A Noble Effort from Colson Whitehead

It is tough to be too hard on mainstream people taking up the poker cause, because I do always want to encourage folks from outside the poker universe to fall in love with the game and the experience the Rio and the World series of Poker has to offer each summer. 

Nonetheless, I will tell anyone who listens that “Rounders” is a fundamentally bad movie, encouraging them to instead check out “The Sting”.  The TV show “Tilt” didn’t ever get much traction, so I would suggest the home game in the TBS comedy “My Boys” was a better poker representation.  And I think we are all in agreement that “Casino Royale” is both a terrible film and a terrible representation of poker.

While we have suffered through our fair share of crappy movies and TV about poker, our cup runneth over when it comes to poker literature.  Michael Craig’s “The Banker, The Professor, and the Suicide King” is an incredible glimpse at the secretive world of high stakes cash games.  A. Alvarez’s “The Best Game in Town” is not for everyone, but its flowy prose paints a nice picture of the lifestyle of the 70s gamblers makes it a worthwhile read for poker bibliophiles.  Then there is my personal favorite, “Positively Fifth Street” by James McManus, which effortlessly intertwines the legal woes of the Binion family and the author’s own quest for gold in the 2000 WSOP Main Event.

Perhaps it is because I am so fond of McManus’s book that I was so disappointed in Colson Whitehead’s submission into the poker literary oeuvre, The Noble Hustle.  The book follows the acclaimed author’s participation and preparation for the 2011 WSOP Main Event, which he played in on Grantland’s dime in exchange for a longform web piece.

While McManus navigated between two very complicated narratives, Whitehead’s story seems to have a hard time keeping track of his personal quest.  Yes, there is more at play than just his training in poker. He spends a chunk of the book discussing how his introverted nature and how this lack of zest for life leads people to the game.

It is an interesting conceit, and one I found to be the best part of the book.  Why is it that Whitehead and others who feel a little dead inside seem to find solace in poker?  I think he hits on some great points, like the idea that it is social activity for introverts, where you are around people, but you don’t have to actually interact with them.

While the psychological discussions are fascinating, the rest of the book feels disorganized and scattered.  One minute he is in Atlantic City getting advice from his coach, then he is back in college or off in Vegas.  The story meanders its way through to the big tournament, then we get what amounts to a Twitter recap of how his Main Event went.  The story ends just as it feels like it might be picking up steam…though that is often how people feel about their WSOP Main Event experience.

While the book is short, it isn’t the breeziest of reads, especially if you are poker savvy at all. Whitehead’s explanation of the game and the event are straightforward enough, but some of his other assertions, like the idea the old guard plays a math-based game or that the new guard, dubbed Robotrons, play with unplanned blind aggression, indicate a general lack of understanding about the current state of poker.  To the layperson, it may seem like Whitehead is in the know and not half bad at the game.  From his writing, I would guess he probably isn’t the best player in his home game, but that he is better than the average layperson amateur.

That isn’t the fundamental flaw with this book though. If you go back and read “Positively Fifth Street”, the poker in it will have you more than just raising an eyebrow, as our hero raise-folds half his stack away and limps in with five big blinds.  While Whitehead’s lack of poker acumen doesn’t help his cause, the real issue is that our hero, who claims he is half dead inside, does seem to have no emotional attachment to the goal at hand.  Here is the thing though: this year will be my seventh WSOP, and what amazes me about the Main Event is how it can make even the most completely cynical, emotionally dead person act like a kid on Christmas morning.  The absence of that excitement in the book had me feeling like Whitehead was going through the motions participating, and I certainly felt like I was going through the motions reading it.

There is the nice perk of seeing names you recognize in the book. Circuit regular Ryan Lenaghan makes an appearance, as does three-time bracelet winner Matt Matros and the infamous Math House.  These moments of recognition, while fun, don’t make up for the fact that this book feels more like a draft than a novel.  There are some beautifully accurate descriptions, which is unsurprising given that Whitehead is an immensely talented writer, but if you are looking for a great snapshot of the poker world or a great read, much like Rounders, I’d point you in a different direction.  

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Oh Mother

It isn’t surprising my mom’s sense of humor rarely overlaps with mine. Case in point, here is her favorite joke from one of her favorite comedians, Carl Hurley:

Why was one side of the vee of geese longer than the other?

Cause there’s more geese.

When I tell this joke to other people to try to point out to my mother how truly unfunny it is, she always comes back with the same response:

“Jessica, you’re telling it wrong. It’s all in the delivery.”

By the same token, my mom doesn’t find what I find funny particularly amusing either. In high school, I attempted to read her exerpts of David Sedaris, who I believe to be the funniest writer living today. My mother, like me, doesn’t seem to understand the humor is in the delivery.

I think besides, “I love you”, the phrase my mother has uttered to me more than any other is this:

“Jessica, are you being sarcastic?”

