James McManus takes on poker and Las Vegas

April 20, 2003|By Stephen R. Proctor | Stephen R. Proctor,Sun Staff

Positively Fifth Street,

by James McManus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $26.

Positively Fifth Street explores those two most American of pastimes -- poker and murder.

It is the story of Texas no-limit hold 'em -- the ultimate high-stakes card game -- and the sharpies who flock to Las Vegas every spring for a showdown in the World Series of Poker.

And it is the story of the grisly murder of Ted Binion -- a heroin addict and roustabout whose father founded the World Series and who dies, in classic Vegas style, at the hands of a stripper and her boyfriend.

James McManus, a novelist and literature professor hired by Harper's Magazine to cover these twin stories, is ideally suited to the job. He's a cross between Doc Holliday and George Plimpton.

Like Holliday, he is intellectually refined and appropriately debauched -- equally comfortable exploring the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas and explaining how brain chemistry produces both the poetic genius of Sylvia Plath and the artistry of a great poker player.

Like Plimpton, who made his fame as a sportswriter by actually suiting up and getting into games, McManus decides his story is best told from the vantage point of the card table. This decision takes over the book -- and makes it.

McManus begins his story by reconstructing the unspeakable murder of Ted Binion. He dies shackled in the rhinestone-studded handcuffs he used for sex games, with his girlfriend the stripper squatting on his chest and her new beau squeezing a turkey baster full of heroin and Xanax down his throat.

Starting that way sets readers up for a narrative about Vegas' version of the O.J. Simpson trial, in which stripper Sandy Murphy and lover Rick Tabish face murder charges just as the 2000 World Series of Poker gets under way at the Binion family's Horseshoe Casino.

But the book changes dramatically as soon as McManus, a formidable poker player with steely nerves, decides to risk his $4,000 advance from Harper's in hopes of playing his way into the World Series and taking down its $1.5 million prize.

He pulls off the astonishing feat of winning his way into the tournament -- which otherwise requires a $10,000 entry fee -- and staring down more than 500 of the world's best poker players to get into the final game of the championship.

Along the way, McManus treats readers to the stomach-knotting suspense and psychological intimidation of no-limit hold' em, in which hundreds of thousands can be at stake in a single hand.

Ever the intellectual, McManus also gives readers an education in the literature, history and science of poker, everything from the great books it has inspired to the way it is used to study game theory at Stanford University.

The downside of McManus' focus on his experiences in the poker tournament is that he loses track of the Binion murder story. It becomes, more or less, a scene-setter and a coda. (They were convicted.) That may be just as well, because McManus may be a terrific storyteller and poker player but he's a lousy reporter. His few attempts to dig deeper into Ted Binion's story can be charitably described as lame.

Given the dramatic power of his tale of the poker table, this is an easy sin to forgive. And besides, it seems fitting to have murder, sex and drugs as the backdrop to a story about Las Vegas.

Stephen R. Proctor, The Sun's deputy managing editor for features and sports, has been a student of gamblers for more than two decades, as a horse race handicapper and habitue of race tracks. Those who play poker with him are likely to win.

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