In his new book, “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death,” Colson Whitehead recounts his 2011 trip to the World Series of Poker. Whitehead was reporting a piece for Grantland, which paid for him to enter the competition. Whitehead trained for several weeks in Atlantic City before making the trip.
On my first Vegas trip in ’91, we stumbled on a wonderland.
It was a grubby spot on Fremont Street, just past the Four Queens and Binion’s, embedded in an outcropping of souvenir shops. The House of Jerky. I knew Slim Jims, those spicy straws of processed ears and snouts. This was something else entirely. We squinted in joyful bafflement before the rows of clear plastic pouches filled with knobs of dark, lean meat, seasoned and cured. Li’l baggie of desiccant at the bottom for freshness. The jerkys reminded me tree bark, which we peel ’n’ eat in times of drought and on major holidays. We walked the aisles. The flavors were ordinary, yes. Pepper, teriyaki, barbecue. But the ark-ful of proteins was miraculous: beef, Alaskan salmon, buffalo, turkey, alligator, venison, ostrich.
The proprietor was a middle-aged Asian man named Dexter Choi. That one man’s singular vision could beget such bounty! It was America laid out before us, dangling on metal rods set into scuffed particle board. Complete with wide open spaces, for the store had a modest inven- tory. Dried fruit. Nuts. But mostly jerky.
Mr. Choi remained unmoved by our oh-snaps and holy-cows. The House of Jerky was kitsch to us, but we stood inside the man’s desert dream that day. You know there was a hater chorus when he shared his plans. “Forget about jerky, Dexter, study for the electrician’s licensing exam.” “Sure jerky is a low-calorie, high-sodium snack, Dexter, but when are you going to get your head out of the clouds?” “Look at these lips, Dexter—will your dried muscle-meat ever kiss you like I do?”
He endured. To build a House of Jerky is to triumph against the odds, to construct a nitrate-filled monument to possibility and individual perseverance. Dexter Choi was an outlaw. He faced down fate and flopped a full house.
Maybe things could have improved re: foot traffic, but I couldn’t help but be moved. From that day on, beef jerky was synonymous with freedom and savory pick-me- ups between meals. We bought a few bags of that sweet bark for our drive into Death Valley and continued on our journey.
How could I foresee that this cowboy snack would become a symbol of corporate poker, indeed the commercialization of all Las Vegas? Beef jerky was now the leathery, mass-produced face of modern poker. Meat snacks generated $1.4 billion a year in business, Jack Link ’s a major player. Started in the 1880s by an immigrant named Chris Link, who served up smoked meats and sausages to Wisconsin pioneer folk, Jack Link’s was now the fastest-growing meat snack firm in the world, with a hundred different products sold in forty countries. “More than a century has passed,” the Our History page of their site announced, “but the Link family principles and traditions remain the same: hard work, integrity, and a commitment to earn consumer respect by delivering the best-tasting meat snacks in the world.”
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Respect them I did. Since 2008, the company had been an official sponsor of the Main Event—the official name of the thing is “The World Series of Poker Presented by Jack Link ’s Beef Jerky.” I had, in effect, been walking around in a big plastic bag ever since I stepped in the Rio. Explained the chronic suffocating feeling.
The company’s red and black logo mottled the ESPN studio in the Amazon Room, vivid on the clothing of sponsored players like cattle brands. Jack Link’s “Messin’ with Sasquatch” commercials were a mainstay of poker TV programming, featuring their mascot Sasquatch as he was humiliated by golfers, campers, and frat boys before putting a Big Foot up their asses. The mascot’s meaning? Despite the death of the frontier, and the stifling monotony of modern life, the Savage still walks among us. That, or Betty White was unavailable.
Watch any of ESPN’s coverage and you’ll encounter “Jack Link ’s Beef Jerky Wild Card Hand,” in which host Norman Chad tries to divine the contents of a hand through betting patterns. The “hole-card cam” was a clutch innovation behind poker’s populist boom, allowing viewers to see the players’ hands. Before we pierced that veil, televised poker was like watching a baseball game with an invisible ball—i.e., even more boring than watching regular baseball. The hole-card cam allowed for simultaneous commentary—just like real sports! The fans participated in the spectacle, second-guessing, pitting their own calculations against the pros’ moves. They learned. They got better. They started playing in the events they watched on TV.
Poker as million-dollar theater, hence the upgrade from Johnny Moss’s engraved silver cup to diamond-encrusted bracelets. I was implicated in this big-biz operation. Grantland, the magazine that sent me, was owned by ESPN. ESPN was owned by Disney. Which is why they had trouble finding my check. It was floating around the accounting office of Caesars, which was owned by Harrah’s, who owned the WSOP. At registration, I’d kept mentioning ESPN and Grantland as my benefactors, when the check was cut by Disney. We were all confused.
People asked if I’d be able to keep the money if I cashed at the WSOP. Yes—that had been made clear to me. I wasn’t getting paid for the article. My compensation was them paying my entrance fee. Haggle with a lowly freelancer over winnings? Peanuts to the parent corp. I was writing for an entity owned by the company that made millions and millions off WSOP coverage. My words were an advertisement, is one way of looking at it. Raise awareness of the game. Inspire some misfit kid to take up poker. Spread the gospel far and wide.
Grantland. ESPN. Disney. It was all in the family.
The House always wins.
Copyright 2014 by Colson Whitehead. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.