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.
on August 20, 2004
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.
on April 6, 2003
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.
Author of Poker Nation
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. Not all the marbles but enough of them to pay off the mortgage and, as he says, maybe pay for a semester of college for a daughter in 2016.
Reading this book--*living* this book, I might say, because it is such a vivid and engaging romp through some things and a part of the world that I know very well--was an adrenaline pumping and humbling experience for me, poker player and writer myself. I was dazzled at times by the sheer energy of his prose, at the worldly-wise (and wise-acre) metaphors, references and striking allusions that jump off the page as adroitly expressed and appropriately placed as notes in a symphony--a modern symphony with discordance and harmony splashed out with wild and sardonic energy. Or maybe I should say, Jim McManus writes like a poet with an ear for the vernacular and an eye for the kill.
He begins with an informed imagination on just how handcuffed Ted Binion was "burked" to death with girlfriend Sandy Murphy naked on his chest and big boy Rick Tabish forcing a turkey baster full of heroin and Xanax down his throat while holding the millionaire's nose shut. Not a pretty way to die. Now enter the journalist, perhaps a bit like Jackson Browne's "The Pretender," no longer young and strong, in fact a little strung out on pills and booze and cigs, but a forty-nine year-old still in charge of himself, with a second family and some bills to pay, some temptations to resist, some oats to sow, a man torn between the irresponsible machinations of "Bad Jim" and the socially and domestically appropriate behaviors of "Good Jim," a guy who calls his young wife at least once a day while managing to interview nearly naked lap dancers at their place of work on his lap without losing his...composure.
But what McManus does best is weave an exciting account of how he played cards, what his opponents were like, how he behaved and covered the stories, and how made the right calls and the right lay downs and especially how he sat on his hands when he needed to and nursed his stack so that was able to arrive, against some very stiff odds and against some very good players, at the final table. He highlights several of the pivotal pots during his nearly miraculous run by telling us what cards he held, what cards his opponents held, what flopped, what the turn card was, and especially what hit the felt on fifth street. He gets it all right and crystal clear and he reveals his bad reads and questionable plays as well as his good ones. He shows the camaraderie and the competition among the players and does it all in such a vivid manner that we feel we are there with him. Along the way he quotes from Dante and Edward O. Wilson, Dostoevski and Jared Diamond, etc. on human nature past and present.
He does get a little self-indulgent at times (although personally I think he has license) and some readers might want to skip the digressions into his youth and flash past some of the mini book reviews and philosophic arias and just stay with the story. It's one of the best I've ever read and captures a culture, and a time and a place, as only a master of the craft could.
on April 9, 2003
Positively Fifth Street is the best book about poker I've ever read, and I've read just about all of them. The history of card art, of poker, of Binion's World Series, of the science and technology of the game as it's being played now. And if you ever doubted that an average or above-average home player could "catch up" to the pros using primers and computer
programs, this book will definitely change your mind. The strip club and courtroom scenes are pretty good, too. READ THIS BOOK!
The author is now such a strong player that he routinely dares to tempt fate and play the great no-limit maestro K-REX heads up.
on January 29, 2006
Poker is pure Americana, as is Las Vegas, the setting of James McManus's non fiction memoir of murder and gambling.
This is one of the oddest books I've ever read. It's a reporter's memoir on a double assignment he received in 2000 from Harper's magazine. McManus was to cover the World Series of Poker, focusing on the increased prominence of women players. At the same time he was to follow the denouement of the murder trial of the event's manager, Ted Binion, killed two years before by his girlfriend. Or by a self-administered overdose?
But McManus isn't some two-bit scandal sheet reporter. He's a professor of literature. He's an ageing child of the sixties who managed to live fast without dying young, but not for lack of trying. He grew into the American dream of a mortgage and 2.5 kids and with a wife who looks hotter than the topless-dancer-accused-murderess, which we can check since the wife's picture opens chapter two. There's more.
Why sit on the sidelines when he can enter the World Series himself by using Harper's $4000 advance to pay his entry fee. Ethical? Well he told Harper's and his wife. So he competes against 532 players from all over the world and ends up at the final table of six.
