Hello, everyone. I'm Good Jim.
I'm a happily married man with two children who is going to Las Vegas to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker for Harper's Magazine.
That $4,000 advance sure will come in handy, as I'm a relatively poor writer with a lot of debt to my name!
Thankfully, I'll be able to cover a pair of intriguing stories out here:
the advancement of women in professional poker and the trial resulting from the murder of casino boss Ted Binion.

Hello, everyone. I'm Bad Jim.
I've decided to throw down my entire $4000 advance from Harper's in order to enter myself into the World Series of Poker.
I've also got a massive strip club fetish; I particularly enjoy private lap dances from multiple women at once.
I figure I can keep my wife happy with a phone call every once in a while, but first things first:
gambling, loose women, and an astounding amount of alcohol.

Positively Fifth Street
James McManus

ISBN: 0374236488
Published In: 2003

Positively Fifth Street is a memoir-style work by James McManus, a writer probably best known for his pieces in Harper's. The book grew out of a piece for Harper's in which James intended to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker, particularly from the perspective of the female player, and also some notes on the high-profile trial of Ted Binion, one of the central figures of the poker scene in Las Vegas. The title is in reference to the earlier work Positively 4th Street, which chronicled the folk music movement of the 1960s.

What a large part of this book becomes, however, is a description of James' experience as he enters the World Series of Poker and makes a fantastic run, eventually reaching the final table and finishing in fifth place with $247,760 in winnings.

Good Jim here.
I felt a tremendous amount of guilt at spending my $4000 advance entering the World Series of Poker.
I spent much of the time on the phone to my wife, telling her how much I missed her and was thinking of her.
Thankfully, I kept careful notes on the poker play most of the time, and I think I'll get a good article out of the experience.

Bad Jim here.
The whole tournament was a nonstop rush; watching these supposed "pros" bite the dust to my card play.
After a three day whirlwind of poker and alcohol, I found myself in the money, about $250,000 richer.
I don't remember much of the last day; it ended in a haze of alcohol and strippers.

Are the Good Jim/Bad Jim interjections bothering you, and distracting you from this ostensibly enjoyable experience reading about the topic at hand, Positively Fifth Street? Welcome to the joy of reading this book. The characters of "Good Jim" and "Bad Jim" bog down most of the pages, as James McManus attempts to morally describe the events via his internal struggles.

These struggles almost bury what is actually an interesting pair of narratives. The first is that of James's run during the tournament, which is an exciting tale in itself. When he sticks primarily to his own play and his interaction with the participants in the event, the book flows along quite steadily. Even if you have no experience with no limit hold 'em poker, McManus clearly lays out the rules of the game, intertwining them with the story.

The second narrative thread, that of the murder trial of Ted Binion, is equally fascinating. The book opens with this thread, telling the extremely bizarre tale of his murder from a third person perspective; it is actually the most memorable part of the book (ed. note: it is the most memorable portion of the book not involving someone I know personally). The rest of the book intertwines this thread with that of the World Series of Poker itself, creating two distinct storylines with some overlapping aspects.

The book fails, though, when McManus spends too much time talking about Good Jim and Bad Jim as opposed to the actual events that are ongoing. McManus's actions are often contradictory and in themselves reveal the essence of "Good Jim" and "Bad Jim;" including them directly as literary devices just serves to fill up some pages without really saying anything.

It is rather pitiful when you cover your writing ineptitude with insults toward us.

When have you ever published anything of significance, 18th Candidate?
Maybe you can bash us as literary devices whenever you get off your dead ass and publish something with any degree of impact.

True, that.

Many readers stated displeasure with the portions of Positively Fifth Street where McManus goes into lengthy sidebar discussions on various topics, including a several page long diatribe about Sylvia Plath that has very little connection to the main narrative. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed these portions; well-constructed sidebars into other issues often serve to tie the story to other aspects of the reality we all share. I didn't expect a connection between The Bell Jar and no limit hold 'em poker; this connection was an enjoyable revelation for me.

Speaking of unnecessary sidebars...

Good job.
You're able to steal what you call a "bad" literary device, then you proceed to use it to death.
Congratulations on upholding the literary standards of Milli Vanilli.

Another strong aspect of Positively Fifth Street is the "cement" that binds the two narratives together, which is a review of the world of high-stakes poker. The coverage of the luminaries of poker (Amarillo Slim Preston and T.J. Cloutier are covered well, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson is given an extensive profile) as well as the people involved in managing tournaments (Becky Binion is central here, as she's both the organizer of the tournament and the sister of Ted Binion) is stellar and really binds both threads together into one cohesive world. Positively Fifth Street gives a great glimpse into the world of professional poker from many different directions.

In the end, though, this book is carried by two things: first, McManus has the gift of prose and knows how to relate an interesting tale (even if he overuses a badly-executed literary device); and second, the stories themselves are fascinating with plots that shock you and often zig when you expect them to zag. It's also great to read about how someone outside of the "good old boys" club of professional poker was able to make the final table at one of the biggest tournaments of the year.

Positively Fifth Street is a great introduction to the world of professional poker and the most popular game, no limit hold 'em poker; beyond that, it tells a pair of fast-paced tales that are engaging and hold you in your seat. If you can get past Good Jim and Bad Jim and can live with some sidebar discussions, this is a fantastic and addictive read.


This writeup was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.

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