The Suicide King
Colson Whitehead chronicles the ultimate poker face-off.
The Noble Hustle:
Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death
by Colson Whitehead
$24.95 List Price
There are three decent books about the World Series of Poker. Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town recounts the first World Series held at Binion’s in Las Vegas in 1981—a ragtag gathering of clever cowboys jousting with one another for bragging rights. James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street captures the breaking wave in 2000, when the poker fad was expanding exponentially, the cowboys were sliding back into the foamy soup, and the bourgeois techies and digital corporations were rising into ascendancy. The book under review here, Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (Doubleday, $25), presents the corporate apotheosis of the 2011 World Series of Poker in golden light, as if the wave were on the beach at sunset.
All of these books began as magazine assignments, and they give us what magazine writing should—the ambience, the local color, the cast of characters, and the feel of things. What they tell us about poker is terminally skewed by the eccentricities of tournament poker and the innocence of magazine writers. It suffices here to note that all of these writers are drawn to poker by the risk and spectacle, but none with a high heart. Tremulous anxiety sucks up the pages. The wives and kids back home, whose livelihood poker places in jeopardy, are much in evidence, too—as are “friendly” games in college that lay a bad foundation, since poker is not a friendly game, or a personal game.
Simple truth: The more you know about your opponents, the less you know about their play, because poker is not self-expression. It’s all hustle and dazzle.