“The Noble Hustle” – Reviewing A Sports Book From A Non-Sports Author

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When the massive annual writing conference known familiarly as AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) descended on Portland this past March, I heard that anywhere between 10 and 15,000 writers attended. Portland, being its own literary hub (I wouldn’t be surprised if that many “writers” lived here regularly), welcomed them with open arms. You could seriously have walked into almost any trendy spot for adult libations that weekend and heard some terrible poetry being read. Or maybe, if you were lucky, some great poetry! But not likely.

Not to say that myriad wonderful writers didn’t attend the conference; just that, by law of averages, you know, you were bound to encounter some terrible writing.

Well-known writers; aspiring writers; forgotten writers; blossoming writers; cutting-edge writers; jaded writers; writers that are blowing up; writers who have never written a word; writers who think they would one day like to try writing; writers that are actually painters; writers that have read everything; writers that have read nothing; writers that are millionaires; writers that aren’t millionaires – they were all there.

Each year AWP is in a different city, and each year it is a total mess, like any conference of such grandiose size and ambition.

It’s generally only worth going, in my opinion, if 1) you are obligated to go for some contractual reason, 2) it is in a city you want to visit some friends in (who ideally aren’t writers and don’t even know about the conference – you can escape whenever you need to), or 3) a writer will be there that is going to die soon, and it is your only chance to see them.

Even then, reason 3 is somewhat iffy.

Nevertheless, when I heard through the grapevine a year or so ago that the flying fortress of AWP was landing at the Convention Center in the city where I happen to live, I thought “How fortuitous! I don’t have to go anywhere and all my friends can come to me.” 

Call me lazy.

But then I got the idea, why not host a bunch of off-site events at my own house and garage art gallery (www.1122gallery.com)? Then I wouldn’t even have to leave my house to see my friends. 

Call me extremely lazy.

A number of months and 8,000 emails later, the events occurred, all six of them, and, if you’ll allow me a moment of pride, I can safely say they were extremely well attended. They were so well attended, in fact, that the neighbors couldn’t park in front of their houses after long days of work. Luckily, I only heard screams of exasperation once or twice, so I mainly ignored them. But we have since asked people to park on other streets for our gallery events.

Despite the general malaise one feels at AWP on realizing being a writer is an entirely un-unique and unglamorous profession (everybody’s doing it!), one of the upsides of the conference, which happens whether you want it to or not, is discovering new writers. And this surely happened during our gallery events. And I am thankful for it! My reading list is much longer than it was before March.

One of the reasons, however, I have always felt out of place at conferences like AWP—and in writerly circles in general—is that I am a total sports fanatic. Most avid readers and writers aren’t. Occasionally I will try to guide the conversation toward some game I watched, and faces will fall flat.

The writers I have been able to maintain long friendships with generally are also sports fans themselves, at least to some degree. This is how deep my interest in sports runs. If you are reading this column and have made it this far (bless you!) on a website dedicated to awesome regional sports coverage, you can imagine this to be true.

I have been updating my NBA free agent tracker obsessively since Sunday, for instance, to the point where my mother mentioned at dinner last night that I was “always on my phone.” “It’s the craziest basketball day of the year!” I muttered weakly in self-defense. I’m guessing most of the other 15,000 AWP attendees weren’t privy to the joy of this experience.

This is also why when I learn that authors who are primarily famous for bending genres or writing mind-blowing novels or poems have a side project or book about sports, my mind implodes. These books excite me like no other.

Imagine my joy, then, at realizing the book on poker I had checked out a month or two before (and subsequently renewed – no fines here!) from the local library was in fact by Colson Whitehead, this year’s keynote speaker at AWP! While I was too busy with my own off-site events to actually attend the conference I didn’t want to attend anyway, this discovery had me jumping out of my skin.

To then discover that Whitehead’s acclaim had already reached the heights of winning the impossible-to-conceive-of “genius grant”? Well, this had me jumping out of my bones. The next time someone asks me if I’ve read Whitehead, I will be able to say “I’ve read the poker book,” which I’m sure is the book that anyone that asks me that question will have skipped.

Not to mention the 50th edition of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event is set to kick off this week at the Rio in Las Vegas! Everything was coming together smashingly.

I’ve never understood the massive allure behind poker, to be honest, other than I love playing cards and games. Perhaps ordinary people also like watching non-ordinary people make millions of dollars. Maybe Whitehead could help me figure it out: How poker captures the nation’s attention the way it occasionally does; how poker was seemingly everywhere and on every channel ten short years ago.

Whitehead’s book opens with an epigraph, a definition, to be exact – “an-he-do-nia: the inability to experience pleasure” – and Whitehead takes this characteristic to heart throughout The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death. Whitehead is simultaneously so sarcastic, so overwhelmed by capitalism’s squashing of the human spirit, so self-deprecating, that it takes a reader new to Whitehead, like myself, a number of pages to settle in to the aesthetic.

