A Royal Rush The author penetrated the dark heart of America's Sin City to discover the thrill of poker victory

April 27, 2003

by James McManus
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 422 pages, $26)

In 2000 novelist and poet James McManus was dispatched to Las
Vegas by Harper's magazine to cover, simultaneously, the World
Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe and the trial related to
the sordid sex-murder of Ted Binion, son of World Series creator
Benny Binion. Schooled on books of poker theory and computer
simulations and a veteran of countless low-stakes games, McManus
used his Harper's advance to buy into the tournament.
Improbably, he lasted until the final table, finishing fifth of
512 entrants and winning $247,760. Better than half of McManus's
account consists of hand-by-hand descriptions of action during
the tournament. That this makes for compelling reading testifies
to the author's skill at rendering the tension of the table--and
to his familiarity with the delicious syntax of no-limit Texas
hold 'em ("... so he puts me all-in with his flush, and I nail
him when the board pairs on fifth street").

There is a sportswriter's aspect to McManus's prose, a breathy
play-by-play equally suited to that other World Series, to which
McManus draws parallels. "Baseball managers deploy pinch hitters,
shifts, lefty-righty matchups, alter[ed] rotations and batting
orders; poker players factor in pot odds, randomize bluffs, fold
when their hand is a statistical underdog, raise when they're
getting the best of it. Between 60 million and 80 million
Americans play poker, making baseball the second great American
game." The harmony is fitting, given poker's burgeoning status as
a bona fide spectator sport: ESPN2 already airs the World Series
of Poker, and in March the Travel Channel began televising the
World Poker Tour, a 13-tournament junket featuring the game's
best players competing for seven-figure jackpots, with scowls and
staredowns rivaling Randy Johnson's.

McManus excels at unearthing stranger affinities, between sex and
poker ("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 or
status, a willingness to take outside chances"), and between
himself and the murdered Binion. Tempted Catholic boys both, Ted
succumbed to a fatal appetite for drugs and women, while
McManus--restricting himself to downing Trazodone and tequila and
buying lap dances--unexpectedly thrived. This is a rich and
raunchy memoir, a Las Vegas fable of no-limit action.

COLOR PHOTO: FSG (TOP) COLOR PHOTO: MCARTHUR PHOTOGRAPHY CHIPS AHOY McManus went to Vegas for a magazine story and cameback with nearly a quarter million dollars in winnings.