The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, by Colson Whitehead

The Noble HustleA couple years ago my book club read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and I was one of the members who actually enjoyed it. So when I saw that he’d written a non-fiction book about playing in the World Series of Poker, I was like, yes, I will read that. There was a short time many years ago when I watched the heck out of TV poker, and although I am terrible at the game and unwilling to learn all the minute details that would make me better, I am fascinated by the people who do take the time to study probabilities and the proper way to bet and all that. (A similar process led me to read Word Freak, about professional Scrabble players.)

The one thing I forgot about Zone One, though, was that I had described its first chapter as a “Franzen-esque stream of big words that I had to look up and heady philosophical musings”. This book? No different. The first sentence is, “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside,” and things only go downhill from there. A little bit of this book is about Whitehead going to the World Series of Poker; more of it is about Whitehead’s citizenship in a land called Anhedonia where everybody is dead inside and blah blah blah.

As you may guess, those latter parts are my least favorite. But the poker parts? Pretty dang good. Whitehead talks about playing his five-dollar buy-in “home game” and how it is vastly different from playing the $50 or $100 or $500 tables in Atlantic city and how that is vastly different from playing the $10,000 buy-in WSoP in freaking Vegas. The people are more serious as you get into the higher dollar values, of course, but the “rules” of the game turn out to be completely different when you’re playing with real competition. There are apparently all these tricks you learn about what hands to bet and when to fold and what it means when the dude across the table from you bets 1.5 times the whatever that I pretty clearly do not understand, and so I was greatly amused when Whitehead described trying to play poker with his friends using WSoP rules and losing lots of money to people who had no idea what they were doing.

Not that Whitehead has any idea what he’s doing; his crash-course in fancy poker is barely longer than the one he gives in writing this book. I am not really clear how he managed to convince Grantland to pay for his entry (this book is adapted from essays he wrote for Grantland) except that obviously he was going to write this insane account of it. He reads all the books and gets coaching from a woman who has actually played her way into the main tournament, but there’s no substitute for a) playing all the poker all the time and b) having some preternatural ability to know what everyone else is playing. So I feel less bad about not understanding half the poker stuff in here.

This is definitely not the book I thought I was going to be reading, but as with Zone One Whitehead’s dense prose grew on me over time and I was at least interested to see where this rambling sentence or that one was going to end up. And it made me pretty excited for my own upcoming trip to Las Vegas, where I will probably not be playing poker but now I will be looking around for the poker-playing types that Whitehead describes throughout this book, and also those misting stations because those sound like they’re going to be wonderful in the summer heat.

Recommendation: For those willing to read seventeen words where one would suffice and long rambles about not much at all. Not for people who just want to read about poker.

Rating: 6/10

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