Monday, July 04, 2011

[Books] Book Look: Positively Fifth Street

Book Look: Positively Fifth Street, by Jim McManus: My new official favorite poker book. Jim McManus was a writer and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and serious amateur poker player when he scored a gem of an assignment from Harper's magazine: cover the World Series of Poker along with the sensational murder trial in the death Ted Binion, the now former owner of the casino where the World Series was happening. In addition to his journalistic duties, he uses the side games to parlay his magazine advance into buy in for the big tournament. Participatory journalism.

The core thread of the book is McManus' path through the tournament, but every curious and informative side angle is given treatment. We get some background on the history of poker, especially with its evolution from Texas roadhouses to Vegas glitz. We get brief descriptions of some of the legendary players. We get some bio background on McManus himself. We get a thorough discussion of the b-story: the sordid murder of Ted Binion.

The Binion family plays a key role in turning poker from Wild West anarchy into a glamorous and semi-respectable pastime. It was at their Horseshoe Casino in downtown Vegas where the WSOP experienced its meteoric growth in popularity. In the case of Ted, however, along with his skill at managing gaming risk, politicians, mobsters, and poor-schmuck gamblers, came a predilection for fast drugs and expensive women.

Binion was murdered by his lowlife simian bodyguard and sleazy hooker girlfriend, who were cheating on him and after his millions. The details of both the murder itself (at least as imagined by McManus) and their behavior during and after are borderline comic absurdity. Honestly, if I was to script the most cliche-laden cop show murder I could imagine, it would be what played out in real life among these three.

It sounds like a confused gumbo of topics but they link up serendipitously. McManus, it turns out is a pretty solid family man, but he must react to and try to understand the lurid Binion case, the business of throwing great gobs of money on to the table, and some sordid casino types, which eventually ends up with him getting in trouble with his wife for having a lap dance at one of those sprawling Vegas strip clubs. He is good on the topics of temptation and weakness, both subtle and gross.

Also serendipitous is that this is a document of a certain activity at a kind of peak. This was a point in the short but beautiful run of truly glamorous poker, and of the monstrous popularity of Vegas itself. Over the subsequent few years, random nondescript internet players would swamp every tournament but at the turn of the millennium it was still dominated by colorful big names. And even as late as 2000, Binion's was loaded with old Vegas atmosphere and tradition. By 2004 the WSOP would be sold to casino giant Harrah's and the Horseshoe to another gaming giant. Reading Positively Fifth Street now one can't help but sense that Those Were the Days.

At playing cards McManus does very, very well, perhaps a bit to his own surprise. He makes the final table finishing fifth and winning a boat load of prize money in the process. McManus leans on some low-end playing experience but what is most engaging is that he constantly goes back to poker literature and how-to strategy guides for inspiration. Throughout the tournament he often finds himself heads-up with big name players whose books and advice he's idolized. Best of all is how absolutely normal a player he reveals himself to be, at least in the sense of his moment to moment actions. He accidentally string bets (acts like he's going to call then raises), doesn't quite identify all the possible hands (never mind get the probabilities right), he makes bets when he knows he shouldn't and checks when he knows he should raise. In other words, he plays just like me (and probably you). It's endearing. He is also exceptionally skilled at describing the action -- very exciting stuff.

Should you read Positively Fifth Street? Yep. If you like poker, or are curious about poker, or gambling in general, or Vegas in general, or maybe even as true crime it'll work for you. But what it's really about is the temptation of vice. Ted Binion yielded completely and fatally to vice. McManus is willing to risk pretty much his whole advance to get into the tournament but, at his most libertine, can't go beyond a lap dance. Where do you fall on the spectrum? If you've ever been tempted by the dark side, you will recognize feelings that drive the people in this book.