I am a fairly athletic person. For some reason, though, my favorite works of sportswriting are about people who aren’t really athletes—Bill Barich’s memoir of betting on horses (“Race Track”); Don Delillo’s profile of a cousin who binge-watches sports on a couch he’s set up in front of two TV screens (“Total Loss Weekend”)—and sports that aren’t really sports, or weren’t sports until someone at ESPN 2 decided they could be.
This category is exemplified by Colson Whitehead’s new book about playing in (and “training” for) the 2011 World Series of Poker, which was held in the Rio Hotel and Casino. Because a tightly cinched hoodie and sunglasses are standard battle gear for younger players, broadcasts of the World Series of Poker sometimes make it look like a card game played by fraternity brothers who have just robbed a bank.
In The Noble Hustle, Whitehead observes players like this—“Robotron”, in his typology of poker players—at close range, but he’s at his best when he allows his attention to wander from the poker table, which, fortunately, is much of the time. He ranges from an homage to beef jerky (a popular poker snack) to the websites of New York City driving schools, “which as a species embodied the most retrograde web design on the internet, real Galapagos stuff.” (A native New Yorker, Whitehead has never learned how to drive; when he travels to Atlantic City to play in small stakes warm-up tournaments there, he takes the bus.)
Because he wants to look fit at the Rio, Whitehead even hires a Brooklyn personal trainer who “reintroduced me to my neglected spine, which I had long treated as a kind of hat rack for sundry, shabby articles of self.” She leads him through a few basic yoga poses, but their collaboration is short-lived. He’s mostly on-target when he describes his book as “Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-in’s.”
The comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of post-marital seeking is apt. Whitehead tells us in the opening pages of The Noble Hustle that he finalized his own divorce four days before his first trip Atlantic City. It was not his divorce that spurred him to play tournament poker, but an assignment from Grantland, which staked Whitehead’s $10,000 entry for the World Series of Poker and published the dispatches that make up the core of this book in a virally popular four-part series.
Before Grantland called, Whitehead was playing poker just once a month, in a Brooklyn writers game where “catching up with friends took precedence over pulverizing your opponents.” You could say the same thing about the place of poker in The Noble Hustle. This is a book about poker that includes pithy analysis of bus company logos as well as basic information about the Alexander Technique.
Whitehead is too cool a writer to wallow in self-pity, but in the opening pages of The Noble Hustle he confesses to a yearning for “some primo degradation.” This is something Atlantic City’s Tropicana Casino, with its “smell of ancient cigarettes smoke and the mellow undertones of men’s room disinfectant,” viscerally satisfies. He introduces—and sustains throughout this slim book—the conceit that he is a citizen of an imaginary nation called Anhedonia. It’s the Anhedonian in Whitehead that’s talking when he declares, in The Noble Hustle’s first line, “I have a good poker face because I’m half-dead inside.”
Some readers—the few who come to The Noble Hustle after mastering David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker, a classic how-to that Whitehead skims while “queued for the omelet station” at the Tropicana—might complain that The Noble Hustle is short on strategic wisdom, and note that there are not too many more pages dedicated to his actual run at the World Series of Poker (spoiler alert: he lasted longer than a day, but didn’t win any money) than there are to his wanderings about the Port Authority (which was also the subject of a love letter in Whitehead’s 2003 book Colossus of New York; if the Port Authority ever decides to follow London’s Heathrow Airport’s lead in hosting a writer in residence, Whitehead would be the only reasonable choice).
The Noble Hustle will disappoint poker nerds, but readers seeking vivid descriptions of senior citizens trying their luck in Atlantic City’s casinos will find just what they’re looking for. Whitehead observes “a quiet sixty-something lady with bright red hair, the follicles of which it was perhaps possible to count” and “an elderly white man who bent over his chips, squinting through a magnifying attachment that barnacled on his thick specs like a jeweler’s loupe.”
“Sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people,” he writes.
Embedded in this casually hilarious book are portraits of two gambling cities – one lavishing “rewards cards and rejuvenating foot massages” and a “misting station” to “[cool] the flesh from the desert’s heat, the other with “clapboard homes” and ”broken chapels,” its “casinos sticking up out of the boardwalk like rotten teeth.”
In Atlantic City, the cultivated Brooklynite Whitehead has little in common with his tablemates—among them one he calls “Methy Mike”—but he has friends in Las Vegas: a Harvard roommate and serial entrepreneur who calls himself Shecky Green; a Sarah Lawrence College MFA who has won more in a single poker tournament than all but a handful of writers earn for selling a novel. He seems comfortable there, dining on Bobby Flay’s Wild Mushroom Mashed Potatoes with Truffle Oil. As he describes his Vegas idyll, some of the frisson his writing dissipates; the dark humor doesn’t crackle as much as it did in the first seventy or so pages. I missed his writing about the misfits he competes against in Atlantic City. But this is my only complaint.
Among its virtues, The Noble Hustle is friendly to beginners and people who, like me, have learned but then unlearned the basics of poker. It contains a primer on hand rankings that you might actually remember, from highest card (“Your worldly possessions—what you’ve been dealt—are nothing more than a cracked snow globe, a ball of twine, an unwrapped candy cane, the electronic keycard to a job you got fired from six years ago, and a thimble”) to straight flush, which is “rare as a true catastrophe.”
Rare as The Noble Hustle: a masterpiece of sportswriting of any kind.