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Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker Paperback – March 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 2000, novelist and poet James McManus was sent to Las Vegas, innocently enough, by Harper's magazine to write a story about the World Series of Poker held annually at Binion's Horseshoe. But then, as so often happens on trips to Sin City, something kind of ... happened. Rather than becoming an objective report, McManus's article evolved into a memoir as he put his entire advance on the line, got lucky with his cards and won a spot in the competition, and came much closer than anyone expected to winning the darn thing. The result, Positively Fifth Street, is just as dazzling, exciting, and disturbing as Vegas itself.

McManus details his battles not only against his opponents but also against "Bad Jim," the portion of his own personality that needs to get in on a poker game in spite of both common and fiscal sense. Besides telling his own story, he relates the considerably more unpleasant tale of Ted Binion, whose grisly death was blamed on Binion's former stripper-girlfriend and her ex-linebacker beau. In the hands of a lesser author, the pursuit of these separate through lines of poker and the seedy personal lives of wealthy casino heirs may have lead readers to wish the author had picked just one subject. But under McManus's careful watch, they're really pretty similar: steeped in adrenaline, mystery, deception, and skating on thrillingly thin ice. Each story underscores the other, a neat little "narrative as metaphor" device, while also painting a vivid picture of Vegas casino life. Poker, as anyone who has lost at it will tell you, is an intricate game and it's nice to see a top-notch author and player relate its finer points in an entertaining style that will appeal even to non-players. The author's hilariously self-aware and at times self-loathing style make Positively Fifth Street a fun read. But beyond that, his account of nearly winning the biggest poker tournament in the world and subsequently watching as the verdicts are announced for Binion's accused murderers makes for a great story. Even if it wasn't the one he was sent there to write. --John Moe --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

It's a safe bet that no one at Harper's expected novelist McManus, who the magazine sent to Las Vegas to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker, to parlay his advance into chips and play his way into the championship. The scene for this nonfiction work is Binion's Horseshoe Casino, and the game is No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, presumably the purest form of the game. McManus, a poker player since age nine, plays like he writes: gloriously. From the 512 starters, he finds himself, days later, at the championship table, playing for surreal stakes (he wins $866,000 on a single hand). In addition, he is simultaneously covering Ted Binion's gruesome murder trial, which just happens to coincide with the Series. McManus reads with a poker face. Seemingly calm and impassive, his voice may initially make listeners wonder if the author is the right person for the job. But although McManus's style doesn't change, listeners' perception of it will. His even keel is a deception, and as he is describing making quarter-million-dollar bets after playing cards with the world's best for days on end, listeners will be able to feel his heart racing under the calm facade.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 436 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (March 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312422520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312422523
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (151 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #424,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Stamper VINE VOICE on August 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Positively Fifth Street is one of those rare nonfiction books that read like a great first person novel. It doesn't hurt that McManus follows in the gonzo tradition of Hunter Thompson on his journey. The book begins with McManus a professor and freelance writer who is hired to write a story on how women are appearing more and more at the World Series of Poker and how women are becoming more visible in the game. But this is no ordinary World Series, because the Binion family that has run the event every year since its founding is distracted by the murder trial of sibling, Ted Binion. And to top it off, author, narrator, Jim McManus is also a bit of a poker player himself.
Jim wants to enter the tournament with his writing advance, but he doesn't have enough money. He has two college aged children and two young children at home and nothing but bills. With all of the tension of the story Jim is sent to cover, his own personal tensions slowly become the center of the book, especially after he enters the tournament and goes up against famous players, including the author of Jim's favorite tournament book, TJ Cloutier.
I found the writing very immediate like a conversation that happens immediately after the event. I also found the tension internal and external was enough to sustain the multiple storylines. McManus seems to end each section of commentary at a natural conclusion and this makes the transitions easy to follow. I enjoyed Alvarez' great history ONLY GAME IN TOWN and found Anthony Holden's BIG DEAL quite interesting, but neither was as fun to read for me as POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET.
This is the kind of book that you can enjoy regardless of your poker knowledge. It may even convince you to take up the game.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A. Bellin on April 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Fifth Street replaces "The Biggest Game in Town," as the ultimate insider's guide to the World Series of Poker. There is no better chronicle of the multi-million dollar event in or out of print today. McManus has accomplished something that no other poker player/writer could - he went to Vegas to write about the biggest poker game in the world - and he almost won it. For that reason alone, his book has to be considered the most authentic volume on the subject. It's also a pretty captivating piece of journalism.
Andy Bellin
Author of Poker Nation
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 25, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I spent two days lost in this book. Quite a performance by Jim McManus, and I don't mean only the writing. For a fancy wordsmith, he is one heck of a poker player. To come to Las Vegas and play in your first tournament and make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker is one very fine achievement.
Jim McManus, 49-year-old novelist, poet, teacher, and sometime journalist on assignment in Las Vegas for Harper's Magazine takes part of his $4,000 retainer and buys into a satellite tournament hoping to win a pass to play in the big one, the $10,000 buy-in no limit hold'em event that annually decides the world championship of poker. Not coincidentally he is also covering the trial of Sandy Murphy, a saucy, skanky Vegas lap dancer and her linebacker beau Rick Tabish who are accused of the murder of Ted Binion, brother of Becky Behnen, host of the tournament, and one of the sons of Benny Binion, the long time owner of the sponsoring Horseshoe casino.
What results is a suberb example of a genre that I call "participatory journalism," the sort of thing the made George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and some other very fine writers famous. What happens in participatory journalism is the journalist himself joins in the action and becomes part of the story. Because of McManus's cleverness with the pasteboards (actually they're made of plastic of course), his discipline, and because he did indeed get lucky a time or two on Positively Fifth Street, his experience became more than just part of the story. As he covers the trial and the World Series of poker from the inside, he focuses intimately--sometimes perhaps too intimately--on himself and what it was like, first person singular, to play the kind of high stakes poker that most of us can only dream about. And to win.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Bernard Chapin on August 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The author is sterling when he decides to discuss the Binion murder and its outcome. He possesses a wonderful knowledge of poker and illuminates his readers considerably through the facts and history that he shares. His success in the tournament is admirable and rather amazing.

Unfortunately, he teases us with the Binion Las Vegas Confidential angle intermittently throughout the book. Its 400 page length becomes excruciating as his need to discuss himself overpowers his desire to tell a tale. In the end we get a bit of a muddle.

Yet, overall, the book is definitely worth reading and informative even if McManus is one of the most self-indulgent writers I've ever encountered. His constant personalizations ("Bad Jim"/"Good Jim") are pure torture. He is not nearly as interesting as the coverage assignment he received from Harpers.

This is really an autobiography of a sensitive, New Age academic who appears to have completely bought into feminism, post-modernism, chic leftism, multiculturalism, and every other theory to come out of the narcissistic 1960s. Had he merely given a journalistic account of the murder and the WSOP tournament in 200 pages I would have given him, in good faith, five stars for his effort, but his self-fascination degrades the product at every turn.

Mr. McManus is a novelist and a writing instructor which is evident in his extensive vocabulary and occasional witty turn of phrase. Yet he seems to use extraneous metaphor after extraneous metaphor in chapter after chapter. Indeed, the thing that is most characteristic of "Positively Fifth Street" is its overwriting. Is someone who takes 500 words to say what he could in 50 really a great writer? I don't think so.
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