In Positively Fifth Street, writer James McManus manages to make the complex, nearly indecipherable world of high stakes poker almost accessible to the average reader. Notice I said almost.
The book covers the 2000 World Series of Poker at Binion’s Golden Horseshoe in Las Vegas -– the same year that Ted Binion, the event’s host and son of its founder, was brutally murdered. McManus went to Vegas that year to cover both the tournament and the murder trial of Binion’s girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, and friend Rick Tabish. The tournament gets more play than the trial, so McManus helpfully spends many passages schooling the reader on no-limit Texas hold’em, the form of poker played in the World Series. However, getting a newbie to understand this complex game is something of a fool’s errand. I sure didn’t get it.
Thankfully, McManus seems to have anticipated this and includes a glossary of poker terms specifically to help card dummies like myself. McManus himself, of course, is no dummy. Hoping for a fresh angle on his story, he entered the World Series and actually made it to the final table, winning nearly a quarter of a million dollars as an amateur player.
This amazing feat is balanced with the history of the event, “research” into the upcoming trial (which includes a hilarious visit to the strip club where Murphy worked) and McManus’s own personal history (admittedly, the weakest stuff in the book). In the process, McManus threatens to eclipse Dennis Miller’s record for pop-culture references. Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, Sylvia Plath, David Sedaris, the movie Rounders (which is set in the world of poker), Apocalypse Now, The Art of War, Casino, and countless others all get shout-outs.
Consequently, Fifth Street is lively, fast-paced and a hell of a lot of fun. I especially like the way that McManus’s status as a player in the tournament (and a pretty good one, at that) allows him to observe things that other reporters at the event might not. For instance, most reporters might comment on the “colorful” way one poker player sprinkles sugar on the table and cards for good luck. But McManus is in a position to inform us that all this really does is make everything sticky.
McManus’s book is enjoyable to read, whether you know a thing about poker or not. If you’re like me, chances are you’ll learn nothing that will help you at the tables. But you’ll be having so much fun that you probably won’t care.