Positively Fifth Street by James McManus
Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker
by James McManus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 422 pp. $26.00
“Las Vegas is either the most unreal place in the world or the most real place. I’ve lived here 37 years, and I’ve yet to figure out which it is.”
By the point at which James McManus quotes this intriguing statement by Oscar Goodman, a long-time mob lawyer who is now the mayor of Las Vegas, readers will already have gained a pretty good sense of what Goodman is talking about. The city in the desert seems unreal because it sells glitz, glitter, and fantasy; but in one dimension of life, Las Vegas does not fool around. It gets real with a vengeance in its unashamed, undiluted worship of money.
Most Americans gamble some of the time, but gambling’s reputation is not good. Playing games with dice and cards is generally thought to be foolish and frivolous; gamblers who seem committed to their “action” are increasingly viewed as psychiatric cases. In the world described by McManus, however, neither judgment holds. Most of the high-level gamblers we meet in his pages come across as supremely rational. In some of the book’s memorable passages, especially those involving huge stakes, they attain a kind of nobility: modest and courteous in victory, stoic in defeat. An implicit message of this best-selling book is that you can be a gambler and also a serious person.
Poker, an institution that came into its own on the American frontier, is a game in which you keep score with money. So it seems appropriate that, by money measures, the World Series of Poker (WSOP), the annual contest memorialized by McManus, now appears to be the largest sporting event in the world. Conceived by Benny Binion of the Horseshoe Casino around 1970, it is a “freezeout” tournament, meaning that the winner is the last man standing. (Thus far it has always been a man, although McManus introduces us to several formidable women players now on the circuit.) During the 1990’s, the victor was taking home $1 million, a figure that exceeds anything any winner has earned at Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, the Augusta Masters golf tournament, the Superbowl, or baseball’s World Series. For the 2000 WSOP, the event described in Positively Fifth Street, the winner’s take rose to $1.5 million. This year, it stood at $2.5 million.
Anyone can enter the tournament by putting up $10,000 in cash (no checks, no credit cards). You can also invest smaller amounts to enter Horseshoe satellite tournaments whose high-level finishers will win enough to get them into the WSOP. This is what McManus did in the 2000 contest.
The Las Vegas big leagues are dominated by well-heeled professional players—many of them immensely wealthy Asians—experienced in No-Limit Texas Hold’em, the game they play in the WSOP. McManus, a forty-two-year-old teacher at the School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, a novelist and poet with a wife, three children, and a home-equity loan, would not appear to fit the demographic profile. But he had wangled an assignment from Harper’s to cover the 2000 WSOP while simultaneously reporting on a sensational murder trial, and he decided to invest the magazine’s advance of $4,000 in a satellite tournament leading up to the series. A lifelong poker player, he knew that the odds were against him: of the 512 players who entered the 2000 WSOP, only 45 would fail to lose everything they put up.
McManus is an artful and often dazzling writer—dazzling sometimes to the point of obscurity—and in this book he weaves together five or six related story lines. The most important, inevitably, centers on his own incredible adventures in the tournament. A related theme, which comes and goes, is that of a literary outsider sizing up the professionals and their world. (It turns out that most of the high-level players are educated, have more than a touch of class, and, unsurprisingly, tend to be quite brilliant.) Still another important element is McManus’s running commentary on the broader Las Vegas culture, which includes a certain amount of reporting on lap-dancing joints and other centers of depravity. The “Cheetahs” in the subtitle is one such place, named for wayward husbands, not jungle cats.
Finally, there is the murder trial for which he was sent to Las Vegas in the first place. The victim was Ted Binion, Benny’s son, who had begun his career as a Horseshoe host and for many years looked like the ultimate Las Vegas insider. Ted had fallen apart when his heroin habit ran out of control and he allowed his life to be taken over by his garishly corrupt girlfriend, a former stripper and hooker, and her own thieving boyfriend. In the book’s irresistible first chapter, McManus offers a plausible-seeming account, based on coroners’ reports and trial testimony, of Ted’s gruesome death. Toward the end, he details the high drama of the couple’s conviction in a courtroom a few blocks from the Horseshoe, just a few days after the WSOP has been won by Chris “Jesus” Ferguson.
