Times are tough for novelist Colson Whitehead in The Noble Hustle, his memoir about playing in the 2011 World Series of Poker. Not only is he drained after finishing a book under a tight deadline, he’s going through a divorce and figuring out how to be a good dad under the circumstances. But, as Whitehead describes himself, he’s never been the cheeriest guy. He’s a proud citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia (a country he invented) — a place where no one can feel pleasure, a place for the gloomy and doomy.
A committed amateur player, Whitehead has one gambling superpower: As he says in the opening line of the book, “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” Taking his poker skills as far as they can go — and then some — he trains for and plays in the World Series of Poker, backed by Grantland. And he eats a lot of jerky.
The Noble Hustle is a Paper Lion-esque sports story, complete with ESPN cameras, training sequences, and encounters with greats like Matt Matros, Whitehead’s friend and advisor and now three-time winner of the World Series of Poker. It is a travel memoir, in which Whitehead recounts bus rides into Atlantic City and describes the buffets and circulated air of casino after casino, and takes us on a time-traveling detour to a post-college cross-country road trip to Vegas. It is a treatise on our constant need for distraction, and the ridiculous things we do in the name of that particular American god — what Whitehead refers to as the “Leisure-Industrial Complex” — as we have fun seemingly together while remaining completely alone.
Finally, like all stories about hustle, it’s about having the guts to show up. The noble hustle of the title isn’t just poker alone; it’s the grind of the writer’s life, or life itself. This is a book for everyone from amateurs to professionals, or even those who have never played a hand of cards at all. It’s for anyone who has ever dreamed of succeeding when success was always out of the question.
Through it all, Whitehead is skeptical yet open-minded, gloriously melancholic and self-loathing yet — just a tiny bit, or are we imagining this? — hopeful. Not to mention hilariously deadpan. In other words, he’s the perfect guide through the wild world of poker, and after reading The Noble Hustle, you’ll wish you could to join him at the table for a game or two.
I met Whitehead, author of Zone One, Sag Harbor, and other novels, at No. 7 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we discussed road trips in your early twenties, the importance of Twitter friendships, and, of course, jerky. Delicious, delicious jerky. The man who sat in front of me was anything but half-dead. His eyes were bright as he spoke of his two children (one a newborn), the new novel he’s already working on, and the trials, tribulations, and fleeting rewards of participating in America’s largest gambling event. His wit, though, was still as dry as the meat on the table.
1. Write things down and keep your notebooks.
Whitehead spoke about the process of writing about the past. In this case, it was a road trip he’d taken just after college with his friends Dan and Darren — Dan, who later founded a visual effects company that does the CGI for major movies, some of which were written and directed by Darren, who is indeed the Darren you’re thinking of (Aronofsky). But take comfort, aimless twentysomethings: The three friends weren’t always on the path to success.
“When you’re 21, you just want to write, and you want to direct, and you want to do animation, but you’re just totally unprepared to do anything. When I look back on it… I found my notebooks, which is where I got the quotes from. We were so clueless. We had no jobs, we had no money… [But] we bounced ideas off each other for the next, like, 10 years.”
From The Noble Hustle: “Dan had escaped college with a degree in visual arts, was a cartoonist on route to becoming an animator. Darren was an anthro major who’d turned to film… I considered myself a writer but hadn’t gotten much further than wearing black and smoking cigarettes… You can keep ‘Write What You Know’ — for a true apprenticeship, internalize the world’s indifference and accept rejection and failure into your very soul.”
2. Taking breaks is important, but so is taking opportunities.
“I generally take a year off in between books, just to decompress,” he says. “At least, I’d hoped to do that, and then this came along, so [the book I was going to do] was put off until I was done with the poker, with the World Series. Because I was very tired, and it had been a long year-and-a-half of divorce, and handing my book in, and hustling to be a good dad, blah blah. (Laughs) I shouldn’t say ‘blah blah’ in interviews. So, the semester was ending, and the book was done. I was hoping to just kick back for the summer, and it really was the assignment of a lifetime. You can’t say no — it’s not going to happen again in between books.”
From The Noble Hustle: “…I wanted to rejoin society, do whatever it is that normal people do when they get together. Drink hormone-free, humanely slaughtered beer. Eat micro-chickens. Compare sadnesses, things of that sort.
“The editor had heard that I liked poker — what if they sent me to cover the World Series of Poker?
“No, I said. I did indeed like poker, although there was no way he could know it, was very fond of Las Vegas. But ten days in the desert, in the middle of July? I chap easily. And again, I wanted to give myself a break. In the past year I had devoted myself to the novel and to figuring out the rules of solo parenthood…
“Then the editor of the magazine asked, What if we staked you to play in the World Series and you wrote about that?
“I had no choice.”
