“The Noble Hustle” Review

Colson Whitehead is one of a number of authors who have been fortunate enough to have his publisher pay him1 to write about playing in the World Series of Main Event. But he’s the only Pulitzer Prize winner2 in the group, making The Noble Hustle3 a delightful read. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very good poker player, regularly joining other writers only in very low-stakes dealer’s choice home games and completely lacking in tournament experience.

More than a decade into the poker boom and a month after Black Friday has effectively killed internet poker in the U.S., Whitehead still lays out the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em and explains how tournaments work, but at least he does so more entertainingly than anyone else has. A driver’s license-less native of the Big Apple, he takes the bus to Atlantic City, accepts his complimentary chips and tangles with denizens of the $1/$2 Hold ‘Em tables. This is a step up from his usual game but still far from where he’s going.

Despite hiring a poker coach,4 he isn’t able to learn fast enough to impress anyone with his skills or results. Fortunately, he is honest with us about this, deprecatingly describing his style as “Tight Incompetent”.5 His two strongest features are his poker face, which he wears as a self-declared member of the Republic of Anhedonia,6, and his patience. These help him book a nice win at the $1/$2 Limit Hold ‘Em table at the Tropicana and a decent cash in a $50 buyin tournament there.

But just six weeks later he’s made the massive jumps to Las Vegas, the No-Limit Main Event, and a $10,000 buyin. Despite additional advice from Matt Matros, a writer-turned-successful-poker-player, Whitehead is far from ready. His Main Event story unfolds over the last fifty pages of the book. His demise is fully expected yet still disappointing to him, the now defunct Grantland, and the reader, who is left wishing there was more for him to tell.

Title The Noble Hustle
Author Colson Whitehead
Year 2014
Skill Level any
Pros Quick, enjoyable, easy read from a great writer.
Cons Maybe too quick, despite the content being padded unchronologically by events a year after the main narrative.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. And yes, they’ve all been men so far (see the “Journals by writers” section of Books About the WSOP Main Event). That is definitely a glaring hole in the literature. Maria Konnikova certainly could have already done it had she not gotten sidetracked by learning to play poker too well (but it’s still not too late).
  2. The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer in 2017 a year after winning the National Book Award.
  3. The subtitle of the book is “Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death”. “Death refers to busting out of a poker tournament, while beef jerky is one of the preferred snacks of poker players who may not be able to get away from the table long enough for a proper meal.
  4. Helen Ellis is also a writer by trade, but she has over $100,000 in live poker tournament cashes.
  5. On page 183, Whitehead admits to folding out of turn and unintentionally putting in an insufficient raise because he confused the chips.
  6. “Anhedonia”, meaning “the inability to feel pleasure” is a real word but a fictitious location.
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