From Poker Amateur To World Series Competitor In 'The Noble Hustle' Colson Whitehead's book, now out in paperback, was born of an assignment to write about the World Series of Poker. It's a sharp observational tale of poker: those who play it and how it changed him.
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From Poker Amateur To World Series Competitor In 'The Noble Hustle'

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From Poker Amateur To World Series Competitor In 'The Noble Hustle'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas attracts 6,000 players willing to pay the $10,000 entrance fee for the no-limit Texas Hold'em tournament. ESPN televises the final table, and last year the winner took home $10 million in prize money. Our guest, novelist Colson Whitehead, was a decent amateur card player when Grantland magazine made him an offer - they'd stake his $10,000 entrance fee if he'd spend a few weeks training and then enter the World Series of Poker and write about it. The result is Whitehead's book, "The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death," which is out in paperback next week. The book is a sharp, observational tale of the game and those who play it and an account of how his own experience in the big show changed him. Colson Whitehead is a past recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. His other books includes "Sag Harbor," "John Henry Days" and "Zone One."

Well, Colson Whitehead, welcome back to the show. I thought we'd begin with a reading. This is - well, why don't you just set it up and then share it with us.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure, I mean, it's a bit of anthropology. I have played a lot of poker, mostly of the home-game variety. But in going to the World Series of Poker, I had to step up my game, and that meant going to a lot more casinos. So here's a typical scene, Sunday night in Atlantic City at a cheapo table.

(Reading) I sat down at a $1, $2 table with some types I'd encounter with some frequency during my training, like Big Mitch(ph). Big Mitch is a pot-bellied endomorph in fabric-softened khaki shorts and polo shirt, a middle-aged white guy, here with his wife, who was off dropping chips on the roulette felt, according to her patented system. Fully equipped with a mortgage, a decent job and disposable income, the segments of his thick metal watchband chick-chicked (ph) on his hairy wrist each time he entered the pot. He's your average home player. What Big Mitch wants the most, apart from coming home to see that young Kaitlin(ph) hasn't had a party and wrecked the house while they were away, is to brag to his home-game buddies and certain guys at the office of how much he won tonight, with a breakdown of a really big hand or two. He will be less vocal about his failures, as we all are. Next to two Big Mitches was a Methy Mike(ph), a harrowed man who had been tested in untold skirmishes, of which the poker table was only one. If Methy Mike had been married, 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. Often locals, Methy Mikes are on a first-name basis with the bosses and dealers and cocktail waitresses, and you can count on hearing a little catching up. Haven't seen you in a while. I've been a - I had some stuff come up. So I see. Iggy Pop takes a look at these guys and says, wow, he's really let himself go.

DAVIES: That is Colson Whitehead (laughter). Some of the faces of the game of poker revealed there. That's from his book "The Noble Hustle." You write so much about poker here, and you say that your looks are well-suited to poker. How?

WHITEHEAD: I discovered quite early that I have a good poker face because I'm half-dead inside. I sort of discovered this many years ago. Whenever I ran into somebody on the subway and told them I was going to play poker with some friends, they'd say, I bet you have a good poker face. Something about my lack of affect, going back to childhood maybe, some formative experiences. My genetic makeup makes it appear as if I don't have a lot going on behind the eyes.

DAVIES: And when you say you're half-dead inside, what does that mean?

WHITEHEAD: I have a very low emotional bandwidth, always have. It hasn't really helped me out in a lot of social interactions, but it turns out at a poker table, if you have - you present with a certain stillness, your opponents will project all sorts of things onto you - I'm bluffing, I have a strong hand - when really I'm just sort of cataloguing my regrets and failures and thinking about how I can improve my life, hopefully.

DAVIES: What was your history with playing cards? Have you played a lot of poker socially?

WHITEHEAD: I started playing about 20 years ago, I think in college. I was one of these people who always had a lot of free time for some reason, and I was always hunting the dorms for people to play hearts or bridge with. And then poker crept in after college. I had a weekly game in my 20s - which seems impossible now, how to get, you know, seven people together every Sunday - and slowly was introduced to the various games. Hold'em, which is, you know, the big national poker game, crept in around '95, '96, and it took me another 10 years to sort of figure it out. But I've always loved cards. I don't necessarily believe in luck, but I do believe that the next hand will cure what ails me.

DAVIES: You know, I've played some poker with friends and family, and as I got a little better at it - and I'm not anywhere near good - one of the things I realized was that there's sort of a, I don't know, a conflict between playing poker with your friends and playing to win. I mean, if you're playing with your friends - you know, if you're playing to win, the smart thing is to fold a lot. But with your friends, it's kind of like oh, I should stay in, they stay in when I'm - they build the pot when I'm in. It seems rude to be always folding. Do you find that?

WHITEHEAD: No, sure. I mean, you're - it's a social game. You're there to get out of the house and see your friends you might not normally see because of work, and you're talking about the novel that you're working on that's going bad. You know, I play with a lot of writers. You're talking about your kids. More recently, allergies seem to come up more, like gluten and stuff like that.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: So changing times. But you're there to have fun, and so you're not playing the, you know, the textbook way. You're playing to stay in to the last card. You should have folded, but you're having fun talking, you're not paying attention, and so maybe the river card will save you, and so you're throwing in, you know, your quarter, your 50 cents. It's not, you know, it's not big money.

And if you don't get the straight at the end, you know, there's always the next hand, and you're really there to have fun. So when I took the assignment, you know, I'm pretty good home player. I figured I would, you know, bone up on some higher-level theory and that would be it. I quickly learned that, you know, home game is completely separate than tournament poker, which has different rules, betting conventions, different rhythms of when you should be playing aggressively or passively or trying to get into the money, which is the top 10 percent, where you actually get some money back from your tournament fee. And I realized that even though I'd been playing for 20 years, I knew nothing about World Series-type play.

DAVIES: All right, well, let's get into that. Why don't you explain to us how you got this assignment and the opportunity to try and compete in the World Series of Poker.

WHITEHEAD: Sure. I'd just finished a novel and was very excited to not have anything to do for a while. And Grantland, which is an ESPN magazine, was starting up, and they approached me to see if I wanted to write about sports, which was unfortunate 'cause I hate sports and had nothing to say about sports. They'd heard that I was a poker player, you know, in my home games. What if I went out to Las Vegas to cover the World Series? - and I said no. You know, 10 days in a desert seemed a bit of a long time for Las Vegas, which, you know, after a couple days you definitely want to go home.

And then they said, what if instead of paying you for the article, we paid the $10,000 entrance fee, and you played in the World Series of Poker. And of course I had no choice, and I started training and started this strange odyssey where, you know, I quickly discovered I knew very little about what I'd gotten myself into.

DAVIES: All right. Maybe it would help if you just explained the basic rules for Texas Hold'em, I mean how many cards are dealt, how it happens.

WHITEHEAD: Sure. You start off with two cards, and you're building everything from there.

DAVIES: And only you see those two cards. Your fellow players don't see those two cards.

WHITEHEAD: Right, they're dealt down, and that's when the sort of face-off starts. After that is the flop, and those are the three communal cards. So you have two cards that no one can see and then three cards that everyone is sharing. And things have improved, or they haven't, and there's a whole, you know, a whole science of how you play the flop. Most people have fallen. It's not a home game, so not everyone is staying in to see what's happened. So there's usually two or three players facing off. Then there's the turn, and that's the fourth card that's up in the middle, the fourth communal card. It gets even more complicated. Perhaps the third person has fallen out, and now there's two people.

And then finally there's the river card, the last card that's up. You have two cards down, five cards in the middle that everyone can see, and that's the final showdown.

DAVIES: Right, and so whoever has the best hand mixing their two with the others wins. And you bet throughout...

WHITEHEAD: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Throughout the game. Now when you got into the Series, seriously, you connected with a poker coach, Helen Ellis, right? Tell us about her.

WHITEHEAD: A friend of mine - I confessed to my home game that I was going to Las Vegas, big step up in terms of stakes and anxiety. I had been binging on poker strategy books, and it made my play even worse as I, you know - as with anything you're cramming, you're not necessarily assimilating it into your brain. So I started playing poorly as I mixed tournament rules with home game rules and money game rules. So a friend of mine knew someone who'd played in the World Series of Poker the year before and connected us, and that was Helen Ellis, who is a writer. She has two novels but came from a gambling family and in recent years had sort of stepped up her professional poker playing, going to circuit events. You know, before the World Series, there are events all over the country where you try to make your stake, try to get player points and earn your way into the big game in Las Vegas in June. And she agree - and Helen Ellis agreed to meet with me, and I was very grateful. She told me where to play in Atlantic City, you know, this place has good food, this place has terrible food, this place, people are getting mugged outside, you probably don't want to play after sundown. And we had very different personalities. You know, she's a very cheerful, Southern white lady. I think we got into a kind of "Blind Side" situation, where we had a Southern white lady who would teach the weirdo black guy how to use a fork, enjoy life and play poker.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: Usually in this narrative, you know, according to Hollywood, the black guy gives something back. I wasn't sure. I'm not necessarily the most adept magic Negro in the world. I have few skills. But I definitely got something out of it, and she taught me how to step up my game and play in the World Series.

DAVIES: One of the interesting things she said was, you know, you can adopt any persona you want at the table, right. You can be somebody you aren't. Who was she?

WHITEHEAD: You know, most female players adopt a tomboy-type persona, and so they're dressing like the guys. She stays true to herself, and she calls herself - when people ask what she does for a living, she says housewife. She shows up in a black sweater and pearls with, you know, finely manicured fingernails. And of course that's a bluff. People are very courteous to her. They call her ma'am.

And as they sort of put her into a non-poker position, you know, she plays well and wallops them. And so that's her persona, I'm just a simple, Southern housewife. But of course she's there to make money like everyone else.

DAVIES: And she said, you know, as she told you what to expect in your interactions with these experienced players, she said they're going to go after you no matter what. What did she mean?

WHITEHEAD: I'm a bit of a dandy. I sort of, you know, have my colorful plumage. I didn't think it would be held against me. You know, most players in tournament poker are paunchy, middle-aged white guys. I'm a black guy with dreadlocks, with, you know, bright blue shoes. And so I sort of stuck out in many ways. And she said, you know, they're going to target you 'cause you don't seem like one of the boys. And of course that only compounded my anxiety 'cause I knew I didn't know how to play particularly. I was trying to catch up, but I wasn't there yet. And now there was the addition level of, you know, being a dandy among the fringed leather vests and Stetsons.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Colson Whitehead. His book is "The Noble Hustle." And we'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Colson Whitehead. His book about entering the World Series of Poker is called "The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death."

All right, so you live in New York City, and there are all these casinos in Atlantic cities that have these poker tournaments. So that's where you could go and practice. That was your minor league training. Give me a sense of what your daily routine was.

WHITEHEAD: Well, it would start off, I would, you know, get up, get my daughter ready for school. She was in second grade at that point. And I had joint custody with my ex-wife. Joint custody meant that I could actually spend late nights in Atlantic City and come back half the time of the week. So I would take her to school and then hop a bus to Atlantic City, you know, two and a half hours. I would gamble, gamble, gamble, run around Atlantic City. Different casinos have different tournaments at different times, different stakes. They attract different kinds of players depending on whether it's a boutique casino like the Borgata, or let's say an older casino. I don't want to name any. I love them all, so I'm not going to, you know, disparage them, but maybe a little more worn-down casino on the waterfront.

I run around, play a couple tournaments, wash out, run across town to the next one that was starting. And then around midnight, hit the bus depot and get home around 3 a.m., where I'd sleep all day, read some more poker books and then pick up my daughter from school at 3 p.m. It was a bit odd at drop-off when I'd talk to the other parents, and we'd trade small talk. You know, it's the end of the year, they're growing so fast, and they'd ask me oh, you going off to work? And I would say I'm actually - I'm going to Atlantic City, you know, to gamble all day.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: And I would get these sort of, you know, looks from the more proper parents. But, you know, it was a living.

DAVIES: You know, I'm no real gambler, but I've learned to play blackjack, and I've spent some time in casinos. In Philadelphia, we're not far from Atlantic City. And whenever I go, I always find I get there, and it's kind of exciting, and the lights are bright, and you sit down, and you play, and it's - you have this incredibly giddy sensation when people give you real money for winning at a card game, and the painful sensation of losing. But then at some point when I'm there, I become aware just - you see all these people around you with these zombie-like expressions, you know, ramming coins into the slot machines, and it gets kind of depressing. With greater exposure, does it feel different? What - how do you feel being in that world?

WHITEHEAD: Well, when I - you know, I was experiencing a deep immersion into casino culture, and I just finished writing a novel about zombies, the apocalypse in New York.

DAVIES: Right.

WHITEHEAD: And here I was actually surrounded by, you know, the living dead on a much more frequent basis than usually. I mean, you can go to Whole Foods on an afternoon, and it's packed, and people are walking around like zombies, picking up fruit, squeezing the lemons. Or rush hour in Times Square, and that's another sort of example of a mass of zombies. But yes, if you're sitting before a one-armed bandit, just robotically putting in coins, pulling a lever, blinking at the lights, yes, I'm among the living dead. But I think in any kind of situation where you're with a group of disreputable people, you think you're not one of the living dead.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: And so all the people at the slots think they're just doing something normally, and there are all these weirdos around. If you're compulsively gambling and, you know, spending more than you want, you think that you're the one sane gambler, and all these other sickos, you know, playing next to you are the ones with the problem.

