Positively Fifth Street

Harper’s magazine sent writer James McManus to Las Vegas in the spring of 2000 to write an article on the World Series of Poker. What he returned with was a first hand account from the championship table that became the nonfiction novel Positively Fifth Street. Willing to bet his entire Harper’s advance on a seat, McManus plays the everyman host through the high stakes world that is gambling in Sin City, conveying its adrenaline, incredible pace, weariness, and volatility. A gifted writer and excellent poker player, he relates the experience of the tables, the eccentricities of the players, and the intricacies of the strategies like few others can in a manner that will fascinate players and civilians alike.

The author also expertly weaves the grisly murder of Ted Binion (owner of Binion’s Horseshoe, then the site of the World Series) and subsequent trial of his stripper-girlfriend into the poker narrative. Binion’s seedy lifestyle and murder, involving disturbing sexual acts, violence, and illicit drugs, suffice for a substantial novel alone. Though seemingly unrelated, the two stories neatly underscore each other, providing the reader with a vivid vision of the deception, mystery, scandal, and addiction implicit in the Vegas casino life.

McManus isn’t content to simply relate the events to his reader – he pushes further to an analysis of America’s card game. His deft mind references the history of poker as a hand is being dealt, recalls a foundational strategy book while he bets, or considers the psychology of the poker mind as he walks the rooms. Positively Fifth Street is a penetrating guide through a sullied world and, moreover, a studied and impassioned insight into a complex game at its most intense.

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