“Never play cards with a man called Doc.” – Nelson Algren
I’ve never played a serious game of poker in my life.
The few times I’ve sat down and played a few hands, it has been in almost total ignorance of the odds, poker strategy and anything but the most basic dos and don’ts…but…the first thing I wanted to do having finished Positively Fifth Street was jet down to Vegas and set myself down at a table.
James McManus’s book Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion’s World Series of Poker is, for lack of a better word, infectious.
McManus was assigned by Harper’s Magazine to cover the simultaneous twin stories of the Ted Binion murder trial and the annual Binion’s World Series of Poker held at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the arguably most famous poker tournament in the world. McManus, a journalist, author and poet, also happened to be an itinerate amateur poker player who elected to use his $4,000 advance from Harpers to fund his own entry into the tournament (Read the book to find out how he did. Unlike the NY Times book review (SPOILER WARNING) , I refuse to spoil it for you by divulging the results…What were they thinking?).
The book offers a rather piecemeal look at Ted Binion’s murder, using the crime more as an illustrative and cautionary tale of the author’s own personality – the risk-taking, obsessive, “cliff-diver” face that McManus tries to generally keep in check (“Bad Jim” as McManus aptly terms himself). If you are looking for the details of a sordid crime drama, Positively Fifth Street covers the basics (Binion’s tawdry drug use, the aspiring, leggy stripper girlfriend, the low-life pal who hooks up with her and plots Binion’s ultimate demise, the fundamentals of “burking” and so on…), but is far more focused on the legacy of Binion in the poker tournament then on Binion himself. The murder trial does loom ominiously in the background but it seems to serve more as a grim reminder of the dangerous price of an unchecked lifestyle than as a raison-e’etre for the book, akin to the images of Death that can be seen perpetually lurking in the corners in a Renaissance painting. The murder is a reminder of mortality, chance and fate, and the luck of the cards.
Once the pasteboards start to hit the table, the book truly takes off, mixing each stage of the tournament action with a look at the intricacies of poker, the rise of “book-learned” system poker players, the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em, the history of playing cards, and vivid portraits of the top professional poker players such as the cantakerous TJ Cloutier, top female player Kathy Liebert and others. McManus has woven a startling page turner that bluntly fascinates from beginning to end.
Interested in learning how to play Texas Hold ‘Em? Check out Ultimatebet.com for the rules.
Author, blogger and actor Wil Wheaton drew my attention to Positively Fifth Street a while back through a mention of the book on his site and, as a poker player himself, recently posted a vivid and terrific piece on his own adventures in an illegal poker tournament at the Odessa in Hollywood. It’s well worth a read.
Comments are always welcome, book suggestions, feedback and links to the site.
Thanks for reading!