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The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death Hardcover – 6 May 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Books (6 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385537050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385537056
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 791,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By A. Ross TOP 500 REVIEWER on 24 July 2014
Format: Hardcover
Whitehead is one of those writers who has a few books I've enjoyed so much (The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Zone One) that I'm more or less willing -- for now -- to read almost anything he writes. I have very little interest in the game of poker, but marginally more interest in the culture of poker -- enough so to pick this up. In 2011, the sports/culture magazine/website/brand Grantland paid Whitehead's $10,000 entry fee to the World Series of Poker in exchange for a series of articles about the experience of being a newbie on the poker circuit. A longtime small-stakes home player, he scrambles to find some tutors and trains by taking daily bus trips to Atlantic City before embarking on the trip to Vegas for the tournament.

This resulting book is a freewheeling, discursive personal narrative, likely to be of only very marginal interest to true pokerheads. As an example of experiential "journalism" it's slightly more successful, but for me it gets way too deep into the author's head, and that's not a place I especially enjoyed. Woven throughout the book is Whitehead's self-described anhedonia (a psychiatric term meaning the inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities), which gets old fast. I'm not sure if there's anything more insufferable than a critically lauded Brooklyn writer whining about his inability to get off the couch. Despite some excellent scenes and some amusing moments, I think I'll stick to Whitehead's fiction from here on out -- he's not a character I want to spend any more time with.
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By Victor Niklasson on 25 Jun. 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is all that you want from a poker novel. Great education and good reading.
Will recommend to anyone as a gift or for your own
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 112 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
A satire of all those other stunt memoirs 8 May 2014
By Kindles & Wine Book Blog - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition

First of all, you should know that I am a total sucker for a good "stunt memoir" (or "participatory journalism," if you want to get fancy). You cooked a Julia Child recipe every day for a year? I want to read about it. Read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica? I'll preorder your book. Played in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) as a reporter for a magazine? I'm all-in, if you will. My fascination with getting a peek into different subcultures is definitely satisfied by authors doing crazy things and then writing about them.

This, however, is not your typical stunt memoir. So for a while I was a little confused--I wanted more of a plot, more of an inside scoop on the scene at the WSOP. Then it finally hit me--he's doing a satire of all of those other stunt memoirs! Gosh, that's clever! Because while I do love those stunt memoirs, they usually are pretty predictable--person decides to do something crazy/unique/ill-advised, does it, writes about it, learns a valuable life lesson and then finds love/a job/a new passion for living. This book is like the anti-that.

And Colson Whitehead flat-out won me over with his satirical sense of humor, witty observations, and terrific writing. Whitehead is an AMAZING writer! His writing is so slick sometimes I almost couldn't stand it. At the beginning, he takes some time to explain the game of poker to those readers who aren't familiar with it:

"To start, when judging a five-card hand of random crap, the highest card determines its value...Whoever has the better stuff wins. Sound familiar, American lackeys of late-stage capitalism?"

Come on, that's pretty funny, right? Well, the whole book is basically like that. I'm not kidding. I had to sort of forcibly stop myself from highlighting something on almost every page. I also had to stop myself from reading huge chunks out loud to my husband.

"For my part, I was not enthused about reading a poker how-to while queued for the omelet station of the buffet. Might as well get caught highlighting Beyond First Base: Advanced Booby Tips of the Pros on the way to prom."

I do have a couple of criticisms, though. There is a running gag throughout the book about the Republic of Anhedonia (where Whitehead claims to be a citizen). Toward the end I found it got to be a bit tiresome. Also, even though I was eventually OK with it not being a "typical" stunt memoir, I still had a little trouble when he moved back and forth between a couple of different years of the WSOP. I thought it interrupted the flow of the narrative.

This is a quick and very funny read full of sharp observations and witty takedowns of modern society under the guise of a memoir about playing in a poker tournament. And you do still get a peek into the inside world of poker tournaments--just through a very different (and sometimes quite pessimistic) lens. Look, "sometimes you have to accept a casino trip for what it really is: an opportunity to see old people."

Recommended for readers looking for a funny read with a bit of an edge. Anyone who likes cards or gambling (or beef jerky, for that matter...there is a surprising amount of information on beef jerky in this book!) should give this one a go.

Rating: B+

Note: I received a review copy of this title courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Negatively fifth street 11 April 2014
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
You know what would be a great story? A novelist and casual home-game poker player gets sent to Las Vegas by a magazine. Using his expense money to enter a satellite tournament, he'd win to buy into the main event at the World Series of Poker. He'd get to the final table, and hobnob with top pros and old-style outlaw Vegas royalty, while thinking of life and friends and wife and kids. Between hands he'd get involved in a murder trial of a stripper accused of using a horror-movie technique to dispatch a casino owner. The whole tangled tale would climax in a double lap-dance session.

That, of course, was Jim McManus' great Positively Fifth Street. Take away the murder, stripper, great title, lap dance, celebrities, constructive thinking and journey from lowly satellite seat to the final table and you have Colson Whitehead's interesting slacker version. It's much shorter without all the collateral stuff, and is intensely negative both in the sense accentuating unpleasant aspects of everything and showing more interest in what is missing than what is happening.

