Sex, money, and a poker face
James McManus lays down his cards in 'Positively Fifth Street'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- This is a story about skill, luck and redemption.
Three years ago, James McManus was hired by Harper's magazine to write a story about the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. McManus, a pretty fair amateur player, decided he was going to enter the tournament himself and get the view from the inside.
It so happened that a trial was going on right around the corner from the Horseshoe Casino, the home of the WSOP, and McManus was told to keep an eye on its progress.
The crime in question was a case made in tabloid heaven: A pair of lovers, Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, were being tried for the murder of Murphy's boyfriend, Ted Binion, the son of Horseshoe founder and Vegas legend Benny Binion. Murphy was a former exotic dancer; Tabish was a Vegas hustler.
Ted Binion had been no goody-two-shoes himself. A drug addict, a philanderer -- his first wife had left him because of Murphy -- a wealthy good-time boy, he was a direct link to the old Vegas of showgirls, gangsters and high living, and he kept it up well past the time Vegas became a family-friendly destination.
James McManus, novelist, poet, teacher, saw a lot of himself in Binion.
"I had a period that my family refers to as my 'lost years,' " he says in an interview from his home near Chicago. "I identified with Ted, because of his interest in young, nubile women, in drugs, booze and sex. Also, we were both raised in the '50s and we were both Catholic."
But, partly thanks to the love of a good woman, McManus' life took a different path.
After Binion's first wife left him, the gaming scion grew even more addicted to the fast lane, and the ride eventually led to his death. On the other hand, after McManus' first wife left him, the writer turned his life around. He met a "wonderful woman," Jennifer Arra, and settled into a less dangerous existence in Chicago.
But McManus, 52, doesn't forget the person he calls "Bad Jim" in his book about the WSOP and Binion trial, "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
"There's a lot of luck involved with a spouse and a partner," he says. "I could easily imagine myself ending up the way Ted Binion did."
McManus had luck when it came to his poker playing as well. The tournament cost $10,000 to enter; McManus won a satellite event with his $4,000 Harper's advance (half expense check, half kill fee) and earned a spot among the WSOP's 512 participants, which included dozens of poker professionals. The winner would take home in excess of $1 million.
McManus had played plenty of poker, but he was no card king. So he practiced, reading books by professionals -- some of whom he encountered at the WSOP -- and contesting hundreds of games against computer programs.
Thanks to his training and a bit of good fortune, McManus finished fifth at the WSOP and took home a cool $247,760. As he writes in "Positively Fifth Street," the haul was so big that the tips he threw off were "vastly more money than I'd ever played poker for, or made in a week, or a month, doing anything."
"I had hopes of doing well, but realistically I thought I had worse than a 1 in 10 chance," he says now. "I thought I was below average on a skill level, but as an academic and teacher, above average in reading [and employing the poker texts]." Nevertheless, he adds, "I was a tournament virgin, but I'd been playing poker for 40 years."
Indeed, McManus teaches a course in the literature and science of poker at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Students read essays and books on poker; their test and paper grades translate into chips. "You need to learn a lot, and you need to do well in the literary dimension," says McManus.
Not that it's tough to encourage his students. "I don't have to twist any arms," he chuckles.
Life after Vegas
"Positively Fifth Street" -- the title is a pun on a Bob Dylan song and some poker terminology -- is full of colorful stories and colorful characters, from the history of poker to the varied group seated at the WSOP, including Western braggarts, book designers, Vietnamese boat people, a rabbi, and a guy who goes by "Jesus."
"There's no other regime or line of work that draws so many different social types and welcomes them," says McManus. "It's a very rich world."
But few were as rich as McManus as he got to the final table. At one point he was staring at more than $900,000 in chips, all from his $4,000 investment. He kept his "brag book" -- photos of his wife and children -- in front of him as a talisman.
"I felt I couldn't lose," he says, noting that once he made the top 43, he was guaranteed a profit. "The worst-case scenario is I'd go back to [my family]."
Which was not the happy ending awaiting Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish. The two were found guilty of Ted Binion's murder and are serving time in the Nevada correctional system. (The convictions are under appeal.) But McManus ignored Bad Jim in his own worst-case scenario. Before he left Vegas, he wobbled off his personal fly-right wagon and partook of a bit of Sin City sin -- a strip club and a lap dance.
His wife forgave him.
So things are now pretty swell for Jim McManus. He and Jennifer paid down the mortgage on their house. The New York Times profiled one of his local poker games and asked him to write an op-ed on the William Bennett affair. "Positively Fifth Street" is on the bestseller lists. And he still plays poker, quite well -- though he says the game remains a "hobby."
"This is now my sport, but in no sense do I think of it as a second job," he says. "I'm not about to quit teaching or writing. I've won a lot, but I've also lost a lot."
Still, he hasn't lost the things that matter most. One can find redemption -- even in Las Vegas.