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

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

by James McManus


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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312422523
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/01/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 637,799
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

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.

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

Table of Contents

The End3
Dead Money21
Family, Career, Even Life35
Black Magic69
Urge Overkill87
The Poker of Science107
Nobody Said Anything125
Chicks with Decks149
Death in the Afternoon185
On the Bubble223
Song for Two Jims249
The Last Supper311
Either Way337
Zombies is Bawth of 'Em355
Tons and Tons of Luck369
Poker Terminology389

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Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
cdogzilla on LibraryThing 4 days ago
A decent read if McManus does seem awful full of himself. Heck, making the final table though, I guess I'd think I was heaps smarter and cooler then I am too. Not that McManus doesn't have a way with words, but when you feel the need to namecheck Joyce more than once in a book about poker and a Las Vegas murder trial, you're trying too hard. Overall, I'd rate this just a pip below Alson and Dalla's biography of Stu Ungar.
armyofbobs on LibraryThing 5 days ago
A real fun look into vegas and the main event at the World Series.
mdazey on LibraryThing 9 days ago
This book ocvers the Binon murder trial and the 2000 WSOP. All taking place at the same time. I much preferred the poker over the murder. But the murder stuff was interesting in the fact that the murder occured on my birthday in 1998 and the trial was taking place the last time I was in Vegas....in fact when at the courthouse the media was gathered outside under the tent...so I definately know the scene. It's just that the murder portion of the story wasn't new to me and didn't hold my interest.
ndugan on LibraryThing 9 days ago
If you can sit through hours of ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker without blinking, this is a great book to pick up. It weaves the story of the murder of the son of the former owner and founder of Binion's Casino in Las Vegas with the author's first-hand experience as a participant in the World Series.Switching back and forth between the facts of that case and his own travails at the table, James McManus is able to effectively engage the reader in both, and provide twists and turns throughout.McManus pulls the reader in immediately with a description of the state's attorney's version of the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny and one of the heirs to his father's casino. With engaging dialogue and blunt detail, McManus rehashes a brutal slaying involving a stripper, her newly acquired, easily manipulated, greedy-goon boyfriend, heroin, ropes, handcuffs, and just a dash of sex on the side. And this is only the first chapter.After a whirlwind of events describing Ted Binion's demise, we are pulled back into the quiet world of a middle-aged college professor living in the Chicago suburbs, playing poker simulators on the computer and reading into every poker manual ever published as his children bound into the room and his wife readies dinner after a hectic day for both. Such is a slice of the author's life, and one portrayed with refreshing candor. Here we learn of McManus' intent: To take the advance he was granted for this book and go to Las Vegas to research the events behind the slaying of Ted Binion. While he's there, McManus plans to enter the Holy Grail of poker tournaments -- the one players in weekly home games drool about, dream about, even begin putting money to save the $10,000 required to buy-in. It begins as a lark ("Let's see how far I can go"), but ends up swallowing the author, and his readers, in a complex journey equally as enticing as that of Ted Binion's last days.The transitions between the juxtaposed stories are harsh and blunt, but that is in keeping with McManus' style. The reader at times can be frustrated with ending on a particularly challenging hand of poker for the author or waiting to see the last card, and immediately being thrust back into Ted's World, knowing they must wait through a chapter about Binion before getting back to the shuffle-up-and-deal action. The same can also be said for vice versa: Learning about a key piece of evidence the state has found, then immediately wandering into a satellite tournament with the author, ready to turn $1,000 entry into a $10,000 Golden Ticket for a seat in the Main Event.As the book progresses, McManus' astounding climb in the tournament beings to overshadow the events behind the murder of an heir to "The birthplace of the World Series," as well it should. The author's self-deprecating wit and humility, shown in his true astonishment that he has lastest as long as he has in a tournament filled with pros, helps his connection with the reader. His candor and asides about his own superstitions and driving forces, and those of his competitors, seem to say "anyone can sit here in this seat and get as close as I have to more than $1 million."As McManus edges closer to the final table of the ten players left in a field that started with more than 4,000, the book approaches two separate-but-equal climaxes, and neither disappoints. Filled with nods to other poker playing advice from the pros and their books, it's easy for someone caught up in the poker craze to identify with this author while at the same time learning the true story of a murder they may have even known took place. I pulled this book out of my backpack to give to my brother on the three-hour flight to Las Vegas; he was so engrossed by the time the wheels touched down, he had to read more chapters when we got back to the hotel each night. He was still finishing it on the flight back.Definitely recommended reading. You might learn a thing or two, as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Last review was in 2008!!! Its been six years!!! Lol
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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)
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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?
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
harstan More than 1 year ago
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