The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death

By Colson Whitehead

(Doubleday, $24.95, 234 pages)

Who is this author?                                        

Colson Whitehead has published best-selling novels, an essay collection and memoir: he excels at each genre. He’s written about subjects as diverse as zombies and the arcane profession of creating brand names that perfectly capture the essence of a product; about being a kid in Sag Harbor and loving New York City. His efforts have been rewarded: Whitehead has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has won a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award and a hotly coveted MacArthur Fellowship.

What is this book about?                                                           

Feature writers for newspapers and magazines never know where their next assignment may take them. For Colson Whitehead, it was to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, for an article to be published by Grantland, an online magazine. Grantland paid his way in, a $10,000 fee. If he won anything, he could keep it. And he had just six weeks to hone his thoroughly amateur poker-playing skills — and to balance the demands of the assignment with his new role as a single divorced dad of a young daughter. He did the Grantland assignment, ate a lot of terrible food (hence the beef jerky title reference) and doubled-down on the experience, turning the article into a very funny yet often disturbing memoir. No, he did not walk away from the tables a millionaire, but he did learn some valuable things about poker, competition and himself.

Why you’ll like it:

Whitehead is a master of dry, cool humor and never hesitates to make fun of himself. His descriptions are memorable and often can be painfully insightful. In this memoir, he takes two seemingly incompatible subjects: the weird world of professional poker and his own personal striving to be a good dad despite the failure of his marriage, and compare and contrasts one against the other to good effect. Grantland dealt him a challenging hand. This book shows how well he played it.

What others are saying:

From a Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Whitehead: “The Noble Hustle centers on Whitehead’s time competing at the World Series of Poker, an experience funded by the website Grantland, for which he wrote a series of dispatches. The book is about being thrown from a regular friendly home game into the most major of the poker tournaments with only six weeks to prepare. It’s about his badass poker coach, Helen Ellis, a novelist who in contrast to us Annie Oakley types identifies herself as a housewife when she competes. (“The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. . . . A lot of people don’t think women will bluff,’ Helen said. She was bluffing the minute she walked into the room.”) It’s about cramming: reading strategy, playing at low- stakes tables in Atlantic City, and consulting a physical trainer steeped in the Alexander Technique. It’s about major poker tournaments and the ways computer gamers are changing them. But The Noble Hustle was written after Whitehead’s divorce, and it’s also about loneliness and longing, our attachment to our children and the ways we try to distance and distract ourselves from emotional pain. (At one tournament table, “I hadn’t been glared at with such hate by two people since couples therapy.”)

Booklist’s starred review says: “This is not one of those poker books about a gang of math whizzes from Harvard who go to Vegas and win a gazillion dollars… A self-described citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia, whose residents are unable to experience pleasure, Whitehead, author of Zone One and other novels, agrees to enter the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and see how far his half-dead poker face and a $10,000 stake can take him… Whitehead’s account may seem at first like just another ‘sad story about a pair of Jacks,’ but it’s really something very different, much sadder and much, much funnier. He calls his book ‘Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins,’ and that pretty much says it, if you remember that the eating part is mostly about beef jerky and the praying is for a pair of aces.”

Says Library Journal:  “ . . . he had never before played in a casino tournament. Having only six weeks to prepare, the author began to hone his skills in the casinos of Atlantic City while trying to maintain some semblance of a home life. Hilarity ensued. Whitehead quickly developed a rhythm of dropping off and picking up his kid from school; riding the Greyhound bus to New Jersey with the “day-trippers, day-workers, and hollow-eyed freaks”; gambling; and then returning home to sleep. The author’s satirical descriptions and observations of his days spent preparing, filled with playing cards, eating at artery-clogging all-you-can-eat buffets, and his interactions with the people who haunt the casinos there are only prolog for the grand finale of the Leisure-Industrial Complex (LIC) of Vegas. VERDICT Entertaining and absorbing, Whitehead’s look at the subculture of gambling and casino tournaments will appeal even to nongambling readers. Also recommended for those who enjoy memoir.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The eternal tension between good luck and remorseless odds animates this loose-limbed jaunt through the world of high-stakes poker…, a mission for which he frankly declares himself unqualified, owing to his rather desultory pick-up games, haphazard training regimen featuring yoga lessons, deep and semi-baffled immersion in the arcana of poker-playing manuals, and bus trips to Atlantic City for seedy practice tournaments. His journey unfolds in a series of jazzy, jokey riffs on the cultural detritus of poker: the take-over of the game by young “Robotrons” honed by online gaming; Vegas’s “Leisure-Industrial Complex,” a terrain of soulful soullessness where “your true self is laid bare with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations.” Along the way, poker emerges as the national sport of “the Republic of Anhedonia,” his habitually depressive, fatalistic State of mind that recognizes that “eventually, you will lose it all”—and that playing it safe is therefore the ultimate sucker’s strategy. Whitehead serves up an engrossing mix of casual yet astute reportage and hang-dog philosophizing, showing us that, for all of poker’s intricate calculations and shrewd stratagems, everything still hangs on the turn of a card.”

“Whitehead proves a brilliant sociologist of the poker world. He evokes the physical atmosphere vividly, ‘the sleek whisper of laminated paper jetting across the table,’ as the dealer shuffles. But he also conjures the human terrain, laying bare his own psychology and imagining his way into the minds of others. His book affirms what David Foster Wallace’s best nonfiction pieces made so clear: It’s a great idea… to turn a gifted novelist loose on an odd American subculture and see what riches are unearthed,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

I’m betting you can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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