She legitimately can’t tell when I am kidding. If I say, “Well, I’ll try to squeeze it in between slinging crack on the streets and selling my body to the denizens of Vegas,” Dolores is just as likely to assume it is a cry for help as she is to assume it is a joke. Without intonation to give her some context clues, she is generally at a loss of what I am telling her is real or fake.

“Now wait…did you actually tell your friend, "By all means, please tell me everything you find wrong with me. I love self-improvement.”

“No Mom, that was inner monologue.”

“I was about to say…”

Despite our inability to agree on what is funny and when I am being serious, there is one movie we can both agree is absolutely hysterical, and that movie is Albert Brooks’ “Mother”.

The flick came out in 1996, and, save for a couple of Golden Globe noms, disappeared not long after it surfaced, so most of you have probably never even heard of it. The basic gist is this: Albert Brooks plays a sci fi writer who wants to re-evaluate his love life after yet another failed marriage. He decides to move back in with his mother, who is played to absolute perfection by Debbie Reynolds. The two clash as parents and children do, mostly over food in some of the most memorable scenes from the movie:

What really is remarkale about this movie is that I watch it and sympathize with poor Albert Brooks, suffering through the barrage of food Reynolds is throwing at him. Meanwhile, my mother is on Reynolds’ side, finding the ridiculousness of a grown man moving back home to be the source of the humor.

That is the beauty of this movie. If you are a parent or a child, there is something to appreciate about how difficult it can be to talk to your parent or to talk to your grown kid. I adore my mom and, but I do like to poke fun at her on here, which she hates, frequently following up statements with, “You aren’t gonna put that on the internet, are you?” Even though the characters Brooks and Reynolds play in this film love to pick at one another, but it is because they fundamentally love each other too that this movie remains a Welman family favorite almost 20 years after its initial release.

Instant Gratification Vol. 6: Mike Birbiglia’s “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” on Netflix

I was trying to explain Mike Bribiglia to my friend the other day and this was the best I could come up with:

Imagine if Ira Glass took up stand up comedy and his fodder for jokes was Lloyd Dobler’s love life.

This didn’t really do much to clear up the confusion regarding what exactly Mike Birbiglia is. Most people say he is a stand up comic, which is probably the most accurate representation of what he does. Unlike other comics though, there is a sentimental side to Birbiglia’s work. There are moments in his performances which are not intended to be funny, they are intended to be resonant.

Birbiglia finally came to Vegas for the first time this weekend, but I was out of town for a wedding, so I missed the show. Thankfully though, I at least got to glean a sense of what the show might’ve been like because “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is now available on Netflix.

It is fascinating to get a seemingly honest glimpse inside the head of a single guy. There are a glut of movies and TV and stand up out there where women sincerely discuss the mixed emotions that come with being a single modern gal, but as I watched Birbiglia’s show, I realized I hadn’t really seen anything like this before. Sure, male screenwriters like Cameron Crowe write semi-autobiographical screenplays, but to listen to a guy honestly discuss his trepidation about marriage or how vulnerable he felt on dates is just something you don’t come across that often. You hear it in music, you read it in books, but when it comes to monologues or stand up or TV shows and movies about single dudes built around a male lead’s real life persona, there is something that feels a little glossier than it should. When you look at other comics, they revel in their low points too, but they present it in a manner that is self-aware and in on the joke. Birbiglia, on the other hand, is comfortable with being sad about things with us still. He can see the humor, but it is not the snarky, jaded tone of his peers. Instead, it is, to lift a phrase from the title of Birbiglia’s book, “painfully true.”

This is thing I love most about Birbiglia though–he realizes things that are incredibly sad can simultaneously be incredibly funny. This is why the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is amazing. It is why people joke that they laugh to keep from crying. People say I am not much of an optimist, but I find the optimism in works like this, where you can be reminded that there is something to learn from and laugh at in any situation. Anybody can smile when on vacation on a tropical island or after winning the lottery. Real optimism is going through a tough situation and managing to keep cracking jokes.

I was actually speaking about just this subject with my best friend Lindsay the other day. We were discussing a situation in which I had been labeled “negative” and I started to get really frustrated. While I am certainly never going to be Mary Sunshine, I don’t really think of myself as a Debbie Downer, I’m just pragmatic.

Telling yourself “life’s great” or “don’t worry, be happy” just seems like poorly thought-out advice to me. Life’s hard. Right? How many people are really like, “man, this life thing, it is a breeze, I could do this all day.” People want breaks. People need help. People frequently hope things get better and, I’m sorry, but “it’s get better” is not a productive mantra.

You know what is a much more practical way to be optimistic? Country music. No one who sings country music is trying to convince you life is sunshine and rainbows. They tell it like it is. Yes, life is hard, not just for you, but for most people. But here’s the thing–I’m going through it too, so let’s drink our sorrows away and just enjoy each day at a time.

