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

( 11 )


In the spring of 2000, Harper's Magazine sent James McManus to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker, in particular the progress of women in the $23 million event, and the murder of Ted Binion, the tournament's prodigal host, purportedly done in by a stripper and her boyfriend. But when McManus arrives, the lure of the tables compels him to risk his entire Harper's advance in a long-shot attempt to play in the tournament himself. This is his deliciously suspenseful account of the tournament—the players, ...

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In the spring of 2000, Harper's Magazine sent James McManus to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker, in particular the progress of women in the $23 million event, and the murder of Ted Binion, the tournament's prodigal host, purportedly done in by a stripper and her boyfriend. But when McManus arrives, the lure of the tables compels him to risk his entire Harper's advance in a long-shot attempt to play in the tournament himself. This is his deliciously suspenseful account of the tournament—the players, the hand-to-hand combat, his own unlikely progress in it—and the delightfully seedy carnival atmosphere that surrounds it. Positively Fifth Street is a high-stakes adventure and a terrifying but often hilarious account of one man's effort to understand what Edward O. Wilson has called "Pleistocene exigencies"—the eros and logistics of our competitive instincts.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Musing on the trial, recounting his dramatic victory in the satellite and covering the big tourney, McManus has crafted one of the finest books ever written on poker, gambling and murder. There is hardly an aspect of the gambling life that he doesn't honestly examine -- from the sexual energy derived from winning to the need to make sure that at least some of your funds are not readily accessible but under the control of an understanding but not too compliant spouse. — Kim I. Eisler
The New York Times
In recounting his astonishing march to the finals of the poker tournament, Mr. McManus captures the adrenaline-juiced tension of the game, and he also captures the anomalous mix of skill, bravado, gamesmanship and sheer good fortune that a player needs to succeed; the bantering rivalry and camaraderie that engulf the survivors; and the knowledge, as Conrad once put it, that "it is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck." — Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
It's a safe wager that professional poker players aren't very good writers, but it's also better than even money that adept writers are, or could be, cunning poker players, for they come to understand motive and risk and instinctively realize that you can't win if you don't bet. James McManus bet big and won. His Positively Fifth Street, an exhilarating chronicle of the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, will go on the shelf with the classic that inspired it, The Biggest Game in Town, A. Alvarez's account of the 1981 event. — Robert R. Harris
The Los Angeles Times
Now, at last, we have a book that does the same kind of number on Las Vegas by a writer who could not be more of an Everyman — an intensely private and cerebral novelist and poet from Chicago, a plain-looking guy who's worked for a living for the last quarter-century as a literature professor and an absolutely devoted family man, who can't be away from his wife for more than 12 hours without picking up the phone and whose first thought when he travels is what gifts he will bring home to his two little girls. Yet James McManus' Positively Fifth Street — nonfiction though it is — may be the closest thing to a true Beat novel we've seen since Kesey went back to dairy farming, Tom Robbins started going for too many easy laughs, and Thomas Pynchon fell silent again.

And, like all true Beat writing, "Positively Fifth Street" is a joy to read. — Gerald Nicosia

