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When the World Series of Poker began in 1970, it was a pretty modest affair — seven veterans of the game competing for just the honor, no prize money. Today, more than 6,000 players 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 more than $8 million in prize money. Novelist Colson Whitehead was a decent amateur card player when Grantland made him an offer: They’d pay his $10,000 entrance fee if he’d spend a few weeks training, then enter the World Series of Poker and . The result is Whitehead’s new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, a sharp observational tale of the game, those who play it and how his experience in the big show changed him. MORE

EXCERPT: I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze had helped my game ever since I started playing 20 years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and three-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It had not helped me human relationships-wise over the years, but surely I am not alone here — anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences had resulted in a near-expressionless mask could relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt. […]

Anyone who’s gambled in the past 20 years knows that casinos are the highest exponent of Plex technology, high rollers in the Leisure Industrial Complex. The contemporary casino is more than a gambling destination, it is a multifarious pleasure enclosure intended to satisfy every member of the family unit. Reimagined as resorts, there’s moderate stakes blackjack for dad, a sea salt spa scrub for mom, the cortex-agitating arcade for the youngsters — or the Men’s Mani-Pedi Suite for dad, Pai Gau Poker for mom, and Highly Supervised Kidz Camp for the little ones (once you sign the liability waiver). A mall with rooms, the concept of such a thing, to eat, drink, and play, and then dream inside its walls. No windows, for what sight could be more inspiring than your true self laid bare, with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations. Stroll past the high-end shops with accented names, recognizable theme restaurants owned by TV chefs, indoor Big Tops, man-made wave pools, and find nourishment for any desire zipping through your brain. If there is a gap in perimeter, through which an unfulfilled wish might escape, it will be plugged by your next trip. […]

I sat down at a 1-2 table with some types I would encounter with some frequency during my training. Like Big Mitch. Big Mitch is a potbellied 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), equipped with a mortgage, a decent job, and disposable income. The segments of his thick metal watchband chick-chicked on his hairy wrist each time he entered the pot. Your average home player. What Big Mitch wants the most, apart from coming home to see that young Kaitlyn hasn’t had a party and wrecked the house while they were away (she’s really been acting out lately, but Pat says all girls go through that stage) 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. MORE

RELATED: Colson Whitehead will be reading and discussing The Noble Hustle at the Free Library on May 20th

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