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Rough sex, black magic, murder, and the science--and eros--of gambling meet in the ultimate book about Las Vegas
James McManus was sent to Las Vegas by Harper's to cover the World Series of Poker in 2000, especially the mushrooming 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 with a technique so outré it took a Manhattan pathologist...
Rough sex, black magic, murder, and the science--and eros--of gambling meet in the ultimate book about Las Vegas
James McManus was sent to Las Vegas by Harper's to cover the World Series of Poker in 2000, especially the mushrooming 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 with a technique so outré it took a Manhattan pathologist to identify it. Whether a jury would convict the attractive young couple was another story altogether.
McManus risks his entire Harper's advance in a long-shot attempt to play in the tournament himself. Only with actual table experience, he tells his skeptical wife, can he capture the hair-raising brand of poker that determines the world champion. The heart of the book is his deliciously suspenseful account of the tournament itself--the players, the hand-to-hand combat, and his own unlikely progress in it.
Written in the tradition of The Gambler and The Biggest Game in Town, Positively Fifth Street is a high-stakes adventure, a penetrating study of America's card game, 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 primary competitive instincts.
And, like all true Beat writing, "Positively Fifth Street" is a joy to read. — Gerald Nicosia
"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...As tension packed as any thriller...A great story." --The New York Times Book Review (cover)
"Artfully woven...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 comraderie 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
"Astounding...wildly entertaining."--Men's Journal
"Irresistible. . .McManus gives the reader a riveting over-the-shoulder view of the hand-by-hand action....His prose is flashy, funny, and unexpectedly erudite, but McManus hardly even needs it--with material this rich, he's holding the writer's equivalent of a royal flush."--Time
"In writing about poker Jim McManus has managed to write about everything, and it's glorious." --David Sedaris, author of Me Talk Pretty One Day
"James McManus is the only literary poker-player ever to have made it to the final table in 'the Big One,' and he did so by playing brilliantly. I admire his achievement, envy his skill and discipline, and was completely absorbed by his subtle, detailed, lively account of the longest four days of his life." --A. Alvarez, author of The Biggest Game in Town
Sex is a Nazi. The students all knew this at your school. To it, everyone’s subhuman for parts of their lives. Some are all their lives. You’ll be one of those if these things worry you.
—LES MURRAY, “Rock Music”
Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here …
Anubile 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 feel? 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-benot-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 lacing 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.
But the plan to sexually taunt their handcuffed friend while he slowly gave in to the drugs never quite got off the ground. Even after Sandy’s elaborate striptease, Rick couldn’t keep his erection “because of the vibe around here.” No faggot, no warlord, Rick still had no spur (in the cowboy or Shakespearean sense) to prick the sides of his intent, but only his vaulting ambition—his ambition, punnily enough, to loot Teddy’s vault, shove his prick into his woman. But his half-erect penis had accidentally grazed Ted’s warm hip, zapping both men with a nastier shock than they’d get from leather soles on a carpet—this as Sandy pushed open one of Ted’s eyelids, just to make sure he at least caught a glimpse of their triumph. How’s about them apples, Teddy? You jealous? (Teddy Ruxpin Bear is what she called him sometimes. Not this morning.) But prick then zapped hip, just before those heartattack knocks on the glass …
This was Tom Loveday, Ted and Sandy’s gardener, rapping on the window that looked back out toward the pool. Loveday had arrived at five before nine for his regular Wednesday morning stint on their grounds that Sandy had totally spaced on. Loveday was trimming the hedges along the back of the house when he noticed that Ted’s dogs, Princess and Pig, were oddly lethargic; instead of bounding up to meet him as usual, they stayed hunkered on the patio, whimpering. Loveday had already sensed something was off because the drapes of Ted’s den were pulled closed for the first time in the twelve years he’d worked here. Shielding his eyes from the glare, he tried to peer into the den while rapping a knuckle against the warm glass. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard two muffled curses.