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 fa ade. Simultaneous release with the Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover (Forecasts, Feb. 24). (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Here is a rare work that combines personal memoir, journalism, nonfiction, and lurid crime reporting into a book that is genuinely informative, fun, and well constructed. Novelist and poet McManus wraps together three stories. First is his reporting on the trial of a well-known Vegas socialite and her boyfriend for the killing of her husband, casino owner and poker tournament host Ted Binion. The second story is that of the bizarre and fantastic world of no-limit "hold 'em" poker (the game favored at the World Series). The last thread is McManus's decision to take his advance from Harper's to cover the trial and the tournament and enter it himself. McManus moves gracefully among topics like the corrupt intersection of Vegas politics and casinos; game theory, statistics and poker odds; his own history with the game; the culture of high-stakes poker; and Ted Binion's transparent and grisly murder. As well as providing a guide to poker's seminal works (Doyle Brunson's Super/System and David Sklanksy's Theory of Poker), this book is the heir to Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the effortless distillation of a small piece of Las Vegas's madness. Recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/02.]-James Miller, Springfield Coll. Lib., MA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and poet McManus (Going to the Sun, 1996, etc.) sits in on the World Series of Poker. Harper’s magazine assigned him to cover the progress of female players, the impact of information-age technology on the game, and the murder trial of Ted Binion, a member of the family whose Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas hosts the series. But McManus is also a player--kitchen-table level, granted--who wants in on the action (that Harper's advance will do nicely) and does very well indeed. As he charts his play through the ranks, the author reports on his guilt at having so much fun while so far from his wife and daughters (in short, wonderful phone conversations, his spouse invariably punches his ticket) and deals out aperçus ("the beauty of no-limit hold ’em, in fact, parallels that of all human mating procedures") while spinning off like sparks from a pinwheel all manner of subplot and tangential material: game theory, card-deck history, the poker table’s strange weather, the literature of poker, and the software that has opened the game to so many. The murder tale is vile, the female players a story in themselves, but what powers it all is McManus’s nearly hand-by-hand recounting of his time at the table: the rhythm of play, the feints and dares, the unbearable Russian-roulette drama of the all-in hands. Though the language of poker can be as obtuse as haiku, McManus uses it to dazzle the reader, convey the torque ("I’m afraid my adrenaline might rupture an eye"), and share the fall when "with an ace on the turn, and a ten on the river, it's not even close. The Satanic Prince of Noodges has forked me down into the pitch." A heart-in-its-mouth card story: urgent, potent, and damn jolly.
From the Publisher
"James McManus narrates the story of his dream assignment, which must have seemed like a royal flush...the results are highly rewarding, and entertaining, informative and dramatic yearn, full of twists and turns and sweaty palms, read all the more convincingly by an author who's not just acting the part.—The Dallas Morning News
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312422523
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/1/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 471,283
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.29 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

James McManus

James McManus is a novelist and poet, most recently 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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Read an Excerpt

A nubile blonde squats on her boyfriend's bare chest and he's too stoned to do much about it. Nipple clamps? No Sir, not this time. Even one would just be, like, way generous. Seizing him by the neck with both hands, she raises her shins from the carpet and presses her full dead weight onto his rib cage and solar plexus, forcing more air from his lungs. How's that feet? As she rocks back and forth, they lock eyes. "You like that?" she asks, flirty as ever. "How come?" Her name is Sandra Murphy. When she wears clothes, her taste runs to Gucci, Victoria's Secret, Versace. Her latest ride is the SL 500, in black. She used to work at a high-end sports car emporium in Long Beach, so she knows what the good stuff is. After that gig she moved to Las Vegas and danced topless professionally, but she hasn't had to work in three years -- not since she danced for the guy she is currently laying her hands on. "My old man," she calls him sometimes, or "my husband," especially since she moved in. And she would sort of like to get married. Settle down, kids, that whole deal. Not right now, though. Because you, you've got time, as Liz Phair advises in "Polyester Bride," one of Sandy's all-time favorite songs. Time to get rich, see the world, party hearty. And lately she's been having the time of her used-to-be-not-so-great life. Million-dollar mansion, cute boyfriend, bionic sex, Benz, plus she's keeping her looks, above all. That's the key. In 1989 she was runner-up for the title of Miss Bellflower, a south-central suburb of Los Angeles. That was nine years ago, when Sandy was seventeen, but she maintains her dancer's physique by working out five days a week, and she still keeps the sash in her closet. Most men, her boyfriend included, cannot get enough of her, especially the way she looks now. She is lithe, wet, determined, on top.

The boyfriend, Ted Binion, is heaving for air. He used to run the Horseshoe Casino with his father and brother, but those days are long gone. The Nevada State Gaming Commission threw its Black Book at Ted a few months ago, banning him from even setting foot in his family's venerable gaming house. Plus his heroin habit has been shutting him down sexually, closing him off from the world, getting him into real fixes. He's promised himself, promised Sandy, promised just about everyone (at least three or four times) that he's going to kick, stick to booze, but he isn't so sure that he can anymore. What he is goddamn sure of is that he's in serious pain. In fact, he could die any moment here. Wrenched into a bone-on-metal knot against the small of his back, his wrists are fastened together with the rhinestone-studded handcuffs he and Sandy picked up a few months ago at a boutique in Caesars Palace, down on the Strip. Clamps, thumbcuffs, clothespins, wet strips of rawhide -- this stuff has been part of their routine since they first got together, a day he's exhausted from cursing. It was part of what got them together, but whose fault was that? They'd always loved boosting their pain-pleasure thresholds with pot, XTC, Ketel martinis, tequila, sometimes bringing one or two of Sandy's girlfriends into the picture. This time Sandy got the drop on him, and she's used it to cross a big line. Ted doesn't have too much fight left, however, so there isn't much else he can do about it. Fifty-five years old, he's been smoking cigarettes, using street drugs, and drinking extravagantly since he was a teenager. Right now -- just after nine on the morning of September 17, 1998 -- he has three balloons' worth of tar heroin and eighty-two Xanax in his stomach and large intestine, some of it already coursing through his arteries, triggering the soporific enzymes he was hoping this time wouldn't take. He's always had a weakness for what he calls Sandy's pretty titties, and he's getting an eyeful right now, whether he wants to or not. In spite of the Xanax, the heroin, and the fact that she's choking him -- maybe these things have all canceled each other, he thinks, like waves out of phase -- there's really no denying the low, distant stir of an erection. It's a million miles away now, thank God, already receding at the speed of light squared . . .

