Positively Fifth Street

By James McManus

Contributors to Harper’s magazine are on a roll. Jonathan Franzen went on to fame and fortune with The Corrections after writing an essay for Harper’s asking why there weren’t more novels like The Corrections being written. In non-fiction Barbara Ehrenreich’s eye-opening investigation into working-class life in America, Nickel and Dimed, and Edward Schlosser’s bestseller industry expose Fast Food Nation both grew out of stories first appearing in Harper’s. And now we have Positively Fifth Street.

In 2000 James McManus was sent by Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham to cover Binion’s World Series of Poker, an annual event held in Las Vegas. Though a tournament rookie, he came to the table with some credentials as a lifelong recreational poker player and an academic teaching a course on the literature of the game.

McManus places his reportage within a tradition of Las Vegas and poker journalism, but distances himself from the “gonzo” school of Hunter S. Thompson, who stayed in the same hotel as McManus while ostensibly covering a motorcycle race in 1971 (the result would become Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). What Thompson wound up writing had “zero to do with the race.” “Whatever the opposite of gonzo is,” McManus declares as he sets out, “that will be me.”

Not quite. Thompson began the trend of “me-journalism”: reporters as media personalities more interested in writing a colorful memoir than covering a story. McManus’s point in going to Las Vegas was two-fold: to report on the rise of women poker players at the World Series and cover the high-profile trial of a glamorous couple accused of killing Ted Binion (of the Binion’s World Series clan). As things turn out, he has little real interest in either. Instead he takes his advance from Harper’s and enters the tournament himself, making it all the way to the final table.

Poker fans (if you know what “fifth street” is you qualify) will love this book. Others may be mystified by a game – the brand of poker being played is known as Texas No-Limit Hold’em – that consists of nothing but betting. For McManus, however, poker is something more.

According to the tenets of game theory man is best understood as homo ludens: a player of games. And so playing poker is more than just betting on a hand of cards. It is a primordial ritual that takes in all the extremes of human experience. It is survival of the fittest, a “distilled competition, a less deadly version of combat.” It is sexy and violent (here McManus ties the tournament in with the murder trial, which features some kinky sex): “High risk sexual behavior springs from the same psychic and sociobiological crannies that can generate poker success: intelligence, stop-at-nothing aggression, hunger for money and status, a willingness to take outsize chances.” The game even borrows sexual jargon.

And there’s more. Poker is capitalism. “What better metaphor for democratic free-market risk?” McManus asks. “In no sense is poker a socialist or totalitarian enterprise.” Poker is magic, a “black art” involving a keen appreciation of fortune and metaphysics. Poker is geopolitics. “Each poker session is a miniature global economy laid out on a baize oval table.” Poker is democracy, America’s true national game, “in which freely willed decisions prevail over class, race, or fate.”

Yes, taken all in all, poker is “the game closest to the Western conception of life.”

Be that as it may, Positively Fifth Street works best as the classic tale of an average family guy who gets a chance to live his dream and be a contender. McManus has an edgy, vernacular style (a glossary of poker slang is provided) that lets the reader share the suspense and wild adrenaline swings that accompany the turn of every card. It is a story of tested methods and inspired madness, calculation and sleazy thrills. That may not be “life”, but it is a lot of fun.

Review first published August 30, 2003.

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