So now, using the thumb and index finger of his left hand, it is Rick who holds Ted’s nostrils together, using his right palm to clamp the mouth shut, his knees as a vise for the head, while Sandy compresses the lungs and chokes off the windpipe. Even in his opiated and oxygen-deprived delirium, Ted flops and arches his back, bucking so furiously that Sandy slips off him. Climbing back on, she’s a little freaked out that, despite what Rick promised, doing Ted has become kind of unpleasant. Rick, for his part, would love to just beat Ted to death with the butt of one of his pistols, but he knows that the marks would defeat their own purpose. This begs the question, of course, of how the threat of a gunshot or two had persuaded Binion to submit to the cuffs, not to mention his shivering embarrassment at the discovery and use of one of his sex toys. Should’ve let them shoot me, Ted realizes now. Would’ve had a better chance of making it through this and watching them pay. He also understands that because it was only yesterday that he himself scored the heroin and filled the Xanax prescription, a coroner may well declare his death an accidental OD or, worse, a suicide. The previous evening Ted had instructed his estate lawyer, James Brown: “Take Sandy out of the will if she doesn’t kill me tonight. If I’m dead, you’ll know what happened.” Yet there may not have been enough time to execute the order; even though he’d given Brown the word, didn’t testamentary amendments need a third-party witness to be legally binding? Plus Brown might’ve thought he was kidding! Ted changed his will all the time, and Brown often gave him a couple of days to cool off before bringing him papers to sign. Ted’s net worth is between $50 and $70 million, and with Oscar Goodman representing her, Sandy might wind up with all of it; she was already getting the house and $300,000 in cash. What Ted wanted now was for every last dime to go to Bonnie, his nineteen-year-old daughter, who’d left home three weeks ago to begin her first year of college in Texas. But he didn’t need to die for her to get it.
Digging his bare heels into the carpet, Ted bucks and thrashes with all he’s got left, causing Rick and Sandy to step up their efforts. “Change your life!” growls Rick under his breath, viciously twisting Ted’s nose. When the meat of his thumb gets smeared with wet mucus, it pisses him off even more. “That’s right, you decrepit old fuck!” Sandy hangs on with her knees like she’s breaking a stallion, rocking down into her grip on Ted’s throat. Capillaries in his eyelids have ruptured, his face and neck brightening from pink-tan to purple. And still she holds on, keeps her balance. Rick grunts and curses through his teeth, remembering not to make noise but forgetting again when his forehead bangs hard into Sandy’s. “You—fuck!” To keep from crying out herself, Sandy grinds her molars together and blinks back the sting, but the squeak and whine of her exertions go a half octave higher.
Thirty-five more airless seconds—the time it takes a boat to go under completely, for the last waves and bubbles to clear—before Ted loses consciousness, though his thigh and neck muscles continue to spasm. Misreading these as further resistance, his tormentors keep rocking forward. Sandy leans a bit to her left, and Rick to his left, so their heads won’t collide anymore.
A long minute later: no heartbeat, no spasms. Something else, though. Something so bad Sandy yelps. Breathing through their mouths, she and Rick have little choice but to listen as Ted’s bowel gurgles and splutters, the appalling sounds audible above the buzz of Loveday’s hedge clippers out beyond the swimming pool. Even so, Rick keeps the pressure on Ted’s nose and mouth, just in case the fucker’s playing possum. Sandy hopes Rick will stop now, let go, but says nothing. They glance into each other’s eyes, then away. Rick believes Sandy is crying. Both of them are happy, at least, to hear no more knocks on the window.
They take off the handcuffs. One to an ankle, they drag the body across the room and arrange it faceup on a sleeping mat. They intend to make it appear as though Ted had been watching TV as he turned out the lights on himself. Classic rock videos? Porn? Unable to find what they want, Rick turns off the set. They arrange Ted’s black Levi’s, his loafers, an almost full pack of Vantage cigarettes, three lighters, the remote control, and the empty Xanax bottle—all within easy arm’s reach of the mat. But now they discover the trail, a dark, wet, brown dotted line across the moth-colored carpet. At first Tabish thought it was gunk that had spilled from the baster, but no. Murphy understood right away.
Another thing creeping them out is that Ted isn’t moving. At all. A volcano two minutes ago, now nothing. Extinct. The stillness and silence make them leery of even glancing in his direction, yet how can they not? Tabish has personally never seen the cocksucker looking so dignified. To Murphy, Ted seems—what is the word for it?
