(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Largely a hand-by-hand account of the final four days of the 2000 annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), Positively Fifth Street arrives in a moment of resurgent interest in Las Vegas as both a brightly lit tourist mecca and shadowy home to seedy strip clubs and dangerous high-stakes gambling. Author James McManus combines the moment-to-moment excitement of the poker tournament with true crime, covering the murder of Ted Binion, one-time owner of the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino, where the WSOP originated.

Harper’s Magazine sent McManus, a novelist and poet, to Las Vegas in May, 2000, ostensibly to write an article about women participating in the WSOP. The world of professional and high-stakes poker had opened up to women with the legalization of poker in the 1980’s, and women have since won major tournaments, although not the World Series of Poker to date. McManus notes the increasing diversity of players in major tournaments; since its inception the WSOP has welcomed competitors from every imaginable background and ethnicity, ballooning from seven players in 1970 to more than four hundred in 2000. In fact, in 2000 five thousand total players competed in several events.

McManus also planned to examine the effect on professional poker of two new developments in how players learn the game: computer games that simulate champion-level play and how-to manuals that reveal the strategies of high-stakes players. Although McManus had been playing poker for forty years and had participated in a few high-stakes games, he spent months preparing for the WSOP by practicing with computer games and studying books written by poker champs including T. J. Cloutier, Tom McEvoy, David Sklansky, and Doyle Brunson. McManus then used his four-thousand-dollar advance from Harper’s to play in satellite games that offered a chance to win a seat in the tournament without putting up the otherwise requisite ten thousand dollars in cash.

A professor at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago with a wife and four children, McManus could not afford to be cavalier with his Harper’s advance and expended no little effort convincing his wife, Jennifer Arra, that playing in the tournament was his wisest course. McManus refers to himself throughout the book as “Good Jim” and “Bad Jim.” Good Jim buys his wife an expensive diamond ring at a Las Vegas boutique; Bad Jim buys a lap dance at a strip club. Good Jim carries a small photo album containing pictures of his wife and children to each game and imagines his youngest daughter praising his more prudent moves at the table; Bad Jim raises his bets when he should fold.

The particular variation of poker played at the WSOP is No-Limit Texas Hold’em, a version of seven-card stud (for the poker-challenged, McManus explains Texas Hold’em—advising one to read slowly—and provides a bibliography, a rundown of hands, and a glossary of poker terms). Each player is dealt two cards facedown; the dealer then places three cards (the “flop”) faceup on the table. Flop cards are communal, and each player considers how his or her facedown cards might combine with the flop and two subsequently dealt cards to make the best poker hand. Players determine how to bet after the flop, then as a fourth card (“fourth street”) and fifth (“fifth street” or “the river”) are dealt faceup. Players may continue raising bets (adding more money to the pot on the assumption that theirs will be the winning hand) or fold (abandoning the hand and losing their money already in the pot).

Although computer games allow players to practice playing a large number of hands in short time, McManus notes that playing against a computer game with the manuals open on his lap is a different experience from playing against human opponents. Even though a solid knowledge of the champions’ statistical and tactical advice is useful in real games, McManus is often overtaken, if not overwhelmed, by the emotions and excitement of tournament play. Nonetheless, he is able to place an exhilarating fifth, winning $250,000 against top players with decades of high-stakes experience.

McManus’s article for Harper’s quickly eschewed coverage of women players and the Binion...

(The entire section is 1738 words.)