DOSTOYEVSKY, KING OF SPADES
A REVIEW OF JAMES MCMANUS’S POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET, IN EASY-TO-DEAL FORM
Card makers in 15th-century France drew their kings to look like real kings and emperors. So James McManus tells us in Positively Fifth Street, his tall and enthralling tale about the time he almost won the 2000 World Series of Poker. Their king of spades showed David, King of the Hebrews, with Goliath’s sword in hand and a slingshot at his feet. Their king of hearts was Alexander the Great, diamonds was Julius Caesar, and clubs was Charlemagne. However, McManus writes, “as standard playing cards became double-ended, designers had to jettison the heraldry on the lower halves of the court cards. King David’s slingshot disappeared, making his kingship more generic.” Also lost to us are the Maid, Valet, and Dancing Girl who, in certain decks, took the place of today’s eight, nine, and ten (although McManus will turn back the clock and compare an erotic dancer caught in a deadly ménage à trois to the ten of clubs because of the ten’s “black three-belled flowers, emblematic of an unholy trinity, adorning the bare-breasted lap-dancer” and because she is a ten “in the Bo Derek sense”).
What happened to these cards, and where did David’s slingshot go? Today a deck sold by Hoyle and used by many of the estimated 70 million poker players in America contains neither a slingshot nor dancing girls, but does find room for an orb of Christendom in the left hand of the king of clubs and a three-belled flower in the left hand of his queen. History being written by the victors, Hoyle’s deck can be read as a victory for Christendom in the same way that Saddam Hussein is now the ace of spades in George W. Bush’s fifty-five-card most-wanted list and not the other way around—a victory which sets the king and queen and Christendom up for two falls in Positively Fifth Street. An ace beats a king or queen. This was not always so. McManus suggests that the ace made the switch from low to high rank during the American and French revolutions when “it suddenly became possible for the merest commoner to become emperor, prime minister, or president” and, I would add, possible to build a small, frail wall between church and state. Second, McManus was an altar boy in a church where the altar boys trumped their priest’s call of Dominus Vobiscum by responding “You’re damning us, Nabisco” (one of the better puns in the book, given that young Jim’s taste for whole cream on his cereal and Hershey Bars after lunch becomes, in later life, a taste for “Prozac and trazodone and Zocor with booze every night”). If McManus is damned then Fifth Street is the story of a man whose hell, Las Vegas, is like George Bernard Shaw’s in Don Juan in Hell: “a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.” And yet Las Vegas is also Shangri-la, as McManus says on sitting down to play poker among “the locustlike clacking of chips.” Accordingly, he splits himself into “Good Jim” and “Bad Jim.” Good Jim swims, eats salads, and is known as a hiker-biker guy. Bad Jim likes drugs and sex and “needs to keep score.”
Both go to Las Vegas to play in Binion’s World Series of Poker, and to write about it and the trial of Sandy Murphy—the ten of clubs—and her lover Rick Tabish, both accused of murdering Binion’s owner Ted Binion, with whom, McManus writes, “I had too much in common. Both of us were middle-aged married guys with a weakness for gambling, alcohol, recreational drugs, nubile women. Raised Irish Catholic in the middle of the last century, we’d been treated to the same gospels… and probably lusted for girls who wore the same combinations of kneesocks and pleated plaid skirts—or nothing at all, as the ad said.” Self-destructive Binion is McManus’s king of hearts, “yanking his sword from its scabbard and stabbing himself in the head.” Tabish is his jack of clubs, the knave who joins with the dancing girl to kill the king in a “smothering flush,” by which McManus means they suffocated Binion by forcing liquid heroin down his throat and then sitting on his chest.
With three down and forty-nine to go, McManus stops assigning cards and, so, stops himself from writing Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies in reverse. Calvino wrote this novel by laying out tarot cards and describing what he saw, reading rows of cards forward and then backward to produce different tales. His sleight of hand is such that you forget his book has an author, good or bad, once he gives a knight a deck of cards and lets him tell his own tale.
