James McManus

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

(Reviewed by Hagen Baye NOV 12, 2003)

Positively Fifth Street by James McManus

Novelist and poet, James McManus, gets assigned by Harper's Magazine to cover the 31st annual World Series of Poker (the "WSOP"). He is to focus on the progress of women in the poker tournament circuit, as well as the impact of instructional manuals and computer poker games. McManus is also to keep an eye on the trial of those accused of murdering Ted Binion, the son of Benny Binion, a Founding Father of Las Vegas, having taken over the El Dorado in 1951, which he renamed Binion's Horseshoe and where he started the WSOP in 1970. The Binion murder trial was scheduled to take place at the courthouse a block away from the Horseshoe with the verdict expected to be reached around the time of the tournament, which was scheduled to begin May 15, 2000.

Unbeknownst to Harper's at the time, McManus had an "ulterior plan" in mind. A serious amateur poker player, he hoped to parlay the $4,000 Harper's advance for expenses to buy into a preliminary game and win the $10,000 entry fee into the tournament. McManus not only wins a tournament seat, but also comes within four players of actually winning the WSOP $1.5 million first place prize. His stint at participatory journalism results in a 5th place finish (out of a record 512 entrants) and a prize of $247,760. Not bad for four days' work! --Or shall we say, play?

The piece published in the December 2000 issue of Harper's, entitled "Fortune's Smile," principally related McManus' account of his play in the tournament. Little is reported about the progress of women or the impact of instructional books, and nothing is said of the trial of Ted Binion's accused murderers.

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, And Binion's World Series of Poker is the vehicle by which McManus relates what he could not fit within the length constraints of his Harper's Magazine piece--and more. The 400+ page book contains an expanded version of the story of his tournament experience and has extensive coverage of the degenerate life and gastly murder of Ted Binion and the trial of his duplicitous mistress Sandra Murphy and his ex-felon, so-called friend Nick Tabish, both of whom are ultimately convicted of killing him. The book also includes lengthy discussions of the history of poker, poker literature, gaming theories, as well as reports on the progress of women poker players and the influence of poker advice books and computer poker games. There is even a chapter devoted to the autobiographical roots of McManus' interest in poker. Finally, the author's literary instincts are also brought to bear on the various topics at hand, particularly the ethos of Las Vegas. ("Cheetahs" in the title refers to Cheetahs Topless Club, where Sandra Murphy was working when she and Ted Binion first met.)

But the heart of the book is poker in general, and "no-limit Texas hold'em" in particular, the game of choice at the WSOP. Texas hold'em is a version of 7-card stud, with two "hole" cards (dealt down to each player and not available to be used by the other players), followed by three "community" cards (playable by all players) dealt up simultaneously (the so-called "flop"), followed in turn by a 4th ("4th Street" or the "turn"), then a 5th ("5th Street"--hence, the title of the book (presumably inspired in part by Bob Dylan)--or the "river") community card. Without going into extraneous detail, essentially, the players bet before and after the flop, and then again after each of the 4th and 5th community cards, depending upon which players remain to play out a particular hand by matching the previous bets made during the hand. There is no limit to how much a player can bet in no-limit Texas hold'em, although in WSOP all players start with $10,000 (which is only supplemented by winnings during tournament play) and continue to play until one player has won all of the chips.

McManus goes through the elements of betting strategy: knowing the statistical odds of different card combinations, understanding the strategic importance of position (where one sits; the player who is last to bet being in the strongest position, as that player knows how the others have played their respective hands) and of "feel" (the ability to interpret mannerisms, generally gained by experience through actual play; something the advice books and computer programs cannot teach), as well as the all-important role of pure and simple luck. McManus' poker "mentor," former football player and current poker professional extraordinaire, T. J. Cloutier, relates in his writings (the source of McManus' lessons) that "mastering the luck" is the trick to poker; otherwise, those who have mastered the skill of playing cards would win every time, but that simply has not been the case in poker, whether tournament or ordinary play.

The more significant hands that propelled McManus to his improbable finish at the 2000 WSOP were, ironically, hands that involved face-offs with his mentor, Cloutier. On the second day, both mentor and student proceeded with Ace/Nine hole cards, generally considered weak cards to bet on, except when a strong player (Cloutier) is up against a rookie, like McManus. That hand culminated in both drawing an Ace "on the river" or 5th Street (the last up card) which yielded to both full houses of Aces over Nines and a split pot, which aided McManus to end the second day of the tournament in 4th place with $450,000. Perhaps the defining moment for McManus was the hand on the third day that resulted in his beating Cloutier with only an Ace/King combination, not even a pair, resulting in a pot of $866,000 and first place overall at that time. Indicative of the importance of luck, the hand that spelled the death knoll for McManus was won by a player with a meager pair of Fours. And the decisive final hand for 1st prize's $1.5 million versus 2nd place's $896,500, involving the showdown between the last two players standing, Cloutier and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, PhD (in probability and game theory, appropriately enough), was determined by a mere pair of Nines! In both latter instances, the winning card was drawn on 5th street. Positively!

Noteworthy among the points made by McManus in his book are (i) how "functional multiculturalism," whereby the 2000 WSOP field included representatives from some 23 different countries, now predominates over the WSOP's "good-old-boy roots," and (ii) how professional poker players who have written advise books often lament having done so; they find the value of pots they lose to opponents now familiar with their former secrets far outweigh the royalties their writings earn them.

It may be said that McManus covers too much ground in this book. Perhaps McManus was biting off more than either he or his readers can chew by combining poker theory and history with the Binion murder trial and the tournament, let alone his own autobiography. Cohesion may have been sacrificed by his seeming attempt to produce an exhaustive, if not definitive, work on poker. Be that what it may, particularly due to McManus' daring entry into and his remarkable success in the 2000 WSOP, Positively Fifth Street will undoubtedly be a mainstay of the literature of poker for years to come.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 60 reviews


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About the Author:

James McManus is a novelist and poet, and most recently the winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for sports journalism. He teaches writing and comparative literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including a course on the literature and science of poker.
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