Because Sandy's new boyfriend, Rick Tabish, kneels on the carpet behind Binion's head, facing Sandy. Standing up, Rick is tall, dark, and, to Sandy's mind, handsome. Six two, two thirty, with springy hair, beady brown eyes. Plenty strong. A star linebacker in high school and college back in Montana, he is now thirty-three, getting soft through the middle, hairline receding above his temples, developing confidence issues. For non-early bloomers, thirty-three can become the age of miracles -- the time to start a family, launch a new venture, make partner, publish your first novel, even found your own worldwide religion. For the last couple of years, though, Rick's been afraid that his best days are a decade behind him, and he desperately needs to make sure that he proves himself wrong. Because what the fuck else is he doing here? People around Las Vegas know him as Ted Binion's friend. They met manning side-by-side urinals at Piero's, and since then they've partied at Delmonico's, the Voodoo Lounge, and plenty of strip clubs together, both with and without Sandy Murphy. When Ted needed a place to stash six tons of silver bullion, he hired Rick's company, MRT Transport, to dig and construct a secret underground vault on Ted's ranch in Pahrump. They used an MRT truck to haul the bars of silver from the Horseshoe's vault out to the new one, along with a few million bucks' worth of rare coins, paper currency, and $5,000 Horseshoe chips. Rick and Ted, in fact, are the only two people who know how to get at that vault. The ranch is now managed by Rick's latest partner, Boyd Mattsen, and its front gate is guarded by peacocks. The peacocks were Teddy's idea.

The story gets better and better, then worse. Much, much worse. Less than ten minutes ago, for example, Rick and Sandy tried to have sex alongside -- even, for a regrettable moment or two, on top of -- Ted's handcuffed torso. If junkie Ted couldn't fuck her, then Rick would take charge, and Ted would have to watch them, then die. That was their logic. Or, more accurately, their syllogism, if either of them knew what that word meant.

Ted knew. When he wasn't out (or back home) raising hell, he read books and magazines as though his life depended on it. Civil War, western history, biographies of Sherman and Grant, Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln. He loved local and national politics, public television, the History and Discovery channels. He even loved reading the dictionary. So exactly how had a smart guy like him gotten himself in this fix?

Ninety minutes earlier, Rick and Sandy forced him to choke down nearly half a liter of tar heroin after facing it with a hundred and seven 50 mg Xanax tablets. They'd handcuffed him at gunpoint and told him to lie on the floor, on his back. After cursing them out, even snickering at their gall, he complied. Still wearing shorts and a navel-baring T-shirt, Sandy straddled Ted's chest and yanked up his shirt, something she'd done countless times -- only now, instead of tweaking his nipples, she was pinching his nostrils together, leaving him no choice but to open his mouth. Careful not to scratch the esophagus, Rick used a turkey baster to squirt the gunky beige concoction past Ted's teeth, down his throat. The stuff reminded Sandy of melting brown pearls, like some stupid mini-sculpture you'd find in New York or LA. In the meantime, gagging and desperate, Ted was offering her $5 million to get off him, and she could tell from the sound of his voice that he meant it. He'd pay her. They could kill Rick right now in self-defense, then get married, have a baby -- a girl baby, maybe, named Tiffany -- and never even have to talk about this crazy Rick bullshit again. All she had to do was take the 9-mm pistol they both knew was hidden in the bench of her white baby grand piano and blow Rick away. (Ted and some cops had taught her to shoot at that range, and later she'd practiced on bottles and cacti in the desert.) Ted was begging her, calling her "baby." That hurt.

