It seems rude to be always folding. Do you find that? 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. And you bet throughout Throughout the game. Now when you got into the Series, seriously, you connected with a poker coach, Helen Ellis, right?
Tell us about her. 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. 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. You can be somebody you aren't. Who was she? 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? 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. His book is "The Noble Hustle. 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. 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. 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?
But, you know, it was a living. 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? 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 year president of Notre Dame University who died yesterday. 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. 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 , it was 8, 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.
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, 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. Let's talk about your approach. What did you decide to wear? 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. We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught.
While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project. The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions.
Already have an account? Log in. Trouble signing in? Retrieve credentials. Sign Up. Page Count: Publisher: Doubleday. Show all comments. More by Colson Whitehead. Pub Date: Sept. Page Count: Publisher: Viking. Show comments. More by Robert Greene.
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