Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Noble Hustle

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead
Knopf Doubleday: 5/6/2014

Hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385537056

The Noble Hustle is Pulitzer finalist Colson Whitehead’s hilarious memoir of his search for meaning at high stakes poker tables, which the author describes as “Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins.”
On one level, The Noble Hustle is a familiar species of participatory journalism—a longtime neighborhood poker player, Whitehead was given a $10,000 stake and an assignment from the online online magazine Grantland to see how far he could get in the World Series of Poker.  But since it stems from the astonishing mind of Colson Whitehead (MacArthur Award-endorsed!), the book is a brilliant, hilarious, weirdly profound, and ultimately moving portrayal of—yes, it sounds overblown and ridiculous, but really!—the human condition.
After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City, and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at twelve hours a stretch, the author journeyed to the gaudy wonderland that is Las Vegas – the world’s greatest “Leisure Industrial Complex” — to try his luck in the multi-million dollar tournament.   Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as “anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure) Whitehead did not – spoiler alert!  - win tens of millions of dollars.  But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself.
Whether you’ve been playing cards your whole life, or have never picked up a hand, you’re sure to agree that this book contains some of the best writing about beef jerky ever put to paper.

My Thoughts:

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead is a very highly recommended, humorous and informative account of the author's foray into the world of high stakes poker games.

The premise seems simple: Whitehead was staked by a magazine to see how far he could get in the World Series of poker. But, as the title implies, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death is much more than the story of one man playing some poker games and reading some manuals to prepare himself for the big time. He discusses all sorts of other related or vaguely related topics while telling the story of his poker-playing career.

Whitehead defines "anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure," and explains that he is a citizen of "The Republic of Anhedonia." He says, "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here." (Location 47)

Whitehead really seems to be having a great time writing this book. I truly hope it was as enjoyable to write as it is to read because this book is engrossing and funny. He points out that "In one of the fiction-writing manuals, it says that there are only two stories: a hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I don’t know. This being life, and not literature, we’ll have to make do with this: A middle-aged man, already bowing and half broken under his psychic burdens, decides to take on the stress of being one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game. A hapless loser goes on a journey, a strange man comes to gamble." (Location 79)

Although he's not a man who is generally interested in competitive sports, "Sure, now and then I mixed it up in a Who Had the Most Withholding Father contest with chums, but that’s as far as it went for me competitive sports–wise. (Location 234) he had..."been playing penny poker since college. College kids counting out chips into even stacks, opening a case of brew, busting out real-man cigars—these were the sacred props of manhood, and we were chronically low on proof."( Location 251)

This is an incredibly well-written, astute account of what players go through, or at least what he went through, in the various poker tournaments along the way, and is full of many insightful observations about poker - and life.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

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