Sandy's outward response was to smirk, glance at Rick, shake her head. Even so, she was tempted. As Ted kept on pleading, her jangly nerves made her cackle and pick up a cardboard Halloween goblin. The goblin, with R.I.P. stenciled across the front in white-lightning letters, was left over from last year's trick-or-treat decorations, and she thought it might add a nice touch; that's why she'd tossed it onto the sofa last night in the first place. "You're already dead," she said now, jouncing the goblin in front of both men. Even Rick, who had beaten and tortured people before to get money, was taken aback by the ghoulish dementia of this weird cardboard Totentanz. Yikes! While Sandy puppeteered the death dance on his half-naked chest, Ted was reduced to proposing to set Rick up in a series of ad hoc construction projects, overpaying him lavishly. "Whatever you want, man. Enough to, you know, change your life."

"Change my life!?" Rick snorted, "Change my life?!" while Sandy jeered, "Rest in peace, motherfucker."

"I'm about to start laying the pipe to your wife," Rick added more coolly, making the rhyme without meaning to. He undid his belt. "Keep laying the pipe to her, Teddy, is what I should say." And Teddy had swallowed enough of this gunk, Rick decided as he watched Sandy inch off her T-shirt. Three and a half creamy doses. If that didn't do it, then fuck him.

Copyright © 2003 James McManus

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Table of Contents

The End 3
Dead Money 21
Family, Career, Even Life 35
Black Magic 69
Urge Overkill 87
The Poker of Science 107
Nobody Said Anything 125
Chicks with Decks 149
Death in the Afternoon 185
Book-learned 207
On the Bubble 223
Song for Two Jims 249
Tension-discharge 269
The Last Supper 311
Either Way 337
Zombies is Bawth of 'Em 355
Tons and Tons of Luck 369
Poker Terminology 389
Bibliography 399
Acknowledgments 405
Index 407
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2007

    McManus is a literature guy in a writer's world

    Great story of the WSOP and of the Binion trial, but it is unfortunately weaved in with useless narrative of McManus's upbringing and far, far too much flowery language for a poker book. I can understand a writer/player trying to tell a story of their life and times at the Main Event, but come on now. This book could be 75 pages shorter and pack just as much punch, as apparently someone who teaches literature feels the need to prove that they know lots of words.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2005

    Fast, Funny and Literate

    What a great book. You don't have to have an interest in poker to like it, though that helps. I really just sank into this book like a warm bath, and just felt I was right with him on his journey to Vegas. I was less interested in the Binion trial aspects, but the book is so well written that there was not a chapter that didn't invoke interest, humor, and insight.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2005

    Vegas Baby, Vegas

    Interesting read. Although impressed with his research, the sideline tangents were a little dry and easy to skip. Combining both his tournament experience and the Binion case was fun to read. My husband, who never reads for fun, could not put down this book although I bought it for myself!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2005


    Coming from a guy that has never read a book voluntarily, i bought this book to fulfill my 24/7 poker crave and it did just that. McManus describes his journey to the WSOP beatifully. I couldn't put the book down and i ended up finishing the book in 2 sit-ins

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2004

    Positively Five Stars

    Reviews of this work seem to fall into two distinct camps. Those who thought McManus bit off way too much, and those who loved his approach. You see my rating, so you know where I stand. I'm a mild poker fan, mild Vegas fan and have been in Binion's twice in my life. But I love a good read. Just as murder trial coverage, poker tutorial or autobiography alone, the book would have worked great. As all three, and much more, it's one of the best books this avid reader's read. Alas, though, readers of some reviews and the book's cover jacket won't have one hook that I enjoyed. I had no idea how McManus did in the tourney until I read the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2004

    McManus really got it...

    James McManus' book 'Postivitely Fifth Street' is 'postively' one of the best pieces of leisure reading I have read. It is a very easy to read book. As for the poker story and information, as long as you can read what McManus says and use the index of poker terms in the back, you should be fine. A lot of people say that the book is disconnected, but I thought the story flowed well. The Catholic background, as well as the other non-Binion murder or -WSOP info helps to understand the murder situation in some cases. McManus tries to look at his own life, and what influences he experienced, and see if he can maybe understand the situation Ted Binion found himself in, which led to his death, via being burked on his bedroom floor. A great read for poker lovers, legal lovers, murder lovers, and lovers in general!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2004

    People are too nice

    People are way too nice in reviewing this book. A lot of people recommended it to me, and when I picked it up, I lost all motivation to read: it was slow moving, choppy, tangential and utterly boring when it could have been a lot more. It was as though McManus was trying to write a Complete book of Poker instead of tell his story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2004