One of the guests drew the scattered cards to himself, leaving a large part of the table clear; but he did not gather them into a pack nor did he shuffle them; he took one card and placed it in front of himself. We all noticed the resemblance between his face and the face on the card, and we thought we understood that, with the card, he wanted to say “I” and that he was preparing to tell his story. (Castle of Crossed Destinies, p.6)
And here is Fifth Street reviewed with a deck of cards. There are combinations which will make you want to read it and combinations which will not—it is that kind of book. McManus tells us that hearts used to represent the church, diamonds merchants, spades the state, and clubs farmers. Here hearts will be the places in the book, diamonds the people, spades the writers and their books (including my reviews of Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by Amarillo Slim, Poker Face by Katy Lederer, and The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez), and clubs the writing tricks McManus has in his deck. For best results, print out and laminate each of the entries below, and deal yourself a hand.
|2||Mahopac||Grandpa Tom||Rick Tabish||Puns|
|3||Catholic Church||Good Jim||Atahuallpa||Graphophilia|
|4||The Meadows||Bad Jim||Edmond Hoyle||Rules of Cards|
|5||Chicago||Michael Jordan||Geraldo Rivera||Name-Dropping|
|6||Virtual Las Vegas||Larry Flynt||Bob Wilson||Phallocentrism|
|7||Texas||Doyle Brunson||Amarillo Slim||Automatic Writing|
|8||Gambler’s Book Club||Annie Duke||Katy Lederer||Schmoozing|
|9||Binion’s Swimming Pool||Stuey Ungar||A. Alvarez||Quotes|
|10||Cheetahs||Sandy Murphy||Edward O. Wilson||Sociology|
|J||The Spearmint Rhino||Anna||Dante||Verisimilitude|
|K||Binion’s Horseshoe||Ted Binion||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Sacrifice for Art|
|A||Las Vegas||Jesus Ferguson||James McManus||Addiction|
TWO OF HEARTS: MAHOPAC
THREE OF HEARTS: THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
“It occurred to me that sports, poker, drinking, and girls might somehow be preferable to lifelong chastity and celibacy,” McManus
FOUR OF HEARTS: THE MEADOWS
English for “Las Vegas”
FIVE OF HEARTS: CHICAGO
Here the author has two children with his first wife
SIX OF HEARTS: VIRTUAL LAS VEGAS
SEVEN OF HEARTS: TEXAS
The first Binion’s World Series of Poker was held in 1970 between seven road gamblers who played No Limit Hold’em for three days straight then voted on who had played the best. (In Hold’em each player receives two cards facedown, to be combined with five community cards to make the best five-card hand. “No Limit” means there is no limit on the size of bets.) Texans dominated, as they did for most of the 1970s. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder (the one who went on to pick football games on CBS) said this was because Texas gave people nothing else to do but play poker—the very thing William Faulkner said about the South and writing books.
EIGHT OF HEARTS: THE GAMBLER’S BOOK CLUB
The Binion’s of bookstores with thousands of books about gambling on its shelves, and a printing press and mail-order business in the back. Hopefully among them is the just-republished The Biggest Game in Town, by A. Alvarez
NINE OF HEARTS: BINION’S SWIMMING POOL
Readers or not, Alvarez notes that many poker players used to be athletes. Alvarez and Good Jim
TEN OF HEARTS: CHEETAHS
The “topless cabaret over on Industrial Road” where Ted Binion
JACK OF HEARTS: THE SPEARMINT RHINOCEROS
Giddy after coming in fifth in the poker tournament, McManus goes to this swankier, “less horny” club and gets a lap dance from two women at once. Back at home he thinks about telling his wife that such behavior comes from the same part of the brain responsible for success at poker.
QUEEN OF HEARTS: BELLAGIO
A casino with canals and gondolas and (I’m happy to report) an indoor sky that looks as blue as
the real thing. Also the town on Lake Como, Italy, where Fyodor Dostoyevsky
KING OF HEARTS: BINION’S HORSESHOE
A casino famous for being the first to put carpet on the floor, taking bets of any size, keeping $1 million in $10,000 bills in Plexiglas just inside its doors, putting poker on the map in 1949 by having two men play five-card stud for five months straight just inside its doors, and, today, for hosting the World Series of Poker.