The Noble Hustle belongs to an older poker tradition, the gritty decay of The Man with the Golden Arm and The Cincinnati Kid (the books, not the movies in which star power obscures the message). But this is Generation X Brooklyn and leisure-industrial complex casinos, not illegal private games in Depression-era Cincinnati or post-WWII Chicago. The protagonist is a couch potato who has lost interest (or never had it) in his life and his marriage, not a heroin addict right out of jail or a rambling-gambling man unable to accept his position in life nor change it. The author does not engage life with a bang, but with a whimper.

Out of this affectless half-hearted struggle emerges an engaging account of a subtle metamorphosis. Add some manic gonzo energy and lots of drugs and you'd have something like Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or better, another magazine commission about a gambling/sporting event: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved). The author portrays his journey as changing himself from soft and unappetizing fatty raw meat to delicious, lean and tough beef jerky; not through trials by fire, but slow, gentle sunlight.

The writing is crisp and funny, recursive, ironic and mockingly self-referential. But all the posturing and artifice does not obscure the clear human voice. It's a simple, little story, barely more than an anecdote, but it carries as much weight as much longer works. You can read it for the pleasure of the writing, or for the insight. Befitting its negative orientation, you will not have favorable or unfavorable feelings about the protagonist-author, but you will have intense sympathy for his absent ex-wife.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Bad Luck Schleprock Goes to Vegas? 4 May 2014
By T. Karr - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Colson Whitehead feels the need to go into training when he is staked by “Grantland” magazine to participate in the World Series of Poker. He has played in home games, but never before ventured into a casino to play poker. He fears the humiliation and shame that comes with bowing out early in the big tournament.

But then again Colson Whitehead feels that doom and humiliation lurk around just about every nook and cranny of life. The looming tournament just adds to his burden.

Mr. Whitehead’s self-deprecating humor is what makes this poker memoir different from others that have gone before. “The Noble Hustle” is awash in pop culture and literary references which also adds to the fun.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Poker Face 28 Mar. 2014
By takingadayoff - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm new to Colson Whitehead's writing, but I'm always on the lookout for a good book about gambling and Las Vegas. The Noble Hustle filled the bill on both scores, and does it without any scams or cheating of any kind, which must be a first for this kind of book.

Whitehead emphasizes the fact that he lives in a state of anhedonia (or The State of Anhedonia, as he puts it) which means he is unable to experience pleasure. Perhaps he really does have a degree of anhedonia, but he seems to like playing poker, he certainly enjoys eating beef jerky, and he must get a kick out of writing, because he's pretty good at it.

The narrative follows Whitehead, a New York novelist, practicing to compete in the World Series of Poker. He is a casual player but is ramping up his game in preparation to write a magazine article about the World Series experience. He plays in tournaments in Atlantic City to get toughened up. Then it's on to the Series in Las Vegas.

Along the way he meets some characters, such as The Coach, a poker tournament pro who looks like an upper middle class housewife. She gives him pointers and strategies and cheers him on. As something of a fish out of water, she can relate to Whitehead, who is also not the typical Las Vegas pro poker player, with his dreadlocks and lack of a killer instinct. But in his favor, he has an unbeatable poker face, due of course, to his anhedonia.

Whitehead has a light way of writing, even as he maintains his gloomy demeanor. He tells of a player at the World Series who encourages him to check out the "hooker bar," which throws Whitehead, since that seems a bit forward even for Las Vegas. He pretends not to realize that the enthusiastic patron was probably talking about a "hookah" lounge.

The Noble Hustle is adapted from a magazine article, so it does feel a bit drawn out occasionally, and the poker lingo was over my head at times, but unlike the anhedonic Whitehead, I enjoyed this book very much.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A Busted Flush 9 May 2014
By Mike Byrne - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Have you ever taken a long flight by commercial jet and found yourself sitting next to a drunk who won’t stop talking? Well, that’s something like reading “The Noble Hustle.” On the plane the drunk keeps leaning into you and telling you un-funny jokes and breathing on you and you just wish he would go away or maybe fall asleep. Then when he finally does fall asleep his head finds a comfortable spot on your shoulder and you wish he’d wake up again if only he would then refrain from telling his stupid jokes and finding himself so fantastically funny and breathing that rancid alcoholic breath on you. And his legs are splayed out and you wonder if you can climb over his legs to get to the rest room and maybe ask the stewardess to find you another seat. And if the seats are all taken you think maybe you might just ride the entire rest of the flight sitting on the John?

I thought I would enjoy this book. I like to gamble. I now live in Vegas after spending eight winters here and returning home from Las Vegas to New York each summer. I have watched the World Series of Poker with some enjoyment. And I heard that the author was a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and that the book had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

The book is supposed to be funny. Well, I found the humor humorless. When (I guess) I was expected to chuckle at points in the book I more often found myself groaning. I usually finish reading the books that I begin reading but I could not finish reading this book. I only finished reading seventy-four pages. It took me three frustrating days of reading to get through those seventy-four pages. I kept thinking the book was terrible but I kept forcing myself to give it another chance. But I can’t take it anymore. I glanced quickly through the remaining pages and it seems to be just more of the same.

It turns out that I shared a few things in common with the author, and therefore at first I felt at home with the book which is autobiographical. I lived in Brooklyn as did the author; I met regularly with wannabe authors (mostly in Manhattan, and we didn’t play poker; ) as did the author; and many of the locales in the book were familiar to me. So the book should have been right up my alley. But, it wasn’t.

I am sure there are people who will find the book hilarious and wise, and I wish them and the author well, but I can’t in good conscience give the book more than two stars.
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