It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be new. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life on the felt, and I’ve seen the transition from Benny’s Bullpen to the Amazon room. Every summer in Vegas for the last decade, the Rio has felt like a second home. The Series has felt like a class reunion. Losing with pocket aces in a bracelet event has happened more times than I can count. And every time it comes around, the worst day of the year is when it all comes crashing down. When the Main Event is over, the dream snuffed out. It all feels so normal. This is the way life is.In Colson Whitehead’s new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death, he reminds us that the world we’ve grown use to is anything but normal. It’s a formula we’ve seen before. A writer is sent to Vegas by a magazine (Grantland) to play in the World Series of Poker Main Event and to document the journey. But any parallels this book has with Jim McManus’ Positively Fifth Street end there.
Whitehead is a writer first and foremost. He paints each page with words, breaking rules when it’s suits him, and it ends up being a very nice thought piece with poker as a background. There are some stylistic choices that are sometimes grating. His adherence to the rule of three starts to become annoying after about the fiftieth or sixtieth list. And there are other times when Whitehead’s prose comes with a bit of intellectual arrogance, which is mixed with equal parts of self-deprecation.
As a whole, though, I loved reading this book. It’s not a breezy read or a fun read. It’s a mood piece. Every few pages, I’d silently think to myself, “that’s a nice way of wording that.” In fact, reading The Noble Hustle is the first time I’ve read a poker book that felt like literature.
Let’s take an example.
First, we head over to random.org. There are 234 pages in The Noble Hustle, and it starts on page 3, so we tell the random number generator to pick a number in that range. It spits out 73. We’ll take the first complete paragraph.
Coach gave me Harrington homework, and I made slow but incremental progress through his strategies for satellites, internet tourneys, and brick-and-mortar showdowns. His words yielded new interpretations over time, like a really neat poem or a divorce settlement. I keyed into the rhythms of the game, the phases within phases. There is an early, middle, and late temperament to each tournament, and inside that, an early middle, and late temperament to each hand. Harrington hipped innocents like me to the late-stage tourney mind-set and late-hand strategies, giving names to that which I understood only on a subconscious level. — Page 73
It’s just a random paragraph. Nobody would argue these are the best lines in the book. But if you take a look at the sentence structure and the word choices. Like “Harrington hipped innocents…” Has anyone ever used those three words together before? Unlikely. Gotta love using hipped as a verb. Every page is like this.
The story follows our hero, Colson Whitehead, after he gets the writing assignment. He starts to practice in Atlantic City, deals with the drama of being a divorced father, gets a poker coach, reflects on how reaching success as a writer is ultimately unsatisfying. Eventually he makes his way to Vegas for the 2011 WSOP Main Event. He plays a few satellites. Gives us a few flashbacks of his first stoney road trip to Vegas with a buddy who turns out to be a young and unknown writer-director Darren Aronofsky (I assume it’s even before Pi). He has dinner with an old writer friend turned professional, Matt Matros. He mispronounces Matt’s last name, the same way I’ve been doing for several years (it’s MAY-trose). Then he plays in the Main Event and busts.
There is no happy ending here. The author stays in the state of anhedonia from which he claims to hail. I had to look it up to see if “anhedonia” was a real word. It is… and it means the inability to take pleasure in things. Like poker.
Some of the highlights of the book for me were his exchanges with his poker coach. When she stresses how important it is to eat at Buzio’s during the dinner break, to make reservations, to order the swordfish. These are the times when it sinks in just how unfamiliar this world is to the outsiders like Whitehead. Imagine being able to remember the first time you had aces cracked!
For letting us into the head of an amateur, very smart but new, this book is worth a read for any serious player. It’s also worth reading for the paragraph where Whitehead talks about what he took from his whole WSOP experience.
I learned a lot of things during my long, bizarre trip. About myself and the ways of the world. One, do not hope for change, or the possibility of transcending your everyday existence, because you will fail. Two, if people put their faith in you, you will let them down. And three, everything is a disaster. In short, nothing I hadn’t known since childhood, but sometimes you can forget these things when engulfed by a rogue swell of optimism, which happens, if infrequently. — Page 234
The Noble Hustle is not really a poker book. I can’t help but think that we could have replaced the World Series of Poker with any type of open cultural event. Insert a Scrabble competition, or a Pinball championship… and the book would have been about the same. And would it have been worth reading if Whitehead didn’t use poker as the backdrop? I don’t really know the answer to that one.
I estimate I have about 300,000 hours of waking life left. Colson Whitehead has six other titles listed on the back flap. I can’t say with any confidence that I’d choose to read another Whitehead book over the countless pages of classics I’ve neglected to read thus far. But I’m glad I read this one. I’ve since followed @ColsonWhitehead on twitter. And I have no doubt that in the unlikely event if Whitehead writes another poker book, I’ll be one of the first to pre-order.
The Noble Hustle is available on Amazon.com for less than $20. We recommend putting it on your reading list. Support more poker book reviews by clicking on the picture below and buying it now.
- Airy prose made us feel like we were back in a college creative writing class.
- Lets us see summer at the Rio from an outsider's point of view.
- We get to avoid the social blunder of mispronouncing Matt Matros' name.
- Had to look up too many words on Dictionary.com.
- Made us feel like poker and life is empty and depressing.