he quickly evolves himself, prepping for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, NV.
The book bloomed from a Grantland magazine article, “Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia.” Grantland staked Whitehead, a (very) amateur player with a regular monthly Brooklyn writers game, to play in the World Series. That means they paid his $10,000 entrance fee, asked him to write about his experience, and if he reigned supreme in his clash with the titans, he’d get to keep his winnings.
Whitehead preps, as anyone would for any sort of epic battle, and these are some of the most memorable scenes. He finds himself a mentor in a fellow writer who demurely answers “housewife” at the poker table when others ask her profession. He calls her Coach. He chooses his poker nickname (the ‘Unsubscribe Kid’). As a test of Whitehead’s writing ability, he’s tasked with explaining a complicated game and the complicated theories behind playing it in a short book. I was lost right away, but I wasn’t reading for the poker lingo. I was reading for Whitehead’s writing, and just as with his novels, Whitehead is able to build brilliantly with language, here with darkly funny commentary of America’s Leisure Industrial Complexes and his struggle to fit in amongst the bling and shine of Las Vegas.
The most interesting parts of the book for me were the vignettes of Whitehead’s younger days, pre-success. He recounts driving cross country with friends Darren and Dan, visiting Vegas and eventually crashing on a friend’s floor in Berkeley. I was thinking as I read, “Could it be? Does genius attract genius like that?” And yes, it could be, Colson Whitehead was cruising the country with Darren Aronofsky, brilliant filmmaker of Black Swan and The Wrestler, among many others. Whitehead also roomed in college, and subsequently roamed Vegas, with the founder of The Source magazine.
The Noble Hustle staggers ground between niche literature and being for the masses–those who understand the game well might find the explanations tedious but love the storyline, and those who aren’t familiar with the game at all might get lost in Whitehead’s final descriptions of the play. The New York Times review gave Whitehead a hard time for draping the entire memoir in these hints of malcontent, with his Anhedonia schtick, and I’m not sure what I think about that. At first I tended to agree, but you can’t be mad at a guy for not being shiny happy person, can you? Overall, any die-hard Whitehead fan shouldn’t miss this chance to glimpse the writer’s life, history, and native land.