“Your boyfriend is leaking,” notes Tabish.
Murphy laughs, catching herself. “Not funny,” she says.
It takes them a good twenty minutes to expunge the dark trail—no soap, just a couple of rags and warm water—but they won’t be able to tell how thorough they were until that area of carpeting dries. Murphy composes herself, calls the housekeeper, Mary Montoya-Gascoigne. Adopting her lady-of-the-house persona, she tells her maid not to come to work today because “Ted isn’t feeling well.” Trying to think even further ahead, like a lawyer, she asks herself: Isn’t that technically accurate?
Out in the garage they empty Ted’s safe of jewelry and cash, his collections of coins and paper currency. Everything. But something’s not right, Tabish thinks. What’s wrong with this picture? Then: Whoa, baby, I’ve got it. He fishes around in the jingling booty and plucks out a Mercury dime. Grinning in spite of himself, he places it heads up, dead center, on the safe’s middle shelf, a token of his gleeful contempt.
To round up the rest of the loot more efficiently, Murphy snatches a couple of pillowcases from the linen closet next to the dining room. She tosses one over to Tabish, and they ransack the rest of the 8,000-square-foot house, searching low and high for bundles of currency, jewelry, vials of loose diamonds, tubes filled with old silver dollars that Murphy knows Ted kept hidden at home, though she didn’t always know exactly where. Teddy never trusted banks, hated bankers. “Weasels,” he called them. What he trusted were gold coins and bars of silver, though he usually kept a quarter of a million or so in hundred-dollar bills stashed in the outboard motor of the fishing boat parked in the garage, and she dashes back out there to jimmy it.
Eventually she and Tabish take a shower together, try making a version of love. Doesn’t work. This makes twice in one day, a first in their eight months together. I just hope, Murphy thinks before cutting off the thought with the edge of her palm. Way too horrible. But if these didn’t count as extenuating circumstances, Tabish wonders aloud, then what does?
Once Loveday departs, Murphy drives Tabish to the MRT lot over on Sixth Street, where he’ll commandeer the earthmoving equipment he needs to dig up the vault in Pahrump.
“Adios,” he says, kissing her. “Love you.”
“Love you too.” Her forehead still throbs. She’s exhausted. “Bye-bye.”
“We did it.”
“Yeah,” she says, delicately smoothing the bump on his forehead, “we did.”
This is how I imagine Ted Binion’s murder and its immediate aftermath. The scenario gradually came together as I pored over accounts of his death on the web sites of the Los Angeles Times and the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sun, and followed the legal proceedings on Court TV. I interviewed neither Sandy Murphy nor Rick Tabish, but since they repeatedly denied through attorneys that any such thing had occurred and law enforcement officials believed them, I figured my version (which continues to change as new facts come to light) wasn’t any less accurate for my not having talked to the killers. The fact is, they bragged to their friends about doing it, and their friends talked to detectives and, later, to prosecutors. The goblin, the heroin and Xanax, the peacocks, the rhinestones, the curious gardener, the Mercury dime are all facts. I’ve kept my interpolations as faithful as possible to the newspaper and courtroom revelations about the three people involved. Everything else in this book is a matter of public record.
Undisputed eyewitness accounts, for example, revealed that just before 3 p.m. on September 17, Murphy showed up at the office of Ted’s executive assistant, Cathy Rose. Interrupting a Horseshoe business meeting, Murphy made a production of handing Rose a check for the grand sum of $100. The check had been made out to Ted from a couple to whom he’d loaned $300. Murphy then made a point of informing Rose that she’d been up all night with Ted and was going to get a bite to eat now that he’d finally fallen asleep. Why interrupt me, Rose recalls wondering, over this piddling check? To tell me you’re going to lunch?
Tabish’s phone records show that at 3:47 p.m. he called Murphy’s cell phone from his. She was back at what was now her Palomino Lane mansion, as bequeathed to her in Ted’s will. Tabish and Murphy’s conversation lasted three minutes. At 3:53, she punched 911, caught her breath, and began screeching into the receiver that her husband had stopped breathing.
