Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker
by James McManus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
March 2003, 385 pages, $26.00 (US)
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Do You Have The Nuts?
“If you look around the table and don’t see the sucker, the sucker is you.”
In newspapers, on bookstore shelves, and hitting the television airwaves, gambling is making headlines. Topping editorial pages in the US, pundits have kvetched about the delicious irony and latent hypocrisy inherent in a self-righteous expounder of the virtues having a multi-million dollar gambling habit (former US Drug Czar Bill Bennett), no less than three recent books about poker have been released, and US cable channel FX has rolled out a new series about a gambler who goes bust after winning the World Series of Poker (Lucky).
Without a doubt, gambling is a hot topic. Poker Nation and Positively Fifth Street are two books that offer first-person accounts of the allure of the activity, and both are replete with humorous anecdotes about the colorful personalities who inhabit the shadowy world of the professional gambler. Both concern themselves with the game of poker, and one version in particular: Texas Hold ‘em. If you’ve seen the movie Rounders, you’re familiar with the setup for Hold ‘em. If you haven’t, just read Bellin’s book; the movie is weak.
In Poker Nation, Bellin serves up a mixed tableau of poker lore, personal adventures, and practical advice on the game. Words like “rollicking” and “breezy” come to mind to describe his romp through cards, cars, women, and mind-altering substances, but the book also serves as a primer to aspiring gamblers on the one equation that truly matters: what you need to know to win money. Or at least put the odds in your favor.
Seen through the lens of Bellin’s pursuit of the next game and his active avoidance of a nine-to-five job, the life of the contemporary gambler appears at times euphoric, desperate, and depraved, but seldom dull. From the horror stories he relates, what comes across loud and clear is the harsh reality of living life according to luck. Virtually every professional has gone bust not once but several times. Just imagine the kind of constitution a person must have to live with that ever-present possibility day after day, week after week. It isn’t pretty, and neither are many of the supporting characters that populate Bellin’s story.
Poker Nation‘s strength lies in the stories Bellin’s accumulated over the years, both his own and others, as well as in offering what appears to be a sound introduction to the game. From the get go, he introduces the terminology that form the patois of the gambler, including “having the nuts,” “the flop,” “the river,” “outs,” and “pot odds” in a clear and accessible manner. For instance, “having the nuts” is having that combination of cards both in your hand and on the table that cannot be beaten by anyone else—his description of the euphoria that accompanies such a realization is a riot. And even with its darker digressions, Poker Nation remains a light, fluffy confection fit for leisurely summer days.
If you are not a poker aficionado or fan of Harper’s magazine, James McManus’ astonishing virginal performance at the World Series of Poker (“WSOP”) may have escaped your attention. Held for the past 30 plus years at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the WSOP is the creme de la crème tournament on the poker circuit—in large part due to the size of the winner’s pot: a cool million (or even more, depending on the number of players). In the spring of 2000, Harper’s commissioned McManus to write a story about the WSOP and about the recent murder of a Binion family member. When he arrived in Vegas, McManus decided to take the bull by the horns and risk his $4,000 advance for the chance to play against the world’s best himself.
McManus succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, surviving as a field of hundreds was winnowed to a final table of eight. He walked away with $240,000 and a hell of a story. Positively Fifth Street is his unabridged account of the experience, and with the qualms and caveats described below, I think it’s a tremendous book.
McManus teaches writing and poetry at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but no idle navel gazer is he: one of his course offerings is a class on the literature and science of poker. In a sense, Positively Fifth Street serves as a crossroads for McManus, one where his academic ruminations on human nature collide with the gut-wrenching, adrenaline-pumping reality of risking thousands of dollars on the turn of a card.
A word of warning to the reader: do not expect a book solely about poker. Portions of the tale read like a “Court TV” transcript, and this isn’t intended as a compliment. The opening hook especially is in equal parts crude, lewd, and rude, while the “Cheetahs” of the subtitle references a strip club where one of the two prime suspects for the murder used to work. For whatever reason, strip clubs and drug-addled, sadomasochistic sex seem to go together like rain and umbrellas. When you have one, don’t be surprised to find the other.
Why the “Court TV” episode is in this book at all, much less given prominence of place, isn’t clear. Near the end of the tale, McManus does make an effort to connect the various strands, but his account of the tournament is more than enough to keep pages turning, and constitutes the most engaging and entertaining sections of the book.
Throughout the story, McManus is given to wax on about nigh unto every topic that flits through his head. Nary a hotel bar of soap goes unscathed in his commentary, and his tangents veer from entertaining to ponderous, with enough references to poetry to make one feel like he simply cut and pasted chunks of academic articles into various chapters. What sort of book on poker and/or a murder trial includes passages like:
Absent her famous last journal . . . Alvarez sharply illuminates one of the abiding enigmas—and battlegrounds—of 20th century poetry. Whose “fault” was [Sylvia] Plath’s suicide? 78
Now, it’s true that the “Alvarez” in question is a poet famed in poker circles for his own seminal story on the sport, “The Biggest Game in Town,” but still. The lack of restraint in describing the minutiae of the moment as it rolls on by grows stale quick when the laundry list reads like this: picked up towels, walked over to the bed, put towels on bed, sat next to towels on bed. At 385 pages, some pruning is in order.
As the poker playing takes center stage, the story heats up. McManus’ self-effacing humor and wit provide many laugh-out-loud moments, especially as delivered against a pressure backdrop few human beings will ever experience: playing poker for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Incredibly, at one point in the tournament McManus was up $800,000. When one recalls that he started with $4,000, what’s not to love about this game?
Positively a story worth reading about.