When it comes to the interpretation of poker through avenues of entertainment, there have been high and low water marks. For every Rounders that came to the theater, there was Lucky You (at least you had Drew Barrymore to look at in that abysmal flick) or, more recently, Runner Runner (again, Gemma Arterton is worth watching). Television hasn’t done very well, either, which I can sum up in one phrase: ESPN’s disastrous one-season miniseries Tilt (although Michael Madsen played the villain extremely well). I didn’t think I had found the nadir in the poker book world…that is until I read Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle.
Whitehead, a New York Times bestselling author (although I don’t think I’ll be checking any of his other works out), was given one task in 2011. The ESPN website Grantland offered him the once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in the World Series of Poker Championship Event, ponying up his $10,000 buy in and allowing him to keep any winnings from said trip. Instead of trying to make the trip entertaining for the audience, Whitehead instead let the book become a long visit with his psychotherapist, dragging the readers down into the morass along with him.
I guess I should have expected it from the opening sentence of the book. “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside,” Whitehead writes, and it doesn’t get any better from there. In the middle of a divorce with a child involved, Whitehead haphazardly tries to get himself in shape for the WSOP Championship Event through playing in the smaller tournaments in Atlantic City. Besides shooting down pretty much everything about the city (this may be a fair target), Whitehead also does cast a wearying glance at the players – whom you might think he would want to write an entertaining book about – and casts them as simple stereotypes rather than actually getting to know them.
Talking about the “Methy Mikes” and “Big Mitches” (stereotypical players that he portrays everyone as being), Whitehead can almost be heard basking in their viewed worthlessness as he is trying to represent his “homeland,” “The Republic of Anhedonia” (translation: a person who has the inability to experience pleasure). He staggers through several trips to Atlantic City and always seems to get bogged down in his own navel-gazing about how despondent his life is and how it hasn’t improved since he was in college.
Whitehead touches on two seminal poker books which he denigrates by even mentioning in his tome. First he mentions Al Alvarez’ The Biggest Game in Town, the Englishman’s groundbreaking work to the 1981 WSOP and the characters that he encountered along the way. Secondly he mentions Jim McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, detailing out McManus’ run to the final table in the 2000 WSOP Championship Event and his coverage of the Ted Binion murder trial. The only thing that these two books have in common with Whitehead’s is that the writers all were paid to come up with their creations; both Alvarez and McManus actually made entertaining books out of their efforts while Whitehead only wishes he could have done that.
With the two high points of the book Whitehead does present, he succeeds in even bringing them down into his dismal abyss. Whitehead enlists the aid of Helen Ellis, a semi-professional player who has a tidy Hendon Mob resume to teach him the ins and outs of the game. Ellis comes off as a very smart player, willing to give Whitehead the education that he needs to be able to play well at the WSOP, but all he can ruminate on is how he cannot, like the movie The Blind Side, offer anything of substance for Ellis to learn from him.
The other high point was the appearance of three-time WSOP bracelet winner Matt Matros (Matros would win his third in three years during Whitehead’s writing of this book). After tapping Matros’ knowledge of the mathematical side of the game, Whitehead still is able to depress the reader by pointing out that Matros isn’t exactly enamored of the game of poker and would like to do other things. This is the point where Whitehead lost me as far as the book goes.
It has been proven that people will, through their lives, change jobs/careers on the average of three times. In Whitehead’s case, if your lot in life has you that depressed that you cannot even take a dime buy-in to the WSOP Championship Event and make something out of it, perhaps you’re better off not even being in the literary field. For Whitehead, I’d suggest organic gardening, but he would probably dwell on the factor that the best mushrooms are grown under piles of manure and how it represents his life.
Whitehead’s trip to the WSOP Championship Event barely rates mentioning here. Although he made it through his first day of play, his short stack left him nearly despondent. Some coaching from Ellis actually brought his stack up to the average on Day Two but, in perhaps a fitting end, just before a dinner break his pocket Aces are cracked by pocket Kings on the river. With that, Whitehead ends the book.
There are times that the world of poker can be downright ugly, depressing, and void of heart and feeling. There are more times than not, however, where the game can be uplifting, exciting and provide moments of tremendously good feelings and thoughts. Whitehead’s book, however, is not one of those. Your best bet is to avoid The Noble Hustle as all it does is put a blight on the world of poker and that of poker books.