ACE OF HEARTS: LAS VEGAS
The English Alvarez sees Vegas as the capital of America: “Las Vegas is the logical conclusion of what is for the foreigner one of the eeriest aspects of America: the utter lack of continuity between the large towns and their surrounding countryside.” McManus sees it as the capital of space and time: “Certainly it’s no accident that the Strip features mock-ups of so many other Sin Cities: Imperial Rome, Paris, Venice, Luxor, Hollywood, Rio, New York, Monte Carlo, New Orleans ...”
TWO OF DIAMONDS: GRANDPA TOM
A low card because he tries and fails to teach young Jim to fold bad hands. Grandpa Tom explodes the Alvarez dilemma of players not reading or writing by getting his poker chips monogrammed and, in this way, writing on gambling.
THREE OF DIAMONDS: GOOD JIM
Thinks about the “blush-prone senior whose nickname, owing to her somewhat off-center green eyes, was Picasso” with whom he had sex on Halloween, 1968.
FOUR OF DIAMONDS: BAD JIM
Thinks about “the number” with whom he had sex on Halloween, 1968.
FIVE OF DIAMONDS: MICHAEL JORDAN
The best basketball player ever despite (or because of) driving to gamble at casinos in between games. For the author, Jordan is even more fun than poker which, we are told, is more fun than sex because it lasts longer, although one of Bad Jim’s dancers at the Spearmint Rhinoceros
SIX OF DIAMONDS: LARRY FLYNT
Before the Internet and virtual Las Vegas
SEVEN OF DIAMONDS: DOYLE BRUNSON
Two-time Binion’s champion and “Jabba-the-Hut-like creature” (according to Katy Lederer
EIGHT OF DIAMONDS: ANNIE DUKE
“Guys can be, on the whole, winning players, and when they come up against a woman, they can’t help themselves… They just call, call, call when they should be folding,” says Annie Duke, poker shark, expectant mother, and author of a dissertation on syntactic bootstrapping—a linguistic process by which people, mainly children, analyze sentence structure in order to guess a verb’s meaning. McManus calls her with a pair of kings to find she has a pair of queens. Nearby women root for queens: “A third queen, they seem to believe, would confer some amorphously millennial Gender Justice, paying Bad Jim back personally for two hundred years of poker domination by men, plus millions of years of the other kind.”
NINE OF DIAMONDS: STUEY UNGAR
A coke addict with the posture and verbal skills of an ape, according to Alvarez. “Hey,” Ungar says on winning the World Series for the first time. “Great!” he says the second. McManus, while admiring Ungar’s “Plath-like abandon at the poker table,” doubts he’d care for this or any description of his genius. “Was this poetry? Card sense? Black magic? Ungar could not have cared less what we call it.”
TEN OF DIAMONDS: SANDY MURPHY
Ted Binion’s mistress and ten “in the Bo Derek sense.” If the photos in this book were cards, a Sandy Murphy flush would be these four: a photo with her head superimposed on Kim Basinger’s body in a mock L.V. Confidential movie poster, a photo with her electronic-monitoring anklet spray-painted gold to match her suit, a photo of her with Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (to whom FSG had to apologize in an ad in The New York Times Book Review for Fifth Street implying that Goodman was part of a group that plotted a judge’s murder in Texas), and a photo of her toning it down to “schoolmarm chic” for the reading of her verdict.
JACK OF DIAMONDS: ANNA
The Michael Jordan lookalike who dances in the author’s lap.
QUEEN OF DIAMONDS: JENNIFER
The author’s wife. Booby-traps his luggage with anti-gambling literature. Good Jim says she saved his life, and her photograph is nice.
KING OF DIAMONDS: TED BINION
Owner of Binion’s Horseshoe casino. A King Lear figure banned from Binion’s by the Nevada gaming commission after failing a drug test.
