Could there be a less propitious setting than the Tropicana Poker Room in Atlantic City on a Saturday morning? As Colson Whitehead reveals in The Noble Hustle, a darkly humorous work of participatory reportage that finds him (a decided amateur) attempting to play poker with the pros, the answer is a resounding no. On a typical Saturday morning, folks trickle into the Trop for the weekend tournament—regular types the author sorts into three different but equally undesirable categories: the Methy Mikes, the Robotrons and the Big Mitches.
Whitehead’s previous book was the acclaimed zombie novel Zone One, an emotionally scouring horror story with a post-apocalyptic setting and all-too-plausible plot, the writing of which seems to have taken a toll on him. The Noble Hustle opens right after he has wrapped Zone One. Grantland magazine has offered him the assignment of reporting on the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas, but he’s reluctant to take on the project.
“Now that I was done with the book, I was starting to feel human again,” Whitehead says. “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. . . .” Yes, that’s sadnesses, plural, and the usage is all too apt, as Whitehead, we learn, is four days into a divorce. And living in a crappy apartment. And struggling with the “rules of solo parenthood.”
Despite—or maybe because of—Whitehead’s blue mood, Hustle is a hoot. Casting himself as hapless protagonist and letting his comedic sensibilities—however cynical—steer the narrative, Whitehead proves an ideal observer of poker culture. Once he agrees to cover the tournament, which will be broadcast on ESPN, he has six weeks to prepare, and so he begins practicing at the Trop, working with a poker coach and playing against writer buddies in games that are casual rather than cutthroat—all pretty much to no avail. “By disposition,” Whitehead writes, “I was keyed into the entropic part of gambling, which says that eventually you will lose it all.”
At the WSOP, he holds his own for a while, but by the end of the first day, he’s “a lump of quivering human meat.”
Whitehead writes with authority about poker and provides plenty of play-by-play action, but the tale he tells is much more than that of an odds-against-him novice. It’s also the story of a writer befuddled by fatherhood and middle age. Whitehead may not triumph at the tables, but his new book is a winner.