WHITEHEAD: Of course your rationale for throwing away money makes you special and sets you apart from everyone else. So there's that kind of ego and narcissism in gambling, I'm not one of these losers, as you lose all this money.

DAVIES: You write that you actually like places like shopping malls and hotel lobbies, what you call a leisure industrial complex.

WHITEHEAD: I think maybe just growing up in New York, in, you know, terrible 1970s New York that was dirty, covered in graffiti, garbage strewn everywhere, you know, vehicles on fire - maybe not that bad. I like a nice, clean mall. I like a nice, clean airport. Casinos, they're always picking up after people. It seems very orderly. And I always feel a bit refreshed when I walk into a casino, and the circulating air hits my face, and I hear the blinking lights and the chimes. It seems very orderly in a way that cities are not always orderly.

DAVIES: Colson Whitehead's book "The Noble Hustle" is out in paperback Tuesday. After a break, he'll tell us about actually competing in the World Series of Poker and encountering young players he calls Robotrons, who grew up playing endless hours online. Also we remember Father Theodore Hesburgh, the activist and 35-year president of Notre Dame University who died yesterday. And David Edelstein reviews "Maps Of The Stars," the new David Cronenberg film. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, back with novelist Colson Whitehead, who four years ago tried his poker skills against the pros. Colson was a decent amateur card player when the magazine Grantland staked his entrance fee to the World Series of Poker if he'd write about the experience. The result is Whitehead's book "The Noble Hustle," which is out in paperback next week. His earlier books include "Sag Harbor," "John Henry Days" and "Zone One."

So you made it to the World Series of Poker. How big is the World Series of Poker today? How many people get in?

WHITEHEAD: The year I played in 2011, it was 8,000 people, and you walk into this huge convention hall and you just hear chips - chips being fondled by dealers, players, put into stacks, pushed in the middle. This symphony of crickets, I guess I called it, this incredible clicking, clacking, clicking, clacking of thousands of players, all of whom, you know, want to make it till the end. You know, they've been saving up all year. They've tried for years to get to the World Series of Poker. They've been playing satellite games, which are sort of lower stakes games, that if you win, you can, you know, get into the bigger game.

DAVIES: And so 8,000 people pay an entrance fee of $10,000?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. So the, you know, top player walks away with a couple million. There's something called the final table, the November 9. And so once you get 8,000 people down to nine people, they hold off and reconvene in November. It's a big, you know, TV event, and the November 9 play for millions of dollars. The ninth player gets a hundred couple thousand and then the top player a couple million.

DAVIES: But at the level at which you played, you're one of thousands of players at dozens and dozens of tables. Let's talk about your approach. What did you decide to wear?

WHITEHEAD: I needed a certain kind of armor. If you see players on TV, they're wearing sunglasses. In my training, I thought, oh, that's too jerky, you know, what kind of jerk wears sunglasses at a poker table? But the first day I got to Las Vegas, I was coming straight from the airport, I walked in with sunglasses and I thought, I am going to wear - I'm going to wear sunglasses. I don't care what I, you know, I thought about it. So that was number one, that was my visor and my helmet. And then I wanted to represent my country. It's the World Series of Poker and, of course, sometimes I feel very American, but I also feel an allegiance with my true home country, which is the Republic of Anhedonia, a nation of people who cannot feel pleasure. It's not located on any map, really, but I think we have millions and millions of inhabitants. These are the people with poker faces 24/7.

DAVIES: Now, we should explain because some people don't know. Anhedonia is actually, I mean, it's a term in psychology, right? It's people who just have trouble experiencing pleasure.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure. And I've always felt a strange affiliation with the word, with the definition. And if I do, I'm sure others do. And if there's a couple, there's probably thousands and millions, and we're the Republic of Anhedonia, it seemed. And that would be the nation I would represent at the World Series of Poker.

DAVIES: So you get started, how does it go?