Four minutes later, when firemen and paramedics arrived, they found Ted Binion’s body lying faceup on the floor of his den. Rigor mortis had set in along his jaw, and his pupils were dilated. Doll’s eyes, they call this condition. He had no vital signs whatsoever. A half buttoned long-sleeve shirt was pulled up diagonally across his bruised ribs. Autopsy photos also made clear that he had a partial erection under his white Calvin Klein Y-front briefs, and that his backside was horribly fouled.
On his end table four feet away were a glass ashtray, tortoiseshell reading glasses, and a hand-lettered invitation to the Las Vegas premiere of Mob Law, a scathing documentary about the career of Oscar Goodman, Ted’s friend and former attorney. At the other end of the sofa, on a low wooden bench, lay a Victoria’s Secret catalogue addressed to Sandra Murphy, 2438 Palomino Lane, Las Vegas NV 89103, alongside a handwritten note on a white nine-by-twelve envelope: “Teddy, I went to the gym. I couldn’t sleep this morning. Love you, Sandy.” A diptych of their perfect confederacy.
Make that a triptych. Not only because of Tabish’s implicit presence between them, but also because in the bathroom a few feet away detectives found paraphernalia for smoking heroin, including scorched Reynolds Wrap and a hunting knife with black tar heroin smeared on both sides of the blade.
Sandy Murphy was hysterical. “She came running into the room and just about fell on the body,” one paramedic reported. She was far enough gone to be packed up and wheeled from the mansion on a stretcher, then taken by ambulance to the emergency room of Valley Hospital. A nurse trained to observe such patients testified that Murphy blubbered and shrieked melodramatically, that her behavior appeared “almost theatrical.” She pulled a sheet over her head and kept blurting “boo-hoo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” in unconvincing fashion, though she calmed down enough to coolly inform a detective that Ted had returned to using heroin back in March after forfeiting his gaming license. She described Ted as suicidal, claiming he had recently stuck a gun into his mouth, had been planning to enter a drug rehabilitation center, and had obtained the fatal prescription for Xanax from Enrique Lacayo. “My neighbor’s a doctor,” she told the detective between heaving sobs. “And my neighbor used to give him that shit before, when we were … and I told him if you ever give him that stuff again … and he gave him some more last night.” Referring to Ted now, she said, “He told me this was the last time, and he wasn’t gonna ever do it again.” She also insisted to the detective that, if foul play was involved, even though she didn’t think it was, then Becky and Nick Behnen were the likeliest suspects. “She said Binion hated his sister and ‘most of the rest of his family,’” the detective wrote in his interview notes. “She stated that the Behnen family, and especially Becky, are ‘treacherous’ and ‘lowlifes.’”
Back in Ted’s driveway, LVPD Sgt. Jim Young informed reporters that no evidence of foul play had been discovered. No signs of a breakin or struggle, no trauma to the body, no suicide note. The LVPD had arrested Mr. Binion more than once for possession of heroin, and these arrests had led directly to the permanent revocation of his gaming license in March 1998, so Murphy’s version of events added up. Sgt. Young continued: “Preliminary results indicate he may have made an ingestion error in regards to medication.” Interviews with family members also led detectives to conclude that Ted probably hadn’t planned to kill himself. “While it’s suspicious,” Young added, “it’s not suspicious to the point where we are talking about criminal activity.”
The Review-Journal reported the next morning that Ted was an admitted heroin addict; that his older sister, Barbara, had died of a drug overdose in 1983; and that his father, Benny, had a reputation as a “hard partyer and big-time poker player.” Ted’s friend Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein had been the victim of an organized-crime hit in 1997, and police subsequently received tips that Ted might also become a target of violence. Months later, in fact, someone fired several shots at Ted’s home and car, and one of the suspects was twenty-year-old Benny Binion Behnen, who could have been responding to threats his uncle had made against his mother. The Review-Journal also declared that Ted had been “an acquaintance of P. J. Ribaste, who has ties to organized crime interests in Kansas City.”
