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James McManus: Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, And Binion's World Series Of Poker


Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, And Binion's World Series Of Poker

Author: James McManus
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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Referring to himself as "the opposite of gonzo" in Positively Fifth Street–a sprawling and frequently dazzling account of luck, greed, murder, and sleaze in Sin City–author James McManus notes that his hotel room was two floors above the den of excess where Hunter S. Thompson penned Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. In essence, both men achieved notoriety by blowing their assignments and flagrantly abusing their expense accounts: Rolling Stone hired Thompson for 250 words on the '71 Mint 400 motorcycle race and got a sprawling, hallucinogenic drug odyssey instead. For his part, McManus took a $4,000 advance from Harper's to cover the 2000 World Series Of Poker (specifically, the influx of female competitors in the event) and gambled his way into a seat in the tournament himself. Ostensibly, McManus wanted to get closer to the felt than the other journalists peering over the rails, but the opportunity to test his mettle against world-class rounders for a $5.1 million pot trumped any flimsy pretense to good reportage. Had he been bounced from the competition early on, Positively Fifth Street would have been a different book, and almost certainly a less compelling one, since McManus sweats heavily over the connections between the WSOP and the bizarre S&M murder of its founder's wayward son. But as McManus' improbable run takes him into the "Fabulous 45" and beyond, his adventures give the book a powerful through-line that props up his loping digressions into poker strategy, literary allusions, historical footnotes, and a crime so unremittingly sordid that no other city could sponsor it. Like any novelist worth his salt, McManus starts with the crime: Ten Binion, the hard-living heir to Binion's Horseshoe (the last family-owned casino on the Strip), was the apparent victim of a drug overdose. But it was later determined that his stripper wife Sandy Murphy and her strapping new boyfriend Rick Tabish had attempted a kinkier route to his fortune, handcuffing him to the bed and force-feeding him a toxic ball of tar heroin and Xanax, which kept him alive just long enough to watch them have sex. While Murphy and Tabish milk the last of their 15 minutes for the Court TV camera, McManus rides his superstition and savvy to the WSOP's final table in no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, a high-stakes game that can whittle nerves of steel to the nub. For poker neophytes, the game's nuances and slangy terminology can seem like a foreign language, even though the author, to his credit, does provide a quick primer and a glossary for easy reference. But McManus' fevered descriptions of the big hands have the quality of great sports writing, going beyond mere play-by-play and into the flytrap heads of the masters, who calculate their odds against other players' patterns and tics, not to mention their own instinctive ties to Lady Luck. In the end, Positively Fifth Street is about the unwritten laws of gambling: If there's a single lesson to be learned from McManus' run and Binion's murder, it's that the gods clearly favor humility over hubris, and "river rats" like Murphy and Tabish will eventually lose to the house.