Saturday, May 10, 2014

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

Colson Whitehead’s “assignment of a lifetime” started out as a project for a Grantland magazine article and ended up as a 200+ page opus detailing his experiences in and around the 2011 World Series of Poker. He willingly accepted their offer of the $10,000 entrance fee to the event in lieu of payment for the article with the understanding that any winnings, and any life experiences, would be his to keep.  Sadly, he walked away from the greatest event in the world of poker with nothing to show for it but memories and feelings, even though he’d be the first person to deny any emotional connection  whatsoever to all of this or to anything else for that matter.

What uniquely qualifies Mr. Whitehead as a poker player says he is “a good poker face,” a result of him being “half dead inside.” He spends the greater part of the book attempting to convince readers that he is devoid of feelings, drenched in a flood of depression, and a completely unsocial being – a card-carrying citizen of the gloomy, dismal Republic of Anhedonia (his brainchild). Yet, for one so depressed, so disheartened, so moribund, he has a cutting sense of humor and an uncanny ability to turn a phrase.

This is not a book that will appeal to anyone looking for a primer on poker strategy or playing tactics. Even Mr. Whitehead readily defers to those more capable of and more interested in imparting that kind of knowledge. He praises the work of Dan Harrington, Phil Gordon, and Doyle Brunson not daring to tread on those sacred toes but instead trying to absorb all that he can from their books in the months leading up to his trial by fire. Neither is this a book for those seeking a compact travelogue of a summer’s sojourn in Las Vegas. Nor is it a journey in one time or another through the world of poker in the eyes of a keen dispassionate observer like Al Alvarez or a journalist/player like James McManus.  No way.

What it is, though, is a series of impressions and kitschy references that will probably appeal more to the young savages of poker who have in the last few years replaced the older, honored cowboys and mavericks of the game. This is very much a Gen X book written by an accomplished member of that clan – for older dudes and dames some of this may not compute!

And, while we are on the subject of old people, Colson Whitehead has a few things to say:

On senior citizens on the bus trip to Atlantic City for one of his “practice” sessions – “Sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people. There were a lot of old people in poker rooms, genially buying in for a couple of hands before the Early Bird Special. I prefer to believe they were gambling with discretionary funds, enjoying their twilight years after a lifetime of careful saving, and not pissing away their Social Security. If I were an octogenarian looking for love, I’d hit the casinos. The dating pool is quite deep.”

Or his elder references in relation to Sit-n-Go tournaments – “Sit-n-Go’s were not, as I had mistakenly thought, adult diapers for poker players, so they don’t have to leave the table.”

And his observations of the AARP set at hotel check-in – “On our way to check-in, we passed the geriatric zombies in tracksuits installed at the slots, empty coin buckets overturned on their oxygen tanks. These gray-skinned doomed tugged on the levers, blinked, tugged again. Blink.Tug. Blink.”

Cruel?  Insensitive?  Demeaning? I don’t think so. Humor is the fondest form of flattery. Somewhere in Mr. Whitehead’s past I wouldn’t be surprised to find a loving grandmother or a sage of a grandfather.

On his way to the big show Mr. Whitehead realizes that his training thus far, a steady home game where everyone is more interested in sharing and talking than beating the other players to a pulp and a few college gambling forays, is totally inadequate so he engages the assistance of a few key helpers – a coach and a trainer. The coach, it turns out, is an inveterate tournament poker player herself, and more than playing the role of strategist and field commando, serves Mr. Whitehead well as a cheerleader and confidant. The trainer helps with posture, patience and breathing, skills needed to survive the grueling twelve hour days necessary to compete at the highest level in the poker world.

Often reiterating his disdain for all things social, including social media, Mr. Whitehead, nevertheless, seeks out and hangs with a variety of different characters all of whom have made it to some degree in the world of competitive poker. Enduring dinners, casual meetings in clubs and bars, and sundry discussions about poker, most of which he admits are way over his head, he eventually relents to the power of social media, Twitter in particular, in this poker niche. “I’d sent up a flare to alert people on Twitter re: my Vegas plans. . . Social media wasn’t usually my thing, as it had the word ‘social’ in it, but I’d taken to the platform after a personal tragedy. I had a cat, the cat died, and now what I used to say to my cat all day, I tweeted. It helped that 140 characters was roughly my preferred limit when it came to human interaction.”  That’s also about the length of any utterance smart players make at a poker table!

The last 70 or so pages of the book chronicle, in a more traditional sense than the rest of the book, Mr. Whitehead’s entrance into and eventual ejection from the Big Show  at Level 8 on Day 2 in an AA<KK show down with a killer K on the river. We’ve all been there and, depending on one’s mood at the time, it’s either a “good way to go out” or a “terrible way to go out.” One way or the other it’s better than being sucked under by the “Wave of Mutilation” – the relentless surge of the ever-increasing blinds. He’ll do it again, mark my words, if someone pays his way.

While Colson Whitehead’s qualifications as a premier poker player may be up for debate, his skills as a wordsmith (he’d never use that cloying term!) are not. The Noble Hustle is a text fugue, not for the faint hearted, and an acquired taste at best. Otherwise it’s an easy, enjoyable read for those who enjoy clever, sarcastic tomes. If you have a stick up your butt, don’t bother. If you enjoy a good belly laugh here and there, try it out.

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