McManus writes narcissistic prose, yet he's humble throughout. He dresses the text up with vignettes of famous poker players like Annie Duke and T.J. Cloutier, against whom he ranks himself no higher than an amateur, he thanks his wife and kids and his luck. He takes us on the two week rollercoaster ride he took, with all its emotional ups and downs. Loads of fun.
Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
on August 22, 2003
This book is absolutely fantastic. I read it because I am a fan of poker and a long time follower of the World Series of Poker. Others have written about their own poker adventures, but Mr. McManus takes us beyond just poker. He writes of Benny Binion and the murder of his son, Ted. He shares with us intimate stories about his family and his own past. He delves into the history of poker and some of its more famous players. This book is far beyond just a "poker adventure" book. The stories are very informative, insightful, entertaining and at times touchingly personal. You do not have to be a fan of poker to enjoy this book. If you have ever thought of what it would be like to follow one of your dreams, then you will enjoy this book.
What a wild, rollicking ride of a book! We jump right in with a detailed re-creation of the murder of an heir to one of Las Vegas' great fortunes. It's not just any murder...not when sex, handcuffs, Xanax, heroin and a turkey baster are involved. The victim is Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion, founder of Binion's Horseshoe, the last family-owned casino in Vegas. His accused killers are his live-in girlfriend and one of his employees.
Call it fate, or perhaps irony, but it turns out that the conclusion of the Binion murder trial will overlap with the 2000 World Series of Poker, which is the Horseshoe's signature event and the richest, most prestigious of the many stops on the big money poker circuit. Enter our hero/author, who is also an avid amateur player. He wrangles an assignment from Harper's magazine to cover the tournament and the trial.
Although the parallel is inexact, McManus then decides to pull a George Plimpton and use his advance from Harper's as seed money to enter the tournament itself. Only through actual experience, he reasons, can he accurately convey the full sensory impact of this adrenaline-charged event. He resolves to school himself in the subtleties of the no-limit game, though he entertains no illusions about his chances against the experienced pros he'll be facing.
Without giving anything away, it's fair to say that a combination of luck and skill carry Jim much farther along the road to glory than even he could have imagined in the beginning. And when the trial concludes almost simultaneously with the final hands of the tournament, the whole story seems to come together in one big, gaudy package.
Along the way, McManus manages to weave in the history of poker, even of the deck of cards itself, autobiographical slices, observations on the poetry of Sylvia Plath....So, this is a book about poker, and about sex. It's also about life, death, love, lust, greed, hopes and dreams....in short, it's about just about everything that makes us who we are.
on April 12, 2003
The author is a well known writer who gets an assignment from Harper's Magazine to go to Las Vegas and cover both the Ted Binion Murder Trial and the 2000 World Series of Poker. This he does in a most spectacular fashion. McManus takes some of his $4,000 in expense money and buys his way into a one table satellite. He wins it but makes a saving deal at the end using up the rest of his bankroll. However, his Vegas odyssey has just begun.
When it's over, we have read not only a fascinating description of the trial, but have looked over Jim's shoulder as he manages a fifth place finish in the $10,000 No-Limit Championship that includes a quarter of a million dollar win. We meet many of the important people associated with poker and Las Vegas, and feel the tension and pressure of high limit tournament play. This is the best book of it's type I have ever read, and once you start reading, it's hard to put down.
on April 21, 2003
By coincidence, while McManus is playing in the World Series of Poker (to enhance his journalism, of course), a block from Binion's Horseshoe is the courthouse where Ted Binion's mistress is on trial with her lover--Ted's pal--for murdering Ted in a gruesomely kinky way (she Burked him--read the book). McManus interweaves the story of the trial with the story of the tournament and the game itself. Along the way he explores the more feral nooks and crannies of humankind. I don't think I can do the book justice other than to say it's like Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil--only this is great writing from someone who was there. A better comparison is with In Cold Blood, Capote's groundbreaker. Positively Fifth Street is Cold Blood for the new millenium, a factual account that reads like a novel. I don't care if you've never even played a hand of solitaire. This book will take you by the throat and keep you reading and won't let go. The book's ancestors, like Tony Holden's Big Deal and Alvarez's Biggest Game, are excellent. But they never transcend the subject, nor do they try to. McManus has hit on something so specific but so universal it's Shakespearean. Literary journalism at its peak.