A Noble Effort from Colson Whitehead

It is tough to be too hard on mainstream people taking up the poker cause, because I do always want to encourage folks from outside the poker universe to fall in love with the game and the experience the Rio and the World series of Poker has to offer each summer. 

Nonetheless, I will tell anyone who listens that “Rounders” is a fundamentally bad movie, encouraging them to instead check out “The Sting”.  The TV show “Tilt” didn’t ever get much traction, so I would suggest the home game in the TBS comedy “My Boys” was a better poker representation.  And I think we are all in agreement that “Casino Royale” is both a terrible film and a terrible representation of poker.

While we have suffered through our fair share of crappy movies and TV about poker, our cup runneth over when it comes to poker literature.  Michael Craig’s “The Banker, The Professor, and the Suicide King” is an incredible glimpse at the secretive world of high stakes cash games.  A. Alvarez’s “The Best Game in Town” is not for everyone, but its flowy prose paints a nice picture of the lifestyle of the 70s gamblers makes it a worthwhile read for poker bibliophiles.  Then there is my personal favorite, “Positively Fifth Street” by James McManus, which effortlessly intertwines the legal woes of the Binion family and the author’s own quest for gold in the 2000 WSOP Main Event.

Perhaps it is because I am so fond of McManus’s book that I was so disappointed in Colson Whitehead’s submission into the poker literary oeuvre, The Noble Hustle.  The book follows the acclaimed author’s participation and preparation for the 2011 WSOP Main Event, which he played in on Grantland’s dime in exchange for a longform web piece.

While McManus navigated between two very complicated narratives, Whitehead’s story seems to have a hard time keeping track of his personal quest.  Yes, there is more at play than just his training in poker. He spends a chunk of the book discussing how his introverted nature and how this lack of zest for life leads people to the game.

It is an interesting conceit, and one I found to be the best part of the book.  Why is it that Whitehead and others who feel a little dead inside seem to find solace in poker?  I think he hits on some great points, like the idea that it is social activity for introverts, where you are around people, but you don’t have to actually interact with them.

While the psychological discussions are fascinating, the rest of the book feels disorganized and scattered.  One minute he is in Atlantic City getting advice from his coach, then he is back in college or off in Vegas.  The story meanders its way through to the big tournament, then we get what amounts to a Twitter recap of how his Main Event went.  The story ends just as it feels like it might be picking up steam…though that is often how people feel about their WSOP Main Event experience.

While the book is short, it isn’t the breeziest of reads, especially if you are poker savvy at all. Whitehead’s explanation of the game and the event are straightforward enough, but some of his other assertions, like the idea the old guard plays a math-based game or that the new guard, dubbed Robotrons, play with unplanned blind aggression, indicate a general lack of understanding about the current state of poker.  To the layperson, it may seem like Whitehead is in the know and not half bad at the game.  From his writing, I would guess he probably isn’t the best player in his home game, but that he is better than the average layperson amateur.

That isn’t the fundamental flaw with this book though. If you go back and read “Positively Fifth Street”, the poker in it will have you more than just raising an eyebrow, as our hero raise-folds half his stack away and limps in with five big blinds.  While Whitehead’s lack of poker acumen doesn’t help his cause, the real issue is that our hero, who claims he is half dead inside, does seem to have no emotional attachment to the goal at hand.  Here is the thing though: this year will be my seventh WSOP, and what amazes me about the Main Event is how it can make even the most completely cynical, emotionally dead person act like a kid on Christmas morning.  The absence of that excitement in the book had me feeling like Whitehead was going through the motions participating, and I certainly felt like I was going through the motions reading it.

There is the nice perk of seeing names you recognize in the book. Circuit regular Ryan Lenaghan makes an appearance, as does three-time bracelet winner Matt Matros and the infamous Math House.  These moments of recognition, while fun, don’t make up for the fact that this book feels more like a draft than a novel.  There are some beautifully accurate descriptions, which is unsurprising given that Whitehead is an immensely talented writer, but if you are looking for a great snapshot of the poker world or a great read, much like Rounders, I’d point you in a different direction.  

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