What Does It Take to Win Big in Las Vegas? A Q&A With Colson Whitehead

By his own admission, award-winning author Colson Whitehead went on a "strange odyssey" when he journeyed to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. He was on assignment for Grantland, ESPN's culture website, and had trained for weeks with Helen Ellis, a tournament-hardened card player. But there was just one thing: the odds were, well, stacked against him.

Amid the "colada-soaked pool parties" and "curvilinear hotels," Whitehead found himself in the "Land of Fabled Buffets" in 2011 with "slack features, negligible affect" and a "soulless gaze" (his poker face) as his only sure bet. "You make the best of the hand you're dealt," he begins in his most recent book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death.

But this isn't just a book about poker; the stakes, as Whitehead accounts over the course of seven weeks, are much higher. "We are all a bit Vegas now," he writes, "more comfortable exposing ourselves in all our weaknesses and appetites." Taken in full, The Noble Hustle details many of the unfortunate, life-questioning realities that come with one man's journey through the "Leisure Industrial Complex." It's an allegory for modern life, and one that, by book's end, will leave you asking life's great questions—"Should I go all in?" and "Where can I find the best beef jerky?" The answers: No, and Las Vegas.

Whitehead will join us at 1 p.m. EST to answer questions about the book, and his career, in the comments.

A decade prior before you went to the World Series of Poker for Grantland, James McManus famously went to Las Vegas for Harper's, risked his entire advance, and placed fifth, earning $250,000. Was there ever a moment when you thought you could actually win big? Or were you doomed from the beginning?

Although negative thinking drives a lot of the book, in this case my sense of doom was based on reality, instead of temperament. The 2011 game had 6,800 entrants—it would be crazy for me to think that I could train for six weeks and make it "into the money." That said, once I settled into the World Series, got my mistakes out of the way and started really playing to best of my ability, it was exhilarating. I still didn't think I could win a bunch of loot, but I was operating at a level I'd never reckoned before, and that was quite special to me.

Your novels, as well as your previous works of nonfiction, have a wonderfully assured sense of place: the manicured enclave of Sag Harbor, present-day and post-apocalyptic New York, the folkloric plains of West Virginia. What was it about Las Vegas that most spoke to you?

When Ash, the robot science officer in Alien, is asked by Ellen Ripley why he admires the monster, he replies, "I admire its purity." I admire Vegas's purity, its entirely wholesome artificiality. It didn't exist 100 years ago—it's a completely modern gizmo. We made it in our own horrible image.

So, if you could invite any four authors, dead or alive, to play a game of poker with, who would they be?

I'm going to go corny/old school and say certain members of the original Ocean's 11 film, the 1960 one. Peter Lawford, who always seemed to me to be the One Who Held the Secrets in the Rat Pack. Why else would they hang out with him? Dean Martin—the Nick Tosches biography of him is wonderfully dark. Very Anhedonian. Sammy Davis Jr., because it would be cool to see if the Candy Man really can, and if he can't, find out why. And Angie Dickinson, 'nuff said, but also for stories about hijinks on the Police Woman set.

In the book, while training with your poker coach, a white woman, you reference the film The Blindside and ultimately wonder: "What kind of Magic Negro was I?" Regardless of subject—poker, zombies, elevator inspectors—is it important to you to always examine, satirically or seriously, the complexities of race?

I'm a black New Yorker who loves pop culture, and depending on the project, these aspects or interests of mine come into play…or don't. I enjoy thinking about how race plays out over the centuries, how technology evolves, how cities transform themselves. These subjects are present in some of my books, and absent in others. The "Rush Hour" chapter of The Colossus of New York isn't about "black rush hour," whatever that is, it's just about rush hour. I do write about race a lot, but I don't think writers—of any shade or background or whatever—have to write about certain subjects. Let's have the first African American-written bio of Benjamin Franklin or Rip Taylor already. The world is waiting! Well, maybe not.

Circling back, what advice, if any, would you offer to aspiring World Series of Poker players?

Keep your shit together. A visual analogue for The Noble Hustle would be a space shuttle burning up in the atmosphere, its pilot trying to keep it from totally exploding. Keeping your shit together is a useful survivor skill, in most arenas.

UPDATE: Colson has signed off. Thanks for the questions!

[Photo by Nina Mouritzen]