3. Find an editor you trust, who trusts you.
I asked Whitehead if his editor was on board with the detours he takes in the book, such as the story of The House of Jerky, owned by Dexter Choi.
“Yeah, I’ve worked with him for 12 years, so he trusts me. It’s rare that someone works with someone over five or six books nowadays, or they keep their job and you keep writing, so I’m very fortunate… With Zone One, I was like, ‘Zombie book, what do you think?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know horror movies, but I trust you. Go ahead.’ With this, obviously, there was the 60-page article, so a part of it was already done … I was trying to do something new anyway, from book to book. So I went from Sag Harbor to Zone One to the poker book — a very perverse switching of topics.”
4. Keep your Twitter friends close.
A Twitter friend (the two had never met in person before) stopped by our table, and Whitehead introduced her as a local beef jerky maker. She said, “Are you guys just feasting on beef jerky?”
Pretty much…but Whitehead said that we’d hopefully get some vegetables in there soon. (Note: That didn’t happen.) I expressed my shock that Whitehead did, indeed, have a beef jerky connection to call on.
“Yeah, I just rode my bike over,” she said. She then asked about the beef jerky on the table — as any beef jerky maker with an eye on the competition would do — and said, “So. Here, you guys. I’m giving you three of my four flavors.” She turned to me. “Are you laughing at me?”
“No!” I said. “This is a wonderful moment for me. I’ve never seen somebody bike-deliver beef jerky. It’s like weed delivery, but better. Can I take a picture of the hand-off? Is that gonna be OK?”
The moral of the story is, when it comes to Twitter, keep an open mind and keep in touch. Because on Twitter, you can make friends joke around with you, who encourage you, who will bike-deliver beef jerky to you. Not to mention friends who will coach you on poker over DMs.
From The Noble Hustle: “I’d sent up a flare to alert people on Twitter re: my Vegas plans. Matt responded: ‘If you want poker help… I can translate poker language into lit-speak.’ Social media wasn’t usually my thing, as it had the word ‘social’ in it, but I’d taken to the platform after a personal tragedy. I had a cat, the cat died, and now what I used to say to my cat all day, I tweeted. It helped that 140 characters was roughly my preferred limit when it came to human interaction.”
5. As you develop the mental, don’t neglect the physical.
As the internet has been telling us for a while now, sitting kills! (Which seems like a real conflict of interest, internet.) Since poker involves a ton of sitting, Whitehead embarked on a training program that would help him with his back and manage stress, though he told me that he hadn’t been keeping up with the yoga.
From The Noble Hustle: “I mentioned that we got twenty-minute breaks every two hours. What could I do to stay loose and limber? [My trainer, Kim] said ‘Cat, cow, downward dog.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that in a casino.’ My table image would suffer… As I walked out into the glare and early-summer heat of Fourth Avenue, I felt a peculiar sense of well-bring, which I quickly banished by force of will, as I didn’t want to ruin my streak. Assimilating this knowledge would take time, but I felt that soon I would be a lean, mean sitting machine.”
6. For every person, there is a beef jerky counterpart.
Whitehead riffed on the types of people he often saw in the casinos and what kind of jerky they’d probably eat at my behest. I think we’ve got a new Myers-Briggs Test here, but even better, because jerky:
“There’s the Methy Mikes, and then there’s the Robotrons, which are the youngsters. So, a super-hot jerky would be a Robotron. A super-hot jerky sort of burns your mouth and leaves a scorched earth — a plain where your mouth was. So the Robotrons with their super-aggressive playing style would be a very aggressive-flavored jerky. A Methy Mike would be jerky that was exposed to the elements. Maybe the bag broke, or there’s no desiccant in it, so it gets very dry and weathered and there’s no juicy flavor to it. So, a Methy Mike is a twig of expired, dried-out jerky.”
From The Noble Hustle: “If Methy Mike had been hitched, the lady had packed her bags long ago, and if they had spawned, their parenting goals probably ended with making sure their kid didn’t get a tattoo on her face, and they did not always succeed… And then there was the Robotron, wedged in there, lean and wiry and hunkered down, a young man with sunglasses and earbuds, his hoodie cinched tight around his face like a school shooter or bathroom loiterer.”
7. Know when to fold ‘em.
Beneath all the free-floating anhedonia, you can glimpse a little joy in The Noble Hustle. Let’s be real: Whitehead kinda, sorta loves playing poker, and when all’s said and done, he went far on this journey. I asked him if he’d ever consider playing in the World Series of Poker again.
“No, I don’t think I’d go again. I’m not in fighting shape. I’ll leave it to the professionals. Right now I’m just focusing on my next book.”
From The Noble Hustle: “Try again. It was a very Bad News Bear Bears thing to say. Scrappy. Inspiring. Actually, fuck it.”