Along the way, we are treated to a lot of poker history laced with literary-political references. McManus is such an entertaining writer that one wants to believe in his reporting, but it must be said that, in areas where his material is checkable, one finds a fair number of ghastly errors. Thus, after lovingly describing a famous head-to-head poker game in 1949 between the legendary Nick the Greek and the equally legendary Johnny Moss, McManus mentions that the $2 or $3 million won by Moss “would be like winning $100 million today”; in fact, the higher figure would now be worth about $22 million. Elsewhere, McManus takes on Richard Nixon’s poker play during his World War II naval career and gets three things wrong in twelve lines: he claims that Nixon used his wartime winnings to finance his first congressional race against Helen Gahagan Douglas when the race was against Jerry Voorhis and Nixon did not put up any of his own money; and he says the odds against drawing four cards to an ace and getting a royal flush are 650,000 to 1, when the correct figure is 249,899 to 1.
But the book’s primary tale, of McManus’s adventures in competition with the world’s best players, has to be essentially accurate, if only because the hands he describes are a matter of public record. (The WSOP was televised.) In any case, it is a terrific story.
Just as he (and his wife) feared, McManus loses badly in the early hours of the first day’s competition; at the first fifteen-minute break, his $10,000 in chips has shriveled to $2,200. But he manages to hang on, stealing a succession of small pots and winning a larger hand when his queens and jacks are matched against a pair of aces that luckily fails to improve. At the dinner break, his chips are worth $16,450; in the after-dinner action, he wins a big pot; and when the day’s play is finally ended, at 2:09 A.M., he is worth $35,325.
The second day begins with 214 players—298 have been eliminated—and our hero’s chip count puts him in 41st place. This day’s action will proceed until another 169 players have been eliminated, bringing the surviving total down to a final 45—the group in which everyone is guaranteed a minimum payout of $15,000.
McManus and a lot of other characters are determined to make the cut even if it means playing extra-cautiously, but around 4:30 in the afternoon he slides into a huge pot with a Saudi prince whose chip count is twice the size of his own. McManus bets everything he has, the Arab calls, but after the fourth and fifth round of dealing and betting (“Fourth” and “Fifth” Street in the game’s lingo), he has survived again. “Good hand,” says the prince gamely. Thanks to similar good luck in a match-up with a “bony Vietnamese,” McManus ends with $98,000 in chips at the dinner break.
Things turn even better in the post-dinner action. The main event, from McManus’s point of view, is a hand in which his opponent is an agreeable Pakistani named Hasan Habib with whom McManus had earlier become friendly. With all his chips bet on a hand that, as he tells us, he has always played for sentimental reasons alone, he lucks out with two pairs that hold up when Habib cannot improve his four diamonds. At the day’s end, McManus has not only made the cut but has accumulated chips worth $276,000.
On the evidence of the hands described in the book, McManus played fairly well throughout but also enjoyed a terrific run of fortune. At the end of the third day, his total is $450,000, and he is tied for third place. At the end of the fourth day, with only seven players left, he is in second place with $554,000—versus Ferguson’s $2,853,000. All during the fourth and fifth days, the crowd at the Horseshoe is buzzing about the amazing possibility that a reporter sent to cover the event might actually win it.
McManus himself appears not to have believed in this contingency, or at least not fully. He describes himself as suddenly scared, and states that on day five, “I’m playing . . . . with the liver and heart of a Perdue Oven Stuffer.” Then he gets into another matchup with Habib, his friend from Karachi, and his luck vanishes. There is a point at which the author is overwhelmingly likely to win a $970,000 pot, and Hasan is rising from his chair to congratulate him. But then—incredibly, unbearably—Fifth Street goes Hasan’s way. McManus is in shock. Left now with only $105,000, against guys with seven or eight times that amount, he figures to exit the tournament soon, and does.
Artistically, his downfall is the right ending. A literary man like McManus must surely have derived some consolation from this thought—the more so as he was also being consoled by the $247,760 check he received for finishing fifth. (It came, to be sure, with a U.S. Treasury Form W-2G, headed “Certain Gambling Winnings.”) Still more balm has come his way in the instant, well-deserved popularity of this unique and memorable book.