    Dave, Wheaton, ADD Poker

    Interesting where McManus talks about the actual tournament, but he's all over the place throughout the novel. Who really cares about his Catholic childhood? We read the book to hear about the WSOP and the Binion trial, not McManus' life philosophy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2004

    A literate, intellignet book about a tough game and tough people

    An absolutely remarkable book: an exciting page turner that shows the relationship between Amarillo Slim and Sylvia Plath, among other things. Positively Fifth Street is a difficult book to describe, because it is about poker at the highest level, the people that play the game, and, as Douglas Addams would put it: 'Life, the Universe and Everything.' McManus manages to be gritty, realistic and gripping while being deep and erudite at the same time. Did I mention that he also covers the Ted Binion murder trial, growing up Catholic and twentieth century poetry, as well as the key strategies for winning at Texas Hold'em. How can you ask for more?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2003

    Stick to the Point

    If Mr. McManus had just stuck to the story instead of worrying about all the literary references this would have been a very good book. It is a great story, but the author makes it much more difficult to follow than it has to be. It is about a murder trial and a poker tournament for goodness sakes, not the theory of evolution...interesting subject matter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2003

    Trudged through it...

    This book was an okay read, but the author is all over the place...there's about four side stories going on during the book and it makes for a difficult read in my eyes. The poker tournament stuff is pretty exciting, but it's difficult to read about poker if you're not used to it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2003

    Oh, what might have been...

    McManus had unbelievable material to work with -- he finished FIFTH in the World Series of Poker. Do you know how difficult that it is do? So what does he do with such incredible material? Buries it. Incredibly, he chooses to starts the book -- in a chapter ridiculously titled 'The End' -- with an imaginary scene of a murder! He starts his incredible true-to-life story by writing fiction (and bad fiction at that)! Then he bounces around for half the book, never quite getting into any semblance of a narrative groove until finally -- at long last -- we get to Binions and the WSOP, and his incredible, awe-inspiring march to the final table. That section of the book is aces; if it had been a magazine piece (well, it WAS a magazine piece), it would have been perfect. But the Binion murder trial, the Good Jim and Bad Jim interaction, the worry about his wife and daughters, all the other hand-wringing and book-padding are not only poorly executed but they are astonishingly boring. The book has an unsettling disjointed feel and by the end, when McManus hurries to the courtroom to hear the Binion trial verdict (he undoubtedly imagined we readers would be sitting on the edges of our seats to hear the verdict), I was literally yawning and racing to get to the book's conclusion. It's too bad. There's a great book buried here; you need a lot of patience before you finally find it, and then it doesn't last nearly long enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2003

    Cover needs 'For Poker Players Only' Warning

    This book makes for a very tough read if you are not familiar with poker and the terminology used by McManus. Even constant reference to the glossary left me feeling confused. I also found his 'Tom Clancy like' writing style frustrating as he jumped between covering a trial, playing in the tournament and writing about the history of card playing.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer


    Harper¿s magazine hired novelist James McManus to write an article on the World Series of Poker. The magazine is interested in the relatively new phenomena especially the impacts of female players, information technology on the game, the murder of Ted Binion of the host family, and the subsequent arrest and trial of a stripper and her boyfriend. Once McManus arrives at Las Vegas¿ Horseshoe Casino he rationalizes that to truly write this article, he must participate. Being an apartment house player, McManus risks his advance to join at the table......... POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET: MURDERERS, CHEETAHS, AND BINION'S WORLD SERIES OF POKER provides great depth into the mindset of the cast (not just the card players, but also the groupies) than the original article that Harper¿s magazine published. Mr. McManus is at his best when he reports his guilt over the hedonistic pleasure of the game and side benefits while leaving at home his wife and daughters. The rest of the story, mostly fulfilling what his editors want as described in the paragraph above, is well written and engages the audience through the use of poker vernacular and metaphors. Still the first-hand account at the table draws the final card in a royal flush nonfiction work that casual card players will enjoy........... Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2003

    Man with beautiful wife goes to strip clubs!?!?

    When the "short" version of this came out in Harper's Magazine, and then in BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2001, people start talking about how it was the best poker article since A. Alvarez's "The Biggest Game in Town." I agree. Apparently so does Alvarez, from reading the quotes on the jacket (as well as those from Ira Glass, David Sedaris, Billy Collins . . .). What I don't understand is why the author would want to visit a strip club in Vegas, given how beautiful his wife is (if you can tell anything from the picture that adorns chapter 2.) Anyway, this is one wild, adventuresome book.

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    Posted November 19, 2008

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