ACE OF DIAMONDS: JESUS FERGUSON
“Long and exceptionally lean, with three-foot chestnut locks, a full beard, and Jesus-like features, Ferguson is almost freakishly photogenic in his poker regalia. He shows up at the crack of noon every day in a Black Stallion cowboy hat adorned with silver medallions, and wraparound mirrored shades in whose reflection the action on the table is regularly exploited by photographers.” Spikes a nine on the river (gets lucky and makes a pair of nines on a hand’s final card) to win the tournament.
TWO OF SPADES: RICK TABISH
Sandy Murphy’s boyfriend and McManus’s jack of clubs. My two of spades because McManus, shooting fish in a barrel, makes fun of him for not knowing what “syllogism” means and, when he speaks, for rhyming unintentionally.
THREE OF SPADES: ATAHUALLPA
The Incan king who let Pizarro and 168 conquistadors plunder his kingdom because, McManus quotes Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, “Literacy made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and history. By contrast, not only did Atahuallpa have no conception of the Spaniards themselves, and no personal experience of any invaders from overseas, but he also had never heard (or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime previously in history.” Unlike Montezuma, the Aztec king who let Cortez and 300 conquistadors plunder his kingdom in part because Aztec lore said that bearded white men would come from the east.
FOUR OF SPADES: EDMOND HOYLE
English writer on card games, 1672-1769. His writings form the basis for Bad Jim’s bible, Hoyle’s Rules of Games.
FIVE OF SPADES: GERALDO RIVERA
American journalist, born 1943. A “tell” in poker is a tic or mannerism that gives your hand away. Slamming Tabish
SIX OF SPADES: BOB WILSON
Designer of Wilson’s Turbocharge, a Hold’em software program which lets McManus and other amateurs cram a lifetime of poker hands into several weeks.
SEVEN OF SPADES: AMARILLO SLIM
The greatest gambler who ever lived, according to the cover of his new book Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (HarperEntertainment, 2003). Born Thomas Preston in Amarillo, Texas, so skinny that “he had to get out of the bathtub before they pulled the plug,” he becomes Amarillo Slim after meeting Minnesota Fats (who had his name legally changed to this because people kept mistaking him for the fictional Fats played by Jackie Gleason in The Hustler). If you ever meet Slim, don’t let him bet you that, in any group of thirty people, two will have the same birthday (the odds favor this happening in groups of twenty-three or more). Twenty-three may also be the average number of words between the book’s many folksy clichés—clichés Slim and his co-writer Greg Dinkin subvert brilliantly. Yes, Fats is described in short succession as a “hawk circling a bunch of chickens” while “running his mouth like an outboard motor on a fishing boat” and hitting “all the right buttons”—three metaphors which, if they were cards, would not make three of a kind. But like Michael Jordan
EIGHT OF SPADES: KATY LEDERER
Sister of Annie Duke
NINE OF SPADES: A. ALVAREZ
Author of The Biggest Game in Town (1983; Chronicle Books, 2002), the source and inspiration for much of Fifth Street. Alvarez compares a woman’s aquiline profile to Beckett’s, while McManus writes that a description of a prostitute in, yes, Murphy could be a description of Sandy Murphy. Of the many quotes which appear in both books, Walter Matthau’s sums both up: “The game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”
TEN OF SPADES: EDWARD O. WILSON
Founder of the field of sociobiology. Author of a book on ants which I bought for $40 and used to write and sell about $1,000 worth of ant questions to be used in the logic section of the GRE. Wilson’s assertion that philosophy “must not be left in the hands of the merely wise” is nicely reflexive when applied to the world of poker philosophers. Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim
JACK OF SPADES: DANTE
Chastises adulterers by lashing them with hurricane winds. Chastises betrayers of family by freezing them up to their chins in ice while babbling giants gnaw their brains. Doesn’t mention gamblers.
QUEEN OF SPADES, HARPER’S MAGAZINE
Pays the author to write about Ted Binion’s murder and women at the tournament. McManus uses the money to buy his way into the tournament and, ironically, help to knock Annie Duke
KING OF SPADES: FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY
Russian writer and compulsive gambler who claimed he went into convulsions on hearing the clatter of chips
ACE OF SPADES: JAMES MCMANUS
How can an author not be the ace of spades of his or her own book? (A drawing of Alvarez shows him with the ace of spades, while the cover of Lederer’s book has a woman in a bathing suit holding this card up.) Only by some sleight of hand worthy of Calvino, who let tarot cards write a book, or Georges Perec or other Oulipians who conjured ways of taking control away from themselves.
TWO OF CLUBS: PUNS
Calvino wrote that his rows of cards became crosses and then cubes. Now he could go up or down as well as right or left, almost as if reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book in which certain choices took him to another book. The wordplay in Fifth Street works like a game of Crazy Eights, with McManus matching words and meanings instead of suits and ranks. A conversation with Becky Binion, “a relative of a murder victim,” becomes a lame excuse to mention Michael Jordan
THREE OF CLUBS: GRAPHOPHILIA
“We’re used to processing the world off the page, translating printed language and numbers into ideas and action.” This is one advantage book-learned people have over road gamblers at cards, according to McManus, although the line could just as easily apply to a poker player whose vocabulary included nothing more then the letters J, Q, K, A, and the numbers 2–10.
FOUR OF CLUBS: RULES OF CARDS
A gun which appears in the first act of a play must go off by the last. A book which includes a Ranking of Poker Hands must include a royal flush, in this case Richard Nixon drawing one in a game of five-card stud and using his winnings to pay for his first political campaign.
FIVE OF CLUBS: NAME DROPPING
McManus does this brilliantly. Once someone famous rears their head, you never know when or where McManus will bring them back and give you a pair of, say, Dostoyevskys—one staying in Bellagio
SIX OF CLUBS: PHALLOCENTRISM
Losing makes the author’s penis feel “like an acorn,” or “small (but still big enough to piss four grand down the toilet).” Winning makes him feel “like lead sinkers have been tenderly unhooked from my scrotum.”
SEVEN OF CLUBS, AUTOMATIC WRITING
McManus’s critique of the punctuation in Doyle Brunson’s book—that it follows the rule of “It seemed like a good idea at the time”—could apply to some of Fifth Street’s jokes.
EIGHT OF CLUBS: SCHMOOZING
Dead men tell no tales; and while the dead Jimmy “The Greek” and imprisoned Pablo Escobar are the only villains in Amarillo Slim’s book (Escobar once tried to throw Slim out of a helicopter), the dead Binion and imprisoned Murphy
NINE OF CLUBS: QUOTES
Hold’em can be played by up to twenty-three people at once—each playing two cards off the five communal cards. Five stories which appear once each in Alvarez’s, McManus’s, and Amarillo Slim’s books are: Slim turning a rattlesnake which bit him into a hatband, Slim putting SLIM in white leather down his lizardskin boots, Binion’s putting $1 million in cash just inside its doors, Binion’s putting poker on the map in 1949 by having two men play five-card stud for five months straight just inside its doors, Brunson writing the book on Hold’em and, so, ruining his career.
TEN OF CLUBS: SOCIOLOGY
McManus sees Vegas
JACK OF CLUBS: VERISIMILITUDE
The reason, Bad Jim
QUEEN OF CLUBS: ARCHETYPES
The two cards most often used to describe women in the book, the Madonna and the Whore, are played at the same time during the lap dance: “THOU SHALT NOT QUESTION BUNNY, thunders some bent gene or deity. THOU SHALT COVET ANNA
KING OF CLUBS: SACRIFICE FOR ART
Proust covered his walls with cork and wrote with paper in his ears. Kafka never married for fear he’d have no time to write. The best line in Fifth Street makes it clear what has been sacrificed for this book. McManus flies home and is about to see his wife and kids for the first time in weeks. He even gets their names out, “Jennifer and the girls,” before turning his attention to the more provocative “AA2458,” his flight number and a hand which needs a three to form a straight.
ACE OF CLUBS: ADDICTION
But of course the deck is stacked. The best writing in the book is with numbers, symbols, cards, so that a reader learns to rush past a word group like “Jennifer and the girls” to the pair of aces and draw to an inside straight. Here we get a glimpse of what a gambling book could be—a game which sucks the reader in and makes an addict of her or him—a slot machine in which the reels come up words.
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor