In 2011, novelist Colson Whitehead took a gig covering the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Whitehead, a casual but curious poker player, had just finished penning his sixth novel, Zone One, and was looking for his next project. His payment was his $10,000 entrance fee and his resulting essays were a smash hit, which is why he's collected and expanded on them in his new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death. Men's Journal caught up with Whitehead as he finished preparing for a grueling book tour to talk poker strategy, fast food, and why adults won't play Monopoly with him.
In 2011, you said you weren't sure whether you'd turn the Grantland poker series into a book. What made you decide to do it?
The original series wound up being like 60 pages and honestly, I could have written hundreds more. I had so many notes, there was a lot that didn't make it into the series, and I felt I had more to say. I wanted to capture it while it was still fresh. The year after the essays published, I went back to the World Series in Vegas to follow my poker coaches Helen Ellis and Matt Matros, and it all came flooding back.
You were already an experienced poker player, but this was a new league. How did you prepare?
As a home player who loved the game, I was excited to take the assignment. But as soon as I started reading books and chatting with people, I realized I knew nothing. Playing at home is different from playing in a casino with people who take it seriously and understand pacing. At home, there's no real money at stake. So I got a coach and decided the best path was to play in tournaments.
What was the best piece of advice your coach gave you?
One day she said to me, "You know, I burn like five pounds whenever I play in a tournament." And I was like, huh? You think sitting doesn't involve a lot of exertion, but she was right. It's so tense, your senses are abuzz, and you're sweating. For real. The best piece of advice she gave me was to eat a hearty meal before and reward myself with a nice snack.
Do you have a favorite casino?
The Showboat in Atlantic City. It's pretty shabby, the restaurant is a Johnny Rockets, the tournament stakes are low, and it's always pretty crowded because it's pretty cheap. It's also right on the boardwalk so if I had to clear my head between hands, the boardwalk was 10 feet away so I’d step out for a stroll.
So you'd practice in Atlantic City and then return to your life in Brooklyn?
Yeah, it was very schizophrenic. I'd get my daughter up in the morning, brush her hair, drop her off at school, chat with other parents, and then go gamble in Atlantic City for the day. I'd get home at 3 a.m., sleep, wake up the next day and get right back into dad mode.
Why haven't there been more poker novels?
I'd guess it's because there's so much you have to explain to the reader about hands – 'you should be really excited because I have a pair, here!' – to keep them with you. To make sure they understand how it's moving. Plus, it's a very visual game. The hotels, the personalities, it lends itself really well to movies. You know, some guy blinking like mad when he has a good hand, the jingling machines, the glittery lights. The gratifying part about writing it, though, is finding the metaphor. That moment when you land on why poker is just like life, or sadness, or hope. You call upon your novelists toolkit to generate suspense from this pretty abstract experience, and get the reader to see the bigger picture.
There are moments when you step back from the game and talk about Las Vegas, which is a polarizing city. Why are you fond of it?
On my first visit when I was 21, I thought it was campy and kitschy and cheesy and what middle America thinks is entertainment. I was very snobby, saying ‘Oh, I’d never gamble.’ But the rush of winning your first couple bucks on the slots... I got sucked in quickly.
I'm also a student of cities and urban spaces, and am fascinated by how casinos have transformed from old school establishments to these high-tech mazes that are chock full of diversions. From an anthropological perspective, it's amazing to walk into the Cosmopolitan on a Friday night and see no walls, no windows, just tables and lights. And suddenly a stage opens up in the center of the floor where a woman appears and sings three songs and then fades out again. It's all this micro entertainment designed to keep you in. It's remarkable.
Did writing this book make you more passionate about poker – like it's something you want to teach your kids – or do you feel disenchanted?
I'm not disenchanted by it, but I'm in an in-between place where I sometimes wish my casual games had more action. They're social and mellow, and I find myself getting frustrated now that I know all the intricacies and complexities. But I’m never going to become a pro. I hate losing money.
In terms of teaching my daughter, Monopoly is where I get serious. That's a game I feel intent on passing on. Right now we're in the stage where I'm trying to stress the value of mortgaging when you have to. It's going fairly well, I'd say. Monopoly is the game grownups won't play with me anymore because it's where my competitive tendencies come out.
What writers, journalists or fiction writers, influenced your approach to The Noble Hustle?
For me, literary inspiration came from books that weren't necessarily about poker but about little obsessions. They served as models, like Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air or Geoff Dyer's Zona. Both cases are authors trying to translate a private enthusiasm to a public audience. Heat is a book written by a former New Yorker editor who left his job to work in one of Mario Batali's kitchens. It deals with learning how to work on a line at a restaurant, big chef personalities, the history of italian cuisine. It's a great example of a writer explaining a subculture to people who may not understand it in a way that’s relatable and funny.
What's next: more journalism or more fiction?
I'm ready for some fiction. I finished the book last June so I haven't worked in a year and – man – it's time to get back. I've been busy, you know, I met someone, got married, and had a baby. I now have an 8-month-old son. But once I'm done with this book tour at the end of May, it's back to work. I have a couple ideas for new fiction novels so now I just have to pick one. That feels like the hardest part.