Augie Gurrola, a member of the Gaming Commission that had passed down the “death sentence” on Ted back in March, expressed his condolences to the Binion family but couldn’t help taking one final shot at Ted’s lifestyle: “Somehow, sooner or later, it will wear you down. I think for some reason, whatever it was, he always seemed to be going up the wrong street.” The celebrated mob mouthpiece Oscar Goodman was interviewed, too. “‘He was one of the best guys I ever met,’ Goodman said before scurrying into his car and fleeing a flock of news crews.” An R-J reporter noted that ownership of the Horseshoe had recently been turned over to Ted’s sister Becky Behnen following “a lengthy and heated legal dispute that severed many of the Binion family ties,” once again corroborating Murphy’s version of things. Ted’s older brother, Jack, was out of town and couldn’t be reached for comment, but Becky Behnen issued a statement: “My brother’s untimely death is just so sad and tragic. Through all of his trials and tribulations, Ted was a caring man, even though as brother and sister we had our sibling differences, as any family will have. But through it all, I loved my brother and I admired his keen intellect, his sense of humor, and the many little things that he would do to help a lot of friends without anyone’s knowledge.” She concluded: “After I bought the Horseshoe, Ted really looked like he was finally ready to accept some dramatic changes in his life, and so this sudden loss really has an even greater impact on our family.”
Neighbors and friends were besieged for reactions. One appeared on the front page of the next morning’s R-J, along with a photo of a dark-haired, muscular young man standing in Ted’s driveway. “‘I never had any bad dealings with the man—what a tragedy,’ said a shaken Rick Tabish, who was a friend of Binion’s. ‘I know he was trying really hard to change his life.’”
To Christ the King Roman Catholic Church for the funeral. Seven hundred people showed up for the service, led by the Reverend Bill Kenny, who had known Ted since they were boys. One reporter described the crowd of mourners as “an odd mixture” of “high-stakes gamblers, politicians, civic leaders, wise guys, casino executives and ranch hands, even a topless dancer or two.”
Jim Morrison’s apocalyptic, Seconal-laced requiem “The End” opened the ceremony, unlikely music for a Catholic service only if you didn’t know Ted. It had been a close call, but Bonnie Binion had selected it that morning after sifting through CDs and albums by Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones, Neil Young, Prince, and Pearl Jam, her dad’s other favorites. Morrison, of course, was notorious for abusing alcohol, audiences, women, and barbiturates, and for having OD’d in the bathtub of a Left Bank apartment at the age of twenty-seven.
This is the end, my only friend, the end …
By the time Francis Ford Coppola employed it in 1979 as the soundtrack to the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo, Col. Kurtz, and the rest of his renegade enclave in the last scene of Apocalypse Now, the song had become the anthem not only of nihilistic, suicidal funks but of the bloody-minded depravity of the war in Vietnam and all that was wrong with Amerika. Bone-deep machete slashes crosscut with napalm and war paint: The End. A lit major and UCLA graduate before joining the Doors, Morrison in death had morphed somehow into the hyperseductive voice of Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness. Both Ted and the Lizard King were twenty-four when “The End” was released, and Ted was thirty-six when the movie came out. When he died at fifty-five, the song was a part of his cell structure. Now it was making his outlaw debauchery more glamorous and poetic for his mourners. Whether his brown-haired, bespectacled, fragile-seeming daughter was aware of these associations isn’t clear, but certainly her father would have been. No doubt he loved the song, too, but he must have shuddered in his coffin at how much visceral credence it lent to the notion that he’d killed himself, or let himself go, as surely as Morrison had. Even though Hendrix had OD’d as well, at least his acid-flecked R&B cover of “Hey Joe” would have been closer to how Ted was feeling in spirit. I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ ‘round with another man, and that ain’t too cool. Either that or Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” or something off the Stones’ Let It Bleed …
On top of the casket were Ted’s favorite brown cowboy boots and white hat, along with his spurs and a lariat. (No handcuffs, of course, rhinestone-studded or otherwise. No lighters or tinfoil.) Floral arrangements featured the Binion family’s signature horseshoe fashioned from daisies dyed gold and adorned with a royal flush in clubs. Born in Texas and raised in Nevada and Montana, owner and host of the Horseshoe Casino, Ted was a cowboy and a cardplayer, as well as an old-school rock-and-roll badass and unapologetic enjoyer of dangerous women. His favorite sports were fishing and no-limit Texas hold’em, which during the past twenty-eight years Binion’s World Series of Poker had made the most popular version of the game on the planet.
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill …
Surveying the diverse crowd in the pews before him, Rev. Kenny proclaimed: “This shows that Ted was a most affable person and that he was a friend to so many people of all different backgrounds.” Kenny admitted that his friend had had a wild streak since he was a teenager, and got some hearty laughter while recounting how Ted had once thrown blue ink on a porous cinder-block wall at school and been forced by the priests to clean it off with a toothbrush. Yet for all its ribald frankness, Kenny’s eulogy skipped any mention of Cheetahs, the topless cabaret over on Industrial Road where Ted had met Murphy three and a half years earlier. Some subjects were still out of bounds.
In the front row with Bonnie was her mother, Doris Binion, an ethereal strawberry blonde to whom Ted had been married for twenty-six years. Not far away were his siblings Becky and Jack, who hadn’t spoken to each other in almost two years; nor did they speak at the funeral. After their father, Benny, died in 1989, Ted and Jack ran the Horseshoe together until Becky bought them out in’97, and the brothers weren’t happy about it. Jack now ran a string of casinos in Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi, and Forbes had started listing him as one of the five hundred wealthiest Americans. He’d long been the shrewd financier while his little brother, Ted, played the rake.
Behind the Binion family sat Las Vegas mayor Jan Laverty Jones, who was running for governor, and the man who wanted to succeed her as mayor, Oscar Goodman. Also on hand to pay his respects was the Strip’s supermogul Steve Wynn, a protégé and friend of Ted’s father, and dapper, curly-haired Bobby Baldwin, the former world poker champion who had since become president of Wynn’s new Bellagio resort. Off to their left, cane in hand, sat two-time world champion Doyle Brunson, author of Super/System: A Course in Power Poker. That 1978 bible, passages of which countless players have memorized, is dedicated “to the Binion family for their contribution to Poker.” The 350-pound Brunson soon took his turn at the podium to say, “Ted Binion had the whole package: the personality, the looks, the talent, the guts, and the money. He had some problems, but he was one of a kind.” Other eulogists spoke of Ted’s generosity, intelligence, love of western history, of his gambling spirit and desire to change his life lately.
Rick Tabish was not in attendance. Sandy Murphy and her stepmother, also named Sandy Murphy, arrived about ten minutes after the service began, having spent the previous night at the old Desert Inn. The leggy, dyed-blond former stripper wore a beige Gucci pantsuit and black-on-black Dior sunglasses behind which she audibly wept throughout much of the service. She actually ran sobbing from the church a few minutes before the Mass ended. Oscar Goodman and his partner, David Chesnoff, who now represented her, followed the young woman outside, forming a two-lawyer phalanx to escort her past the photographers.
By the time Ted’s coffin was entombed beside his parents in a crypt at the Eden Vale Mausoleum, Clark County coroner Ron Flud had ruled the cause of death “undetermined,” while Chief Medical Examiner Lary Simms had declared it the result of an accidental overdose. Neither official, however, was willing to rule out suicide. Flud’s toxicology report confirmed lethal levels of Xanax and morphine (a by-product of heroin) in Ted’s bloodstream. During the autopsy, Simms drew forty milliliters of gray-brown fluid from the stomach. Ted’s fear of needles was well known around Vegas. Even the police were aware that he always got high by “chasing the dragon”—dabbing expensive tar heroin onto the shiny side of tinfoil, holding a lighter beneath the dull side, and inhaling the white smoke that curled off it, something like the tail of a dragon. The question became: How had liquefied heroin, mixed with Xanax no less, found its way into his digestive tract?
In spite of the bad blood between them, Becky Behnen persuaded her dead brother’s estate to hire a detective to investigate Murphy and Tabish. Estate lawyers also moved aggressively to bar Murphy from entering Ted’s house or inheriting any of his property. Oscar Goodman soon withdrew as Murphy’s attorney, citing his decision to run for mayor. Represented now by William Knudsen, Murphy told Gaming Control Board agents that members of the Behnen family had made threats against Ted’s life. It was also revealed in probate court that five weeks before Ted died, Murphy had secretly filed a palimony suit demanding $2 million for “services provided” while living with him. Her attorney at the time was Oscar Goodman.