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter). How did it go? I started on Day 1C. And so there are people who had washed out on Day 1A and 1B. So I would not be the first person to get kicked out and that was sort of reassuring. I'm just trying to keep it together. And you're in a room full of Big Mitch's, a bunch of guys who have come from their hometowns and want to represent. They want to win. And everyone is just playing very passively. I'm not the only person who's afraid of going out early. Nobody wants to spend $10,000, fly 1,000 miles and go out. And so, you know, the first table is very quiet. If you represent a big hand, everyone folds. If someone else represents a big hand, everyone else folds because you don't want to say you went out the first hour, second hour. There was one person who was a Robotron. So a Robotron, you know, I talked about the Big Mitch's, the Methy Mikes, and the Robotrons are the new, young players. They started playing when they're 18, playing online poker. They're in their parents' basement. They have 10 games going. And basically, online play allowed young folks to cram 20 years of experience into a year and a half. And so these legions of players that were raised on sort of inhuman poker, computer poker, had to learn how to navigate real-life play and casino culture. And they're young, they're aggressive and they play a different kind of poker from the traditional poker in all the rulebooks that I read. And older players learned a more sort of genteel sort of scientific game. And here are these young players who are playing by their own rules. It's...

DAVIES: They're more aggressive? They're tougher?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. They're hyper aggressive. They have really bad starting hands, those first two down cards that no one can see. They have crap. They raise, raise, raise, raise before the flop, the three communal cards. And you can never know, which, you know, you have to adapt to. The old cowboys, you know, they had their own sort of conventions and if they keep playing they have to adapt to the new rules that the sort of young guns are bringing in. So at my first table I would make, you know, mistakes. Once, you know, put the wrong number of chips in or bet out of turn, but I calmed down. And it was a bunch of middle-aged dudes, of which I was one, and a Robotron. And the Robotron cleaned up. And a couple of days later I ran into him and said hi and he was very polite. And he - his name was Ryan Lanigan, he was from New Orleans and he was, I think, in the top 12 at that point. He had a couple million chips. He started at my table and amassed a big war chest.

DAVIES: And was he the guy who said yeah, I remember you, you were a good player?

WHITEHEAD: He was very polite (laughter). I don't think I was a good player. I guess he was, you know, perhaps projecting something onto my half-dead poker face and I appreciated it. He was very nice.

DAVIES: You describe these Robotrons, these kids who learned to play online. And you often described them sitting at a table in a hoodie with ear buds in. Are there rules about what you can and can't have with you? I mean, can you have a cell phone? Can you be using a, you know, a digital device?

WHITEHEAD: You can't talk. You can't tell other people what you have. But you can have anything you want. You have smartphones. People are reading e-books at the table. People are playing video games on their iPads and tablets.

DAVIES: And they're tweeting. You can tweet?

WHITEHEAD: They're tweeting in between hands, during hands. So, yes, you can look up poker strategy if you want to. Why? Because if you're looking up poker strategy, you're probably not that good. And so (laughter) in between hands I would look at, you know, Helen's tips on my smartphone. But that, you know, that marks me as a poor player. But, you know, part of, you know, bluffing and your - they call it the table persona, for some people it's, you know, reading some bestseller on your eReader while everyone else is playing. Like he's so good, he's reading, you know, some sort of a how-to book on romance at the poker table.

DAVIES: You lasted more than a day at the World Series of Poker, which is something. I mean, you didn't get blown away. And you have a nice little story of rallying the second day and your final hand is an interesting tale and people can read that. I'm wondering, did the experience change the way you live at all? I mean, you're still a citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia?

WHITEHEAD: I am, but I don't go home as much. I think in, you know, those couple of days at the World Series made me feel a bit more in control. You know, it sort of put me out of a rut I'd been in for a couple of years. I'd just gotten divorced when I sort of got the assignment and, you know, for the year and a half before I'd been a solo parent and figuring out, you know, the rules of solo parenthood.

And I was either writing or taking my kid to school or, you know, for play dates and, you know, trying to be that good dad that, you know, sort of kids that grew up in the '70s were trying to be. It's just - two weeks in Las Vegas were the longest I'd been apart from my daughter and, you know, thinking of her as someone inspiring when I was feeling low in Las Vegas. You know, there's definitely a kind of existential malaise that sets in when you're in Las Vegas for too long. So, you know, part of it is about learning how to play poker. Part of it is - I don't want to say growing up but growing into a sort of more mature role than I'd been into, been sort of engaged in for a long time.

And having, you know, a good luck charm - the good luck charm that she gave me in my pocket, on the table, keeping me going when I felt low was important. And even now when I reread those sections of the book or - I did the audio book and even just reading it, I got sort of choked up, weirdly, years later. It had a much more profound and lasting effect than I thought I did when I just accepted the assignment.

DAVIES: Well, Colson Whitehead, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much.

WHITEHEAD: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: Colson Whitehead's book "The Noble Hustle" is out in paperback Tuesday. Coming up, we remember Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame University, who died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.

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