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September 12, 2003

Review of James McManus's Positively Fifth Street

by Staff

The scenario might have come straight from the daydreams of any aspiring author/poker player: writer receives an assignment from Harper’s Magazine to write about female players at the World Series of Poker, uses the advance to win a seat at the Championship Event, then makes the final table for a six-figure payday.

Then, like catching the runner-runner for the nuts, the resulting publicity turns what would have probably been a short article into a featured cover story, which leads to a contract for probably the most high-profile poker book in history. All in all, it’s been a pretty good rush for writer James McManus.

The article, “Fortune’s Smile: Betting Big at the World Series of Poker” (Harper’s December 2000) was a gripping, surprisingly detailed account of McManus’s trip to the final table, one of the finest stories about the game ever written. Unfortunately, in the journey from the article to "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker," the story loses much of its spark and intensity, and doesn’t match up to the classic books by Anthony Holden and Al Avarez that inspired it.

Part of the problem is that there simply isn’t enough poker in this poker book. McManus wins the first one-table satellite he enters, but the $1015 entry fee and a deal that has him paying the second- and third-place finishers $1700 each almost completely wipes out his $4000 advance and seemingly all of his own money, leaving him counting his pennies for the four days until the Championship. And while his wife’s anti-gambling stance creates some amusing moments, as a reader I was wishing that McManus were a bachelor who could hit the ATM and get in some ring games.

This cash crunch means that the book contains scarcely more poker than the original article. Filling time and chapters until the Championship are sections on the science and history of the game, great poker books, a trip to a strip club, Benny Binion and the World Series and, running through the book, the tabloid-worthy tale of the murder of Ted Binion. For the most part, the stories are familiar to anyone with a few poker books on the shelf — yes, Benny’s sheriff still loses, Nick the Greek still has that Jack in the hole, and Amarillo Slim only said he’d slit his throat if a certain woman won — making these pages seem like little more than occasionally interesting filler.

His reporting on his fellow players often leaves a lot to be desired as well. McManus was on assignment to report on the presence of women at the World Series, and we do get profiles on Annie Duke, Jennifer Harmon, and others. Unfortunately, when it comes to some of the bigger male players, his insight is often limited to those he manages to find himself playing against, or else he quotes passages from some of the better-known poker books. Of course, those readers already familiar with the literature might find this reliance on prior works somewhat disappointing.

Still, the book is probably worth it for its chapters on McManus’s rise through the 2000 Championship, eventually won by Chris Ferguson. It’s a terrific, fast-paced report on one non-pro’s unlikely journey to the final table, written by a journalist trained in writing a good story (Anthony Holden finished far out of the money in his classic “Big Deal”). He makes some good plays and a few others that make you want to reach into the book and smack him around a bit (I don’t care how many wonderful things happened to McManus in `89 or `98, it ain’t a great idea to call a big raise with 8-9 suited with 46 players left in an event that pays 45).

All in all, “Positively Fifth Street” is probably the ultimate account of an average player’s hot streak, though with a bit too much generic filler to go along with its excellent first-hand poker content. While the lay reader might enjoy the balanced approach, the poker buff will probably wish that McManus spent a little less time around the courtrooms and strip clubs and a little more at the tables.

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