Book Review: Positively Fifth Street

by James McManus
Okay, so I’m a little late getting into the poker phenomenon. (Or was I early? I did buy that poker table with Pete, although we tend to play dumb games that favor luck and not the new “official” poker game, no-limit hold ’em.)

When I was working on the American Experience Las Vegas site, one of my more enjoyable tasks was to read through Michelle Ferrari (with Stephen Ives)’s book, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History. I asked to excerpt a few passages from the book and had to get permission from the authors, one of whom was James McManus on the History of Poker. Seems I dealt with Good Jim because he was quite gracious even though I hacked great swaths of wordsmithing from his essay so that a) it would fit the pea sized brain of a web surfer and b) leave lots of juicy morsels to be found with said web surfer found either the Las Vegas book or McManus’ own.

So what’s with the Good Jim? And is there a Bad Jim? Apparently there is both of him(s). This was the one device that didn’t quite click with me at first — he traces his Good side to one set of grandparents, god-fearing and good people, and the Bad side to Grandpa Jim, the boozing, gambling, cheating on his wife grandpa. I wasn’t crazy about this, but it actually grew on me as I read.

There’s also a lot of words about the trial of Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish, accused of murdering Murphy’s lover (and Tabish’s friend) Ted Binion, heir to the Binion fortune and part of the family that runs Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Vegas and puts on the World Series of Poker annually. The Murphy Tabish stuff is vaguely interesting but that’s not why I picked up the book.

What I wanted to read about was McManus playing poker. He gets an assignment from Harper’s Magazine to cover the World Series, specifically on the increased number of women competing for (and with a legitimate shot at) the championship. But then he takes his advance/expense money, bets it in a poker game and wins $10,000 — the fee to join the actual World Series itself. And then he does remarkably well in the tournament.

Along the way there are histories of poker and of cards, discussions of poker histories and strategy books, profiles of major poker players and analyses of various literary figures. There’s even an excerpt from a David Sedaris writing project (McManus was a writing teacher of Sedaris’ at the Art Institute of Chicago’s school).

I have to admit, I’ve only seen televised poker a few times (we don’t have cable) but despite this lack, McManus describes the lingo and strategy so thoroughly that the description of his games are very easy to follow and more exciting than any card game has any right to be. And, just when I start to understand how he’s strategizing and someone makes a brilliant move, luck rears its randomly ugly head and takes someone out unexpectedly.

For anyone interested in poker, this book has to be read. For those interested in contemporary Las Vegas, this is also high on the list of required reading. And if anyone is wondering why people get obsessive about poker, this book will explain it to you.

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