Once settled in, however, once I realized Whitehead wasn’t angry at me for reading his book but rather persistently transparent about the fact that the world we live in is extremely corrupt because we humans made it that way (and Whitehead himself is a human, thereby implicit), I found myself turning the pages rapidly. Whitehead is a gifted writer, and the underbelly of the poker universe is laid bare through his watchful eye.

In 2011, Grantland Magazine paid Whitehead’s $10,000 entry fee to play in the Main Event at the WSOP in return for an article they could publish, and The Noble Hustle details Whitehead’s obsession with not making a fool of himself. Whitehead had been playing neighborhood games for most of his adult life, and to prepare for the WSOP, he kicks it into high gear.

The book opens with him busing to Atlantic City from Port Authority to begin his six weeks of playing seriously before the Main Event. The “Leisure Industrial Complex,” as Whitehead repeatedly calls casinos, consumes Whitehead’s thoughts, and his descriptions and assumptions about the depressing set of clientele he shares tables with is revealing.

Casinos are not happy places (not for the 99% anyway), and Whitehead does not try to make them seem happy. But the book goes far beyond that. It acts as a memoir at times as Whitehead discusses the various times poker has intersected with his writing life, and how early trips to Vegas (one with his college friend Darren Aronofsky no less!) shaped both his love of cards and his writerly identity.

Whitehead discusses his divorce and his unwavering love for his daughter (the one affirmation Whitehead seems to be able to hold onto, without self-doubt). Whitehead enlists a poker coach who he clearly admires. He takes private yoga lessons to learn how to sit for hours on end.

And of course, Whitehead wants to win!

He talks a great deal about aesthetic, how clothing, looks and facial expressions are integral to the game. The first line of the book, in fact, reads “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” He designs and has made a “Republic of Anhedonia” bright red track jacket for his Main Event “sponsorship” (the back cover photo of Whitehead is to die for). The book almost reads like an entertaining travel narrative, a journey into the Wild Wild World of Poker, for while Whitehead can clearly hold his own (Spoiler alert: he makes it to day two of the Main Event, outlasting over 2,000 players!), he is clearly a self-acknowledged layman in professional poker player’s eyes.

Of course, being a writer, Whitehead also grabs every poker book he can get his hands on, and this proves to be one of the more pleasurable aspects of The Noble Hustle. Anyone interested in becoming a serious poker player should read Whitehead’s book, simply to know what other books are out there, which books are seminal, which ones changed the game, and how the game has evolved throughout history.

Whitehead acts somewhat like a historical poker scholar throughout The Noble Hustle, and I learned a great deal about the evolution of the game from this book. While the insane fervor of televised poker and its offshoots seems to have died down a bit in recent years, the WSOP is still going strong with more entrants each year (the official event takes two months to complete in fact, this year’s running from May 28th to July 16th!), and, like every year, I’m sure the Main Event will hold its own ratings wise on PokerGo and ESPN beginning July 3rd, concluding July 16th.

While the goal for every entrant is to make the Final Table (Whitehead captures the gambling psychology successfully, depressingly – how being busted out of one side tournament with a chance to earn an entrance to the Main Event usually results in simply entering another side tournament), realistically only the top players have a chance to get there. And yet those top players often bust out themselves early on.

The new wave of players is always trying to overtake the old guard, and while a reader won’t get a lot (or any) card-playing strategy from reading The Noble Hustle, a reader will definitely learn about some of the strategies that are out there and about some of the people that made the strategies famous. Whitehead miraculously has a handful of old friends in the know, and he no doubt leverages his status as a well-known writer to get profiles on poker stars that would otherwise remain out of reach.

While I can’t whole-heartedly recommend The Noble Hustle for everyone (if you’re trying to feel good about life on a lazy Sunday, look elsewhere), I can say that, when Whitehead finally arrives to the WSOP to compete in the Main Event, the book turns into a total page turner. I knew he wasn’t going to win, but I was totally eager to learn how far he would make it, and how the hands would unfold (no pun intended). Whitehead’s various depictions of the actual action at the felt were invigorating! And that’s saying something.

So, as the 50th year of the Main Event at the WSOP gets under way this week, if you find yourself idling away the hours in front of the tube, wondering what happened to Internet Poker sites, where all the beef jerky went, and what kind of people are sitting there in front of you making hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, I can safely say that The Noble Hustle would be worth your time. Whitehead can let you know.

And, very finally, if you are planning on attending next year’s AWP in San Antonio, don’t.

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About Author

Jesse Morse

Jesse Morse lives in Portland, Oregon. He teaches English at Clark College in Vancouver, WA and tutors high school Language Arts in the greater Portland area through Catalyst Pathways. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Denver, and publishes poetry and book reviews in a variety of places. He helps curate 1122 Gallery out of his garage with the poet Jennifer Denrow (his wife!) and the artist Lauren Schaefer. He plays guitar and sings in the rock band The Whirlies. Most proudly, he is a devoted father to Wren, who teaches him how to properly hug each day. Find him on Instagram @jesseportlandmorse .

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