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Positively Fifth Street

Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

James McManus


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ISBN10: 0312422520
ISBN13: 9780312422523

Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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In the Spring of 2000, Harper's Magazine sent James McManus to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker—in particular, the mushrooming progress of women in the $23 million event, and the murder of Ted Binion, the tournament's prodigal host, purportedly done in by a stripper and her boyfriend with a technique so outré it took a Manhattan pathologist to identify it. Whether a jury would convict the attractive young couple was another story altogether.

But when McManus sets foot in town, the lure of the tables is too strong: he proceeds to risk his entire Harper's advance in a long-shot attempt to play in the tournament himself. Only with actual experience at the table (he tells his skeptical wife) can he capture the hair-raising subtleties of the kind of poker that determines the world champion. The heart of the book is his deliciously suspenseful account of the tournament itself—the players, the hands, and his own unlikely progress in it.

Written in the tradition of The Gambler and The Biggest Game in Town, Positively Fifth Street is a high-stake adventure, and a terrifying but often hilarious account of one man's effort to understand what Edward O. Wilson has called "Pleistocene exigencies"—the eros and logistics of our primary competitive instincts.


Praise for Positively Fifth Street

"Sex, drugs, Sylvia Plath, Amarillo Slim, the history of cards, the psychology of gambling, and most insistently the edgy drama of no-limit Texas hold'em—it's all here in language that nearly burns a hole in the page."—Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate

"James McManus bet big and won. His Positively Fifth Street, an exhilarating chronicle of the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, will go on the shelf with the classic that inspired it, The Biggest Game in Town, A. Alvarez's account of the 1981 event . . . As tension packed as any thriller . . . A great story."—The New York Times Book Review (cover)

"Artfully woven . . . McManus captures the adrenaline-juiced tension of the game, and he also captures the anomalous mix of skill, bravado, gamesmanship, and sheer good fortune that a player needs to succeed; the bantering rivalry and comraderie that engulf the survivors; and the knowledge, as Conrad once put it, that 'it is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck.'"—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Irresistible . . . McManus gives the reader a riveting over-the-shoulder view of the hand-by-hand action . . . His prose is flashy, funny, and unexpectedly erudite, but McManus hardly even needs it—with material this rich, he's holding the writer's equivalent of a royal flush."—Time

"In writing about poker Jim McManus has managed to write about everything, and it's glorious."—David Sedaris, author of Me Talk Pretty One Day

"A long run of luck. It takes guts to write a book like this, to reveal yourself in three dimensions, to stand as hero and fool."—Chicago Tribune

"Beware this book. Jim McManus portrays a Vegas that most of us don't believe ever really existed—seedy and thrilling and deadly—and his poker scenes rank with the most exciting sports writing you'll ever find. I'd never even heard of Texas Hold 'Em when I first read his blow-by-blow account of how he won a quarter million dollars—as an amateur!—in the World Series of Poker. Now, because of him, I'm hooked on the game."—Ira Glass, host of This American Life

"Irresistible . . . A joy to read . . . McManus dances poetlike amid stores of knowledge from every conceivable field and somehow ties them all together."—Gerald Nicosia, Los Angeles Times

"A rich and raunchy memoir, a Las Vegas fable of no-limit action."—Sports Illustrated

"A tension-filled shot of adrenaline . . . gloriously depraved . . . This is a real-life Clark Kent matching wits with poker's superheroes and emerging triumphant."—Newsday

"What makes [McManus's writing] compelling is its empathy . . . Beyond being the most authentic account of the World Series of Poker, Positively Fifth Street is an elegant explanation of why people . . . are drawn to risk."—The Wall Street Journal

"James McManus is the only literary poker-player ever to have made it to the final table in 'the Big One,' and he did so by playing brilliantly. I admire his achievement, envy his skill and discipline, and was completely absorbed by his subtle, detailed, lively account of the longest four days of his life."—A. Alvarez, author of The Biggest Game in Town

"Compelling . . . as close as you can get to a Vegas table without risking your bankroll."—New York magazine

"Although this is not a book by which to learn poker, it contains some of the most profound poker wisdom a player is likely to learn . . . A riveting and humorous emotional roller coaster." —The Washington Post Book World

"Many have tried, myself included, but no writer before Jim McManus has made it to the final table of the 'Big One' at the World Series of Poker. It's the equivalent of NASA sending a poet to the moon—and the resulting book is just as enthralling."—Anthony Holden, author of Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player

"I was present during the events McManus describes in glorious detail. At the time, I didn't know how a man with McManus's relatively limited tournament experience could perform at such a high level. Seeing the courage he displays in Positively Fifth Street by baring ALL elements of his experience, including the negative ones, I know now that it wasn't just luck and good play that got him to the final table. James McManus has nerves of steel (or iron balls, as you prefer), and you will find yourself unable to put down [this] compelling true tale."—Andrew N. S. Glazer, Detroit Free Press

"Chasing after the great big epic of the USA, McManus finds at the poker table a reflection of just about everything that matters: love, money, violence, resentment, envy, fear. Positively Fifth Street is a love story, really, and just the far side of gonzo, too, with the tranquillized reporter following his dream right into the story-like the kid at the Natural History Museum who crawled inside the diorama."—Rich Cohen, author of Lake Effect

"A straight flush . . . The drama of high-stakes poker is inherently compelling—here is a rare opportunity to read an account by someone who can really write."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Positively Fifth Street by James McManus--Audio Excerpt

Listen to this audiobook excerpt and hear James McManus read from his book Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker. James McManus was sent to Las Vegas by Harper's to cover the World Series of Poker in 2000, especially the mushrooming progress of women in the 23-million dollar event, and the murder of Ted Binion, the tournament's prodigal host, purportedly done in by a stripper and her boyfriend with a technique so outré it took a Manhattan pathologist to identify it.

About the author

James McManus

James McManus is a novelist and poet, most recently winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for sports journalism. He teaches writing and comparative literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including a course on the literature and science of poker.

Copyright Aynsley Floyd

James McManus

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