Flush with Success:
Amateur poker player shows his hand in lurid memoir

Positively Fifth Street:
Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker

by James McManus
Farrar,Straus & Giroux; 416 PAGES; $26
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
May 4, 2003


In December 2000 an article by James McManus was published in Harper's magazine that had kitchen-table poker players in thrall. For the next several months, poker fantasists of literary bent sat at their weekly nickel-dime- quarter game breathlessly asking each other, "Did you read that article?"

That article, "Fortune's Smile," is a first-person account of "rank amateur" Jim McManus' shockingly successful run in the 2000 World Series of Poker. It won him a pile of cash, an award for sportswriting and a book contract. With a little fleshing out, it would have made a nifty 220-page memoir. McManus' new book, "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker," contains that near-perfect article, but readers will have to sift through its 400-plus pages to find it.

To a surprised reader -- "This is a poker book?" -- the book's opening reads as if an overzealous agent read McManus' Harper's piece and said, "Jim, baby, the poker stuff's great, but throw in some drugs, violence and a coupla hot strippers, and we've got us a best-seller!" And McManus ran with it. A film version is purportedly already in the works.

"Positively Fifth Street" encompasses the major themes cited in the subtitle (Cheetah's is a Vegas strip club, but also refers to adulterous cheating, not to mention the proverbial ace-up-one's-sleeve variety), as well as innumerable subplots and dozens of extensive and far-flung digressions. A few of these flights of fancy give the book a welcome breadth that the Harper's article lacked, but a great many are unnecessary at best, just plain irksome at worst.

The three main themes are McManus' adventure with the pros and personal trials, the increasing ranks of women in the pro game and the murder of Ted Binion, a wild and troubled scion of the family that owns Binion's Horseshoe Casino, where the tournament has been held since its inception in 1970.

The first 20 pages of the book are devoted to Binion's murder by his lover, the sultry and amoral stripper Sandy Murphy, and her lover and "friend" of Ted, Rick Tabish. Details of the crime, based on fact but admittedly creatively reconstructed by McManus, involve sex, drugs, lots and lots of money, rhinestone-studded handcuffs and the grisly and mishap-laden deed itself. The chapter is simultaneously kinky, graphic and utterly mundane.

Other subplots include, but are by no means limited to, the life, death and poetry of Sylvia Plath; the legal and socio/psycho/biological ramifications of G-strings; the history of cards and poker; the family history of the McManus clan; high and low culture galore; and Dostoyevsky's gambling addiction and redemption by a good woman.

The Dostoyevsky reference is then compared to McManus' own rescue by his second and current wife, Jennifer, one of several parallels the author draws between himself and an assortment of notables, one of whom is A. Alvarez, who wrote what is commonly thought of as the greatest poker book ever, "The Biggest Game in Town" (recently reissued in paperback by Chronicle Books). With ill-placed good intentions, McManus not only aptly praises "The Biggest Game," but for some reason also feels the need to redeem Alvarez as a great literary mind and friend of Plath's as well.

Vying for attention with the three major themes is McManus' own struggle of "Good Jim" versus "Bad Jim." Good Jim is a soft-bellied middle-aged writer- professor and dedicated family man. Bad Jim is an overgrown adolescent tough guy who likes fast cars, hard liquor, loose, leggy women and big, big bets.

Veering wildly from Shakespeare quotes and terms such as "point set topologist" (used in describing a stripper's pose while sliding down a pole, no less) on the one hand and Rolling Stones allusions and colloquial cutenesses such as "me ascared" on the other, McManus pushes both Good Jim the intellectual and Bad Jim the rocker at every turn. Sure, he's big Bad Jim downing Ketel One martinis and being lap-danced while hanging out with Vegas big shots at a high-end strip club. But, lest we forget, he's also Good James, whose last novel (1996's "Going to the Sun") was favorably compared to Samuel Beckett's "The Unnamable" in the New York Times Book Review.

When he writes about poker, though, McManus absolutely shines. His re- creation of pivotal hands is nail-bitingly gripping. His mini-profiles of high- stakes players past and present, and of the women making leaps and bounds in the game, are fascinating, though his take on the female players is at times arguably sexist. His frankness about his own misplays and advice for the poker- ambitious are both fascinating and uniquely informative in an irresistible outsider-let-in way.

Most invaluable for the aspiring player and harrowing for the general reader is McManus' recounting of how it feels to play with the big boys and girls, how outrageously scary it is to have to decide on a moment's notice whether to toss tens of thousands of dollars into the middle of a felt table while a gigantic, growling former pro football player and poker legend named T. J. Cloutier is staring you down.

When McManus digs in and retells his World Series adventure, "Positively Fifth Street" is a suspenseful and well-wrought work. His story is the literary equivalent of a pair of aces in the hole, a perfect hand -- it's just too bad McManus at times overplays it so excessively that many readers may fold his book much too early on.

 

© 2006 Jamie Berger