Six months later—on March 5, 1999—as the mayoral campaign heated up, the coroner reclassified Ted’s death as a homicide. On June 8, Goodman defeated nuts-and-bolts city councilman Arnie Adamsen in a 64-36 percent landslide. Less than a week afterward, the new mayor’s last client was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, along with Richard Bennett Tabish. Arrested together in Murphy’s townhouse at 7 a.m., the couple denied they had been lovers before Binion’s death, insisting that even now they were “only good friends.” Murphy was placed under house arrest, Tabish held without bond. Rare coins missing from Ted’s safe turned up in Montana in the possession of Dennis Rebhein, the brother of Tabish’s wife, Mary Jo. Other coins had been bartered to settle the retainers of Chesnoff and Goodman.
During preliminary hearings in August, New York City pathologist Michael Baden testified that Ted Binion didn’t die of a heroin overdose but was, in fact, manually suffocated. The chief forensic expert for the congressional committee that investigated the deaths of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King (and in fifteen thousand other murder cases), Dr. Baden had discovered significant errors in Flud’s toxicology report. Instead of indicating the amount of Xanax in Ted’s blood in milligrams per milliliter, for example, it was listed in nanograms, which is a million times less. Someone had typed “ng” instead of “mg.” Ted therefore seemed to have a therapeutic level of the drug in his bloodstream, an amount easily tolerated by most adults. Examining the autopsy photographs, Baden detected petechial hemorrhages inside the victim’s lower eyelids. Such hemorrhages form when capillaries have ruptured under pressure, suggesting his throat had been violently compressed. Baden also noted significant bruising around the victim’s mouth, as well as small, neat, circular marks that looked like button imprints on the upper chest, and a large bruise on the front of the ribs. Bruises on the wrists were the type most often associated with handcuffs. The defense attorney cross-examining Baden suggested that these bruises could have been caused by a watchband, though the victim was never known to wear more than one watch at a time. Baden pointed out that having practiced forensic pathology for forty years in New York City, he’d seen a lot of handcuff abrasions. That’s what these were.
Baden called this method of suffocation burking, a stealthy and brutal technique named for William Burke (1792-1829), a determined Scots-Irishman who held his victims’ noses while his partner squatted on their chests. Burke had to kill without leaving marks in order to be able to sell the bodies, for ten guineas apiece, to the Royal College of Surgeons. Eventually one of the surgery students recognized a cadaver he was dissecting as his putatively healthy uncle. Found guilty of fifteen murders by a jury of his peers, Burke was hanged in Edinburgh before a passionate throng of witnesses. His body was then donated to the medical school for dissection.
Jury selection in the burking trial of Murphy and Tabish began on March 27, 2000, in the Clark County courtroom of Judge Joseph Bonaventure. Four days later opening statements were presented by prosecutors and defense attorneys just as, one block up Second Avenue in downtown Las Vegas, the thirty-first annual Binion’s World Series of Poker was getting under way at the Horseshoe.
POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET. Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2007 by James McManus. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
|Family, Career, Even Life||35|
|The Poker of Science||107|
|Nobody Said Anything||125|
|Chicks with Decks||149|
|Death in the Afternoon||185|
|On the Bubble||223|
|Song for Two Jims||249|
|The Last Supper||311|
|Zombies is Bawth of 'Em||355|
|Tons and Tons of Luck||369|
Posted November 27, 2014
Posted January 2, 2007
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 28, 2006
This is meant for people outside the world of poker, not poker players. It is far too wordy and full of (insignificant) detail. I would suggest something else if you are looking for further insight into the game itself, and not on physically getting to the game or background information of people somewhat involved in poker. The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King is a much better recount of a substantial poker game in my opinion. I was able to read that several times, whereas I was skipping paragraph after unneccessary paragraph in this book. (Notice David Sklansky's enthralling review)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 12, 2005
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2005
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!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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-insWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 16, 2004
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2004
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!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2004
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 2, 2004
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2004
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?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2003
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2003
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2003
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 20, 2003
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
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 KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2003
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2008
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Posted February 6, 2010
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Posted June 25, 2011
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