A Man of Reason Gets Lucky: James McManus on Poker and Writing

Article by ben

When a dummy has the chance to talk to an expert, sometimes the first question that dummy asks is the question that he could just as easily have asked Google. So when I find myself on the phone one Saturday afternoon with author James McManus, I ask him: What are the great poker novels? Is there one in particular?

“I don’t think so,” McManus says. He mentions a few that are okay, and a few others that are even very good, but for him, nothing really nails it.

On this subject—the literature (and history) of poker—McManus is more qualified than nearly anyone else. Not that he’s the world’s greatest poker player; he would admit that himself. But he is the author of two damn near definitive nonfiction poker books, one called POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET: MURDERERS, CHEETAHS, AND BINION’S WORLD SERIES OF POKER, the other called COWBOYS FULL: THE STORY OF POKER. In particular, POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET—in which McManus covers a murder trial involving Vegas royalty while himself advancing to the final table at the World Series of Poker—is better than any other book I can think of at getting to the core of the pernicious appeal of Vegas; as McManus, college professor and freelance writer, falls into the glitz, he finds himself dividing into “Good Jim” and “Bad Jim,” which is perhaps the simplest way to think about the way Vegas can cleave good men and women into halves they didn’t know they had.

So is it possible the great poker novel is actually a work of nonfiction?

“People who want to tell narratives about poker have done better in the nonfiction area,” McManus tells me—maybe a shame, because poker, he believes, is “so susceptible to literary treatment.” By this, he means that poker is a sometimes painfully slow game—except, McManus clarifies, for when you play with “simpletons” who want to bet big all the time, free of reason or fear of consequences. The action of poker involves men and women (though most often men) sitting still, thinking about whether to fold or raise. When a poker player faces a big decision, he tries to figure out what the opposing player’s actions have meant thus far. Every time a good poker player bets, he tells a story about what he has, and it’s the job of the other player(s) to think about the story, to try to make sense of it. In this odd way, every good player is a literary critic, and poker seems the perfect game for the novelist—slow, internal, dedicated to thinking about the (recent) past rather than pushing headlong into the future.

“Film wants action,” McManus says, so people push all their chips in dramatically, or as in the film Rounders, characters fidget in ways that make their bluffs obvious. McManus mentions John Malkovich’s character in that film, a Russian gangster who dramatically separates an Oreo whenever he has a big hand. “Really?” McManus laughs, even though he acknowledges that the film is maybe the best one to tackle the game—but still, goddamn it, Rounders isn’t great.

So what accounts for this lack?

“A person like me, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, you’d think I’d have a clearer sense of this,” McManus says—and to be clear, he is more than a poker writer; he’s also a poet, novelist, and journalist who covers plenty of subjects other than poker. Even his new book, a linked story collection called THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER, takes on poker, but only at an angle. “My inclination in this new book is that poker is never one-hundred percent of life. I’m disinclined to write wall-to-wall anything”—by which he means, even the iconic POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET is just as much about a murder trial as it is about poker.

I'm disinclinded to write wall-to-wall anything.

Certainly the reader digging into THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER only for poker will be disappointed. It’s an autobiographical bildungsroman with loud echoes of Joyce, covering ten years in the life of an Irish Catholic altar boy as he grows up in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the beginning, he’s eight and asking innocent enough questions about sex and God; by the end, he’s an eighteen-year-old amateur poker player, drinking with his friends and finding himself vaguely pleased when a horrible accident befalls a romantic rival.

Remembering POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET, I ask McManus who’s at work in this new book: Good Jim or Bad Jim?

“This is Good Jim,” he says, “becoming Bad Jim.”

McManus has borrowed his title, THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER, from a likewise-named book by Herbert O. Yardley, although that earlier book is more instructional than literary. Nevertheless, when McManus’ narrator, Vince, first reads Yardley, it signals a turning point in his life, a movement away from God toward, well, things less divine.

Vince discovers poker on page sixty of THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER, about a quarter of the way in—but before this discovery, McManus takes a considerable stylistic risk. “The first story is a long story narrated by an eight- or nine-year-old who doesn’t know how to tell a story. He gives you a lot of information, but doesn’t have a sense of narrative.” In other words, the first quarter of the book rambles, somewhat in-eloquently, with a sense of direction the reader only retroactively grasps. Somebody who doesn’t know the name “James McManus” and encounters this manuscript cold might be inclined to throw it away, not expecting everything to eventually snap into focus but, instead, sensing the work of an amateur. For this challenge, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN—with its opening chapters written, more or less, in “baby talk,” long before the titular character matures and finds literature—served as McManus’ guide. “I want the reader to be inside the head of a real seeming nine-year-old,” he says, “and I think it succeeds.” But it is, he acknowledges, a risk.

In thinking about this purposefully clumsy writing, I recall an anecdote about the making of Raging Bull—in particular, the color montage of home videos in the middle of the film. Michael Chapman, the director of photography, wanted those videos to look amateurish, but every time he tried to film them, he couldn’t pull it off: every instinct he had as a photographer took over and made the footage look too pretty, centered, coherent. Finally, he had to hand the camera to a random crewmember—someone who didn’t have Chapman’s experience and was, therefore, an authentic amateur, rather than an artist pretending to be one. Only then did the footage look convincingly crappy.

So how the hell does a good writer—and a longtime teacher of writing—forget all his narrative instincts and, instead, tell a story poorly?

“I can do narrative on occasion,” McManus jokes.

But the more serious answer involves the way McManus embodies his memory. “Most of this book was written when I was sixty and over, and my memory for recent events is fading. However, when I think back to several decades ago, my memory gets very vivid. I have a very clear recollection of what it was like when I was being told where babies come from, you know? So the language and syntax and rhythm of a beatific and naïve person: that was easy for me to channel. It’s not as though I taught myself to do that masterfully; it just came. I channel my eight-year-old self naturally, whereas I’m weaker when it comes to what happened ten hours ago.”

Clearly, THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER is pretