The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death

( 2 )

Overview

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...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

It was an offer that a budding young novelist just couldn't refuse. As part of a Grantland magazine assignment, Colson Whitehead (Zone One; Sag Harbor) agreed to participate in the week-long 2011 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he had little experience in the game and, as he recounts in this funny recap, much of his hasty preparation for the tournament was more entertaining than ultimately instructive. Nevertheless, he approaches the game with a combination of fascination and fatalism that even seasoned players will be able to appreciate. The Noble Hustle is a well-crafted jaunt into a shared obsession.

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/10/2014
The eternal tension between good luck and remorseless odds animates this loose-limbed jaunt through the world of high-stakes poker. Novelist Whitehead (Zone One) was staked to a berth in the World Series of Poker by Grantland magazine, 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. (May 6)
From the Publisher
"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."
   - Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"As a novelist of considerable range, Whitehead consistently writes about more than he's ostensibly writing about...here writing a poker book that should strike a responsive literary chord with some who know nothing about the game...Engaging in its color and character."
   -Kirkus Reviews

"Colloquial, with many personal digressions and heavy on pop-culture references, it reads like a memoir crossed with a literary guide to the often bizarre world of casino-poker tournaments..."
-The Wall Street Journal

"[Whitehead's] reporting on the grimy glitz of casinos and competitive gambling has a funny, tragic, loser-chic sesibility."
-The New Yorker

"...A witty, wandering book about poker...Tom Wolfe crossed with Tom Pynchon,"
-The Washington Post

"Whitehead goes to the table himself, and like a reporter on the front line of battle, he files stories as the action heats up...[Whitehead] uses poker to expand our sense of how human beings work."
-The New York Times Book Review

"Whitehead was rarely lucky - and maybe that's what makes this crass, sardonic tour through America's wasteland of bright lights, overpriced all-you-can-eat menus and windowless banquet hall behemoths so funny."
-The Chicago Tribune

"Mordantly funny from the first sentence...Mr. Whitehead may not have gone home in the money, but he has a way with upstanding sentences."
-The Economist

"...Clever and entertaining, and Whitehead employs entertaining throw-away lines that make you think"
-The Miami Herald

"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"
- The Boston Globe

"When a writer is good enough to blur the line between fiction and reality, that's a trick I like to see over and over again...The Noble Hustle is a book that says a lot about America without trying to make any grand sweeping statements; it works because Whitehead paid close attention to everything going on around him, and distilled it in his own unique way... The Noble Hustle, though, is just as great of a look at a real America as it is a book about poker, all seen through the eyes of a writer we know best through the very unreal world of fiction."
-Flavorwire.com

"Shares with [David Foster] Wallace's work the close attention of a wry, sharp intelligence to a populist pastime, a mix of casual and highfalutin diction, a self-deprecating voice that you're never sure is totally truthful in its deprecation, and a fondness for broad cultural pronouncements... Whitehead hips us to the popularity and atmosphere of the contemporary game, all without our having to endure a bus trip to Reno or have everything removed from our pockets but the lint."
-The San Francisco Chronicle

"The Noble Hustle, part love letter, part dark confessional, captures perfectly the mix of neurosis and narrative that makes gambling so appealing."
-Mother Jones

"The Noble Hustle is fierce, funny and totally worth the buy-in."
-New York Daily News

"Whitehead captures the sketchy and zombielike nature of poker tournament play well enough to leave you wishing this book came with a free bottle of Purell."
-Entertainment Weekly

"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, agress 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."
   -Booklist  (Starred Review)

"In 2011, Whiting Writers' Award-winning author Whitehead (Zone One) attended and participated in the World Series of Poker...Hilarity ensued...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."
   -Library Journal

"The Noble Hustle, a darkly humorous work of participatory reportage that finds [Whitehead] (a decided amateur) attempting to play poker with the pros... Hustle is a hoot... Whitehead proves an ideal observer of poker culture... the tale he tells is much more than that of an odds-against-him novice. It's a story of a writer befuddled by fatherhood and middle age. Whitehead may not triumph at the tables, but his new book is a winner."
- Bookpage

"...an engine of revved-up witticisms and one-liners."
-The East Hampton Star

"...the narrative glides to a graceful, evocative and crystalline conclusion."
-The Buffalo News

Library Journal
04/15/2014
In 2011, Whiting Writers' Award-winning author Whitehead (Zone One) attended and participated in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas as part of an assignment for Grantland magazine. There was just one problem: 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. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/13.]—Mark Manivong, Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-19
An assignment to compete in the World Series of Poker allows the author to meditate on his identity, failings, writing, appetite for beef jerky and challenge to make the leap from decent house player to high-stakes pro gambler. As a novelist of considerable range, Whitehead consistently writes about more than he's ostensibly writing about, turning a futuristic zombie novel (Zone One, 2010, etc.) into a parable of contemporary New York and here writing a poker book that should strike a responsive literary chord with some who know nothing about the game, though for those who want to read a poker book, much of this contextual elaboration might feel like padding. It begins with a definition of "anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure," preceding the first chapter, "The Republic of Anhedonia," of which the author proclaims himself a citizen and representative. The first sentence: "I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside." He also has an ex-wife, a young daughter, a weekly poker game and an assignment from Grantland to cover the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas as a participant. Even the assignment is something of a gamble—his freelance payment is the entrance fee, and whatever he wins (or, presumably generates in subsequent book royalties), he keeps. But if he loses, as odds are he will, he gets nothing but memories and experience for the article he must write. As he writes of warm-up sessions in Atlantic City, training with his "Coach," competing with more experienced players in Vegas, he sometimes seems to be trying too hard—"Pick your fights like you pick your nose: with complete awareness of where you are"—while drawing parallels between poker and writing ("We were all making up stories, weaving narratives"). Since his narrative doesn't proceed chronologically to a natural climax, he jumps around a bit with time. A minor work by a major novelist, a busman's holiday, but engaging in its color and character.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385537056
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 91,974
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Colson Whitehead

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the New York Times bestselling author of Zone OneSag HarborThe IntuitionistJohn Henry DaysApex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.  A Pulitzer Prize finalist, a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

Biography

Born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan, Colson Whitehead received his undergraduate degree from Harvard. After graduation, he went to work for the Village Voice as a book , television, and music reviewer.

Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. In 2001, he published John Henry Days, a startlingly original retelling of the famous story from American folklore. The novel received several honors and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, a collection of his essays, The Colossus of New York, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

Whitehead's writing continues to attract awards, rave reviews, and a devoted, avid readership. In between books, he produces reviews, essays, short stories, and cultural commentary for a number of distinguished publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Granta. He is the recipient of a coveted MacArthur Fellowship (dubbed the "genius grant") , a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers

Good To Know

In our interview, Colson Whitehead shared some fascinating facts about himself:

"Where do I get my ideas? Usually I come across some strange fact in a book, or article, or tv show and think, That's weird, wouldn't it be kooky if...?"

"I like to write in the nude -- I find the gentle breezes tickle the fine hairs of creativity."

"Here are some of the things I like: staying in the house all day, screening phone calls, keeping the shades drawn. Deglazing. Oh, how I love to deglaze."

"Here's what I dislike: performance art, people who walk slowly in front of me, romantic comedies, panel discussions."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 6, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, NY
    1. Education:
      Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature
    2. Website:

Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Colson Whitehead

Like Mark Twain's, my friend Colson Whitehead's writing declines to commit itself to any one form, but sprawls easily across them, defying convention, borrowing from genre, always remaining his alone. He has written five novels, a slew of essays — personal, humorous, and cultural, and frequently a blend of all three — and The Colossus of New York, a nonfiction ode to New York City.

He's said that he casually started taking the notes that turned into Colossus before September 11, 2001, and after that day found himself dedicated to the project. For me Colossus still stirs up more than anything else I've read the kind of fierce protective devotion inhabitants of the city felt at that time, when so many people around the world were mapping their own narratives onto what had happened here. Colossus is seven parts love letter, two parts kvetch, one part satire, and all poetry. It claims the city and it allows you to claim it, too. The voice roves; the perspective shifts; no one is the protagonist. Every change is a fair change to mourn in your own personal New York.

Whitehead's The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death is his first book-length work of autobiography, and it too invites the reader — this reader, at least — to identify. Having squandered far too many of my own Saturday nights playing hold 'em in Carroll Gardens, I read it with recognition and delight (and also with relief that our poker circles never overlapped. It's a "male-dominated game," he writes, "where female players often affect an Annie Oakley tomboy thing to fit in." True — and ouch. Never does the long-lost sassy Texan accent of my toddlerhood surface more than when I have cards in one hand and some bourbon on ice in the other.)

I've known Whitehead since I first read his work and sent him fan mail about ten years ago; now he's married to my agent. I am consequently in no way objective, but my enjoyment of this book is genuine. Like Whitehead, I had terrible college relationships during the era of " '90s High Slackitude." I too suffer from an inability to participate in actual sports, owing to a condition I've had since birth ("unathleticism"). I too struggled to do the best job I could at parenting (my beloved stepdaughter turns twenty-one later this year), to do good rather than harm while working within the constraints of a depressive, self-flagellating personality.

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.")

When Whitehead and I met up to talk briefly about the book last month, I asked how the process of writing it contrasted with his previous books. "I had to do what I normally do," he told me, "figure out how to fit into what the genre's demanding. I had the article and the article had a voice, had a point of view, a beginning, middle and end, and so the hard part was, two years later, going back an impersonating myself from 2011, having to recollect it, to keep the same voice and the same perspective even though I've moved on and things have changed in my life."

The character he reinhabited, the Colson Whitehead of 2011, was given, he says, to "performative despair" and "absurd jokes" and was trying to figure out how to be a good parent to his daughter. "Hanging out with her and being a single dad" he told me, was the "psychological backdrop" of that period of his life. Writing The Noble Hustle meant having to reenact that time on a bigger scale.

"The really exhilarating parts, like the time at the World Series of Poker, were already done" when he started writing. He was left with the "pick-and-shovel work of explaining poker to laypeople, creating a more linear chronology," slowing down the action, and looking back into his past, to his college days, his first trip to Vegas, his early years playing poker with pals who dreamed about success as writers and artists, and in his later years playing with these same buddies — now successful but still fundamentally the same dreamers.

As with most good books about games, the real subject of The Noble Hustle is one that seems to be on the story's periphery: fatherhood. Whitehead's daughter is a major presence throughout the book, mostly through his thinking of her in her absence. "My ex-wife and the kid were upstate, engaged in holiday-weekend goodness. Here I was acting as if I had nobody," he writes, of a practice jaunt to Atlantic City. On rejecting Grantland's initial offer to send him to the WSOP to report from the sidelines after just having mastered "the rules of solo parenthood": "It was a hard job, tracing a safe route through the minefield of face-painting, peanut-free caroling, and assorted pony bullshit that would get us safely to dinnertime and the organic hot dogs. A trip to Las Vegas would cut into our summer hang, which I'd come to idealize." His greatest regret as he gears up for the big game: "I left for the World Series of Poker without hugging the kid one more time."

In my reading, his daughter, and the force of his love for her, are this oblique memoir's secret, surprisingly tender heart. Whitehead calls himself an Anhedonian, a good poker player because he's "half-dead inside," but don't be fooled: he's all in.

Maud Newton

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 20, 2014

    ¿I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.¿ That f

    “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” That first sentence let me know that this book would be full of the dry, sometimes, self-deprecating humor that I have come to love about Colson Whitehead. Originally published as a series of essays for the magazine Grantland, The Noble Hustle documents Whitehead’s participation in the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas. We follow him from his practice runs in Atlantic City, where his descriptions of his fellow players are hilarious, to the big event with a few poker flashbacks.




    I have no knowledge of poker and reading about some of the technical aspects of the game made this not as enjoyable for me. I kept reading because the stories of the people who participate in these tournaments, including himself, and all of their different strategies and motivations were fascinating to me.  I’ve gone on record about my love of Colson Whitehead over and over again. He is firmly ensconced in my top ten favorite writers and there he will remain.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    Kit #1: Cherrykit

    She has grey/white/pinkish markings that look suspiciously like cherry blossoms on her body and head, brown legs and tail, and eyes that change color from ice blue to violet to emerald green. Next kit: res 2.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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