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Positively Fifth Street

Positively Fifth Street

In Annie Duke’s autobiography, she explains that the image of the professional poker player as a shifty, not-to-be-trusted, back-room roustabout is an inaccurate one, or at least very out of date. The modern poker player is, more or less, a nerd. Which she doesn’t say as a put down. She is herself a nerd, previously on the fast track for a PhD in Cognitive Psychology before giving up her academic career for card playing.

It’s easy to see why nerds would do well at the game: Calculating pot odds, knowing percentages of what hands will beat what, recalling all hands played and remembering betting patterns and, hell, just looking at a mound of chips and figuring out what it adds up to. Playing cards professionally takes mental agility and stamina.

Author James McManus is a nerd, although he’s not into math, computers or numbers. Instead, Jim is a literature and poetry nerd. Poetry pops up a lot in Positively Fifth Street, whether it’s quoting Jim Morrison lyrics or going off on a Sylvia Plath tangent, even though the book is primarily a true crime account and a personal memoir. The true crime: Lovers Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish’s gruesome murder of Sandy’s husband, Ted Binion, heir to the Horshoe Casino fortune. The personal memoir: Jim’s entry into the 2000 World Series of Poker — held at Binion’s Horshoe Casino.

There is a lot of poetry in poker, even though it may not be instantly recognizable on the surface. In addition to being able to run all the numbers in any given hand, professional players must be good at psychological profiling and understanding the emotional dynamic of a table. Good poker players understand the cards, i.e. the percentages and whatnot given per hand. But a great poker player knows how to play his opponents. A pro understands basic fundamentals of human behavior, but is also able to “read” individuals, knowing what specific people will do in specific situations.

Poker is a highly charged, emotional game with tremendous highs — and incredible rushes of adrenaline — when you are winning, and devastating lows when you are losing. And while I’m still relatively new to poker, from the few books I’ve read and the playing I watch on TV, the players briefly acknowledge the psychological aspect to the game most of the analysis is all about the cards and the numbers.

But Jim the poet really lets us inside his head and his heart during his run all the way up to the final table at the 2000 World Series. One strange aspect of play that Jim describes is how he is unable to control himself from betting. This isn’t from a minor bout of compulsive gambling, but as Jim puts it in this brief passage:

[Jim says,] “My right hand keeps grabbing the chips and tossing them into the –”

“Almost as though …” Chris [“Jesus” Ferguson] puts in, suddenly spooky-voiced, strobing his bony fingers toward my face in psychedelic fashion, “you’ve been hyp-no-tized…”

“Y-e-e-e-s…”

It’s the lure of understanding the table on a level that goes beyond the visible. A player who makes aggressive moves in a hand is said to have “heart.” So who better than to describe what’s going on in a player’s “heart” than a poet? James McManus, the nonfiction writer, learns a lot about how to play different hands in different tournament situations from T.J. Cloutier‘s analytical Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em. But he really seems to succeed at the World Series after he learns to listen to his poet’s heart.

Positively Fifth Street may not be a book about how to play better poker, but it is one of the definitive treatises on the game. There are several different threads running through the book: The sordid account of the Ted Binion murder (or it might be better for me to call it an “alleged” murder) and trial, Jim’s personal escapades at the table, detailed histories of the game, the role Ted’s father Jack had in popularizing Texas Hold’em, a bibliography of the literature of poker and a report on the success of women playing in the World Series. That’s a lot to cover in one tome, but Jim keeps it all together and moving along with a breezy, conversational style. He throws a lot in the pot and comes out the winner.

Buy Positively Fifth Street at Amazon.com!