Booked Up

Playing Poker Poorly

Novelist Colson Whitehead tries to become a professional gambler in this funny true-life tale.

By - May 22nd, 2014 12:45 pm
Colson Whitehead. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.

Colson Whitehead. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death by Colson Whitehead is one of those tours de force that novelists can sometimes toss off between more serious books. It reads like a descendant of gonzo journalism channeled by a Beat poet. Part memoir, part social commentary, The Noble Hustle goes beyond poker to ruminate on gambling as an existential act of being.

Whitehead is an acclaimed writer whose novels include the recent Zone One and his much-admired debut, The Intuitionist. This book is a non-fiction departure that grew from a magazine commission to participate in “The World Series of Poker” in Las Vegas. Recently divorced and finished with a difficult manuscript, Whitehead agrees to go inside, even though his Hold’em skills are only above average.

You don’t really need a great interest or knowledge of poker to enjoy this book. Whitehead is still learning as the story begins and he is our quirky guide through the vagaries of this most American of games. I still could have used a glossary in the back, but if I can catch on, I’m sure you will! Whitehead preps like a desperate grad student anticipating comps and here the laughter begins. Much of Whitehead’s humor is sardonic and self-deprecating.

Whitehead’s first comic conceit is his national affiliation. He decides that he will be representing the Republic of Anhedonia. Sounding like a Marx Brothers’ invention, anhedonia is actually the psychological inability to experience pleasure. Recently divorced and always depressed, Whitehead is often told he has a great “poker face,” meaning that he looks “dead inside.” He uses this running gag throughout, commenting on the Anhedonian way of doing things.

Since Whitehead is so unprepared for this level of competition, he goes in search of a Yoda, a sensei who will guide him through the force. In a particularly sweet section, he finds Helen, a self-described housewife, who happens to be a stealth professional poker champ. She guides him through the psychological rigors of the game as well as the practicalities of eating during the tournament and when to take bathroom breaks. Their interracial relationship plays like a parody of films like The Blind Side.

Helen is followed by his samurai personal trainer, Kim, who takes him through a rigorous program to leave his couch-potato physique behind. Apparently a winning poker player is a fit poker player. It is during this period that the author becomes addicted to weight-loss reality shows. He gains strength and inspiration from the public humiliation the contestants endure to become their best selves. Anhedonians feel no pleasure, but they do admire their fellow sufferers.

Noble Hustle.

Noble Hustle.

Eventually, after training interludes in small-stakes local games and Atlantic City tourneys, Whitehead makes it to the big time – Las Vegas. His play-by-play commentary on the grueling, days-long tournament may not inspire you, but you will never look at a poker chip the same way again. To find out how Whitehead did, you’ll have to read this diverting and affecting rumination on America’s gambling culture.

Note: Although I love reading books in their analog, tree-pulp versions, time constraints this week required me to listen to Whitehead narrate his own book. I must admit I am a sucker for the author-read audio book. Although writers (especially poets) do not always make the best narrators, they always let you know what they find most important and funny. That’s especially crucial in this book, where Whitehead can sometimes come off as a lugubrious slacker. However, in his pleasant delivery, the book becomes something between a comic manifesto and a spoken word slam. It is not to be missed!

Recently Received – A trio of new poetry titles arrived from Wings Press. They are known for their excellent poetry series. The new releases include Rudiments of Flight by Frances Hatfield, Last Call by David Lee, and Ten Thousand Waves by Wang Ping. Give them a look!

Upcoming area Book Events:

Friday, May 23 (7:00 PM): Book Release Reading by Nicholas Grider and Paul Druecke at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001 woodlandpattern@sbcglobal.netFree Admission.

Tuesday, May 27 (7:00 PM): Turner Hall Event with Harvey J. Kaye, author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, at Gestern Hall inside Turner Hall, 1034 N. 4th Street in Milwaukee. Event is co-sponsored by the Milwaukee Turners and Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, May 28 (7:00 PM): Rachel Kapelke-Dale and Jessica Pan, authors of Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults, in conversation with Milwaukee Magazine’s Claire Hanan at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Wednesday, May 28 (7:00 PM): Ticketed Event with Jessica Vealitzek, author of The Rooms Are Filled as part of the Women’s Speaker Series at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road in Milwaukee. The series is co-sponsored by Bronze Optical, Milwaukee Reads, and Boswell Book Company. Tickets are $22 for non-members and $18 for members, include refreshments and a signed copy of the book, and can be purchased online at this link: This event begins with a social half-hour, then a presentation and reading with Q&A, and concludes with the book signing.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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