Positively Fifth Street by James McManus
Reviewed by Jason Kirk  

When it comes to telling a good story, there's nothing quite like a good murder mystery. If you add drugs, gambling, and a family struggle to the picture things only get more interesting. And what if you decided to throw in a pinch of the biggest poker tournament in the world for good measure? These are the ingredients of James McManus' bestselling book Positively Fifth Street, an eloquent, informed, no-nonsense look at both the death of Ted Binion - son of Benny Binion and longtime host of the World Series of Poker - and McManus' own unexpected run through the WSOP Main Event.

In the spring of 2000 Harper's magazine hired James McManus, professor of writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to cover two major events in Las Vegas. The first of these was the soon-to-be-held Main Event of the World Series of Poker, with special attention given to the rise of women poker players in the world's largest tournament. The second was the trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, who stood accused of the brutal murder of Ted Binion. Like any good writer, McManus immediately went to work creating the most unlikely story of all: he put up over a quarter of his $4,000 advance from Harper's and won his seat in the main event through a single-table satellite at the Horseshoe. Once he was in, McManus' main task was balancing his own chance at poker history with the larger story of Ted Binion's murder. A writer of lesser caliber might have found this difficult, but McManus breezes through this assignment with admirable aplomb.

Throughout Positively Fifth Street's poker-centric chapters, McManus never paints an overly-glorified picture of himself. Nor does he make anyone of his opponents out to be less than what they are. Instead, he lets the facts do the talking. He discusses the intimidation factor of sitting down across from T.J. Cloutier, from whom much of McManus' knowledge of championship tournament play was drawn. He talks about how the feeling of preparedness that comes from hundreds of hours of computer simulations is balanced out by the inexperience that comes from never having sat across the table from players who have seen it all. But best of all, he describes in intimate detail locking horns with the best in the poker world and managing to come out on top. Reading the chapters that focus on the WSOP isn't quit as good as actually being there, but it comes close. When put these well-written passages against the well-sketched backdrop of the rich history of high-stakes poker in Las Vegas, you have the makings of a real page-turner.

The other sections of the book - the ones dedicated to the murder trial and all the circumstances surrounding it - are as eminently readable as the poker writing. A writer couldn't ask for a more compelling cast of characters than these. The drug-addicted, bad-luck son of Las Vegas' most famous entrepreneur, the money-grubbing stripper who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted, and her small-minded crook lover jealous of the fame and power held by another man - these people may as well have come straight out of Shakespeare for all the tragedy just waiting to happen to them. McManus does an admirable job of managing to avoid passing judgment in the characters and simply allowing their own words and actions to do the talking. Another hidden treat is that while delving into the details of the murder trial itself, McManus paints a rich picture of the history of the Binion clan and how they influenced the city that Las Vegas became. For anyone who can't get enough of all things Sin City, this book should be enough to satisfy such an appetite for at least a short while.

There are few books in the canon of poker literature that shine as brightly as Positively Fifth Street. At once it serves as a primer on the history of high-stakes poker, an overview of the rest of poker's literary works, a look into the family that created the WSOP, and a glimpse into the darker side of America's newest favorite tourist destination. When all these themes are combined with McManus' unlikely progression through the 2000 WSOP Main Event, you've got the makings of a book that most anyone who loves poker will find hard to put down.

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