Now, while there may be a little too much call to alcoholism to make this your full time approach to cheering yourself up every time you have a bad day, but at least there is an action plan beyond “hey, cheer up!” You feel bad? Here is an, albeit ill-advised, way to feel better.

When I watch Mike Birbiglia, I feel like he offers a bit of an action plan. In those moments where humor and sadness intersect, there is something to reflect on and something to learn from. He’s in the thick of it with you and, unlike Garth Brooks, he isn’t offering a drink to help you get through life, but he does offer you a laugh, which is infinitely better.

To Bert, With Love

My first World series of Poker in 2008, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew I’d be working with a group of five people for PocketFives Live with Court Harrington managing the crew. I knew we would be covering poker tournaments, but I wasn’t really clear what that entailed. I knew I would meet a lot of people, but I had those first day of school jitters too. “Will people like me?” “Who will I hang out with?”

Little did I know, my first night in town, all those questions would be answered. I was the first of the crew to arrive and returned to the airport later that night to retrieve two people who ended up being my best friends that summer–Jill Harrison and Brett Collson.

Poor Jill nearly lost her mind that summer, working her day job, then taking mostly night shifts with P5s. Meanwhile, Brett and I tended to get paired up on most of our shifts, which tended to be during the day. We were a good team. Brett, being a frequenter of the P5s forums, knew who a lot of the players were, while I was able to wrangle our WordPress-powered back end.

I also took the photos. Those who know Brett know he is rather tall. When he took photos of players, he wouldn’t crouch down at all, resulting in photos that looked to me as if they had been shot from space. “This is what Phil Collins would look like in Vegas if photographed from Mars,” I would joke.

During our down time (oh, to have down time during the WSOP), we went on what I would “casino adventures”. We’d pick a Vegas casino we hadn’t been to, then wander around it, play some video poker, and grab a bite to eat. It was easily the best WSOP I ever had.

In the years since then, I haven’t gotten to spend quite as much time with Brett, or, as I call him, Bert, in honor of his P5s screenname, bertminatti. One summer, he didn’t make the trip. Now, we are both busy with our respective jobs and are lucky to get two or three meals in over the course of eight weeks.

Even so though, I consider him one of my best friends in poker. When you spend your day in front of the computer, you develop those friends you chat with online every day. Brett is one of those friends; the kind who puts up with my rants, offers me advice, and keeps up with the inside jokes, like the recurring adventures of little guy (OK <— that’s little guy. One day someone pointed out the abbreviation for “okay” looked like a tiny person, it stuck). If you work an office job, you know how important these people become to you. They are the ones you go to when you need a break, the ones who check in on you all the time. He may live in Buffalo, but I probably talk to Brett more than anyone in Vegas I don’t work with in the office every day.

And today, I get to watch him get married to a delightful gal named Amy. If I had to sum her up in two words, it woud be “infectiously fun”. She never takes herself too seriously, she always has a smile on her face, and I am so happy she and Brett are making a life together.

Why should you care that Brett Collson is getting married today? I guess you don’t have to, but if you are in poker, you should be happy that this guy is happy. He is, without question, one of the best people poker media has.

If I could hire a team, the first person I would pick for any job that isn’t taking pictures would be Brett. He knows all the players, he tracks online and live, he can live report, he can write news stories, and he can do interviews.  Just because you haven’t heard of him doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the most talented writers working today.  Don’t let the low profile fool you, Brett knows how to write, he knows how to edit, and he is the type of person you can put in charge of something and know he will be just fine because he has the kind of judgment you can trust.

With a strong background in sports writing, he is an incredible editor too. You’d be surprised how many people in poker have a hard time putting together an error-free sentence, but Brett is one of the cleanest writers I know (and I would know this because I would read his drafts when we worked together). He is able to identify the most important aspects of the story and communicate them clearly. Since he was first a poker fan, he knows what readers want to see. This, coupled with his lack of ego, makes him incredibly good at his job.

In this day and age, it seems par for the course that media creators have to commodify themselves in order to get noticed. You have to be able to prove you can leverage a network of people to read your work in order to get gigs. Don’t blame the individuals, blame the game I suppose. Nonetheless, I myself find I am always grateful for the folks who refuse to play along. The result of this pressure to get clicks on your stuff is a glut of talking head social media accounts constantly trying to prove they are the smartest person in the room. While some of this jibber jabber is entertaining, most of it is noise which detracts from the story itself. With everyone spending so much time inserting themselves into the story, the stories keep getting lost without people like Bert taking the time to provide the news in a straightforward and informative way.

If you have read PokerNews at all over the past three years, you owe Brett a debt of gratitude for writing the straight news, looking things over, creating new content, and always thinking about what you want to read. I only wish I could clone him so he wouldn’t just be my first hire, he could be all my hires. I could have an army of Berts helping me cover the poker landscape, creating grammatically correct, accurate news whilst cracking jokes every step of the way.  Perhaps wearing these hats too.

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