Sunday, May 6, 2012

Positively 5th Street

    I grew up in a gaming family, cards and dice mostly, though board games and charades weren't unheard of and chess came early, as well. Still, the shake, rattle, and roll of dice, the snap, crackle, pop of the cards; these were the sounds that brought me to the gaming table the quickest. Hearts and Spades especially were my specialty.
    I came late to poker and, as a result, have never excelled in it the way I do in other games of chance and skill. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy poker, simply that I have a lot to learn. Everything I have learned, of the game, its players, and its history have only made me love poker more.
    James McManus learned poker early and learned to love it just as quickly. So, when he was commissioned by Harper's magazine to go to Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker tournament in 2000, he readily and happily agreed. Not only that, but he was also to write about the ongoing trial of Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish, accused of murdering Vegas casino executive Ted Binion. 
    What follows is McManus caught up in the story as well as the game, not content to sit the sidelines or report from a safe distance, he finds himself turning down (reluctantly) lap dances in the club where Murphy worked as well as gambling in the WSOP tournament that he was sent to Vegas to cover. What this means is that, as readers, we're right where the action is and get a front row seat to all the sorrow and seediness and hope of salvation that Vegas and its clubs and casinos promise.
    McManus' is a hell of a ride, though I was glad that he was the one taking it. I get the sense that I would enjoy sitting at the same table, but that being his wife or kid might be more of a mixed bag. He is certainly a man as driven by his impulses as he is his commitments and it can be both as sad a thing to witness as it is hilarious, like if Hunter Thompson were a little more of a family man. And (SOILER ALERT!), in the end, he goes back for that lap dance. As a story of poker as profession and obsession, this is a defining work, set alongside of such classics as A. Alvarez's The Biggest Game In Town. As a picture of the glories and pitfalls of professional poker and excesses of the Vegas strip, it is as much cautionary tale and confession as anything. Still, for a full picture of the ups and downs of Vegas, you can't do much better James McManus' Positively 5th Street.

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