A couple of months ago I found myself fallen back in love with Poker, and especially zero-sum tournament-style play as one can find in console-based implementations such as Prominence Poker on the PlayStation. I wrote at the time how it inspired me to try my hand with writing some poker-playing computer programs. I had to put that exercise on ice in the face of more pressing projects, but my interest stayed strong enough to have me wander one day into my local public library’s stacks, seeking its single shelf of books on card games. While I found a copy of the seminal Positively Fifth Street there, I instead borrowed Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle because it was short, and recent (from 2014), and I liked the funny cover design.

I really liked this book, an appropriately ramblesome account of the author’s magazine-subsidized trip to Las Vegas in 2011 to compete in the World Series of Poker. Unlike with the author of Fifth Street — a book for which Whitehead makes his own reverence plain — he did not come anywhere near winning the tournament, which helps to explain Noble Hustle’s brevity. He busts out, in fact, right as the story of his experience as a competitor starts getting interesting. Counterintuitively, I enjoyed the experience of feeling his narrative sliding towards a familiar sort of sports-movie cinematic tension while the brick wall of the book’s back cover stands mere millimeters away.

By that late point, the reader feels prepared for vicarious disappointment. The entire account comes from a loser’s perspective, beginning with the author’s page-one hypothesis that any skill he has with the game stems from his unperturbable countenance, due in turn to his feeling utterly dead inside. (His author photo depicts him wearing the hoodie he had custom-printed for the tournament, proclaiming his hailing from “The Republic of Anhedonia”.) But he does not dwell on himself, and over the tale of his brief adventure we meet friends, family, fans (some of whom cheer him on via Twitter), and most memorably the unflappable Poker trainer who does her best to make his game competition-grade.

I hadn’t heard of Whitehead’s work prior to this, so I couldn’t help but find amusing coincidence in reading of his very recent accolades for his novel The Undergound Railroad, which I’ve learned about only after finishing this short and unserious story about a Poker-tournament flameout. I look forward to reading that one, probably early next year.

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