Review

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

by James McManus

I
have a litmus test for a truly great book. If a book --- fiction,
non-fiction, whatever --- deals with a topic that I have absolutely
no interest in and I am, notwithstanding my lack of interest in
said topic, unable to put it down, THAT is a great book. Ergo,
POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET is a GREAT book.

I have absolutely no interest in poker. I actually have no interest
in card games, period, not even the ones played with pornographic
decks. Even in college, where hands of blackjack and euchre were
played between classes as naturally as those same classes were
skipped, I never found myself raising and folding and calling and
all of that good stuff. Dad played poker and Mom played bridge, but
Joey played neither/nor. So why for the past few days have I been
carrying around a book entitled POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET that
discusses, among many, many other things, Binion's World Series of
Poker? I didn't even know there was a World Series of Poker, or
that it had the largest individual cash purse of any sporting
event, or a lot of other things, until I read this gem.

The genesis of POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET occurred when the author,
James McManus, was assigned by a magazine to cover the World Series
of Poker and the murder of its host, a Las Vegas personality named
Ted Binion. POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET begins with a graphic
description of Binion's murder by his ex-stripper girlfriend and
his best friend, who happens to be the stripper's boyfriend. As the
book progresses we learn the back story of the principals involved
in the murder and in the tournament and about Las Vegas. We also
learn, on a parallel track, about how the lure of the tables proved
too much for McManus to resist and how he risked his entire writing
advance to play in the poker tournament himself. His initial excuse
was that he could effectively write his article only by actually
experiencing play at the table. It is McManus's step-by-step
account of his transformation from a student of the game to finding
himself seated at the final table that is the heart of the
book.

This, in and of itself, would be interesting enough. McManus gives
an excellent account to the untutored as to what is involved in the
game of poker, both in the basics and the advanced strategies, but
the book really only begins there. McManus writes with a looseness
of association that is at first a bit disconcerting but ultimately
reveals its purpose.

POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET delves into such topics as the history of
the card deck --- it's fascinating, even if you haven't looked at a
deck of cards in years --- and the appeal of what are politely
known as "gentlemen's showbars." There are good, strong biological
imperatives that these establishments appeal to and there are
equally good, strong sociological reasons why they should be
avoided. While not everyone who falls in love with a stripper meets
the same fate as Ted Binion, there is more than one way and degree
to ruin your life. What happens in Las Vegas may stay there, as the
commercial goes, but that doesn't mean it won't have repercussions
back home.

POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic view of a
city, a pastime and ultimately a way of life that entrances without
seducing. While you can read it without feeling the urge to jump on
a Nevada-bound plane, you'll never look at a deck of playing cards
the same way again.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker
by James McManus

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2004
  • Genres: Current Events, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 436 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312422520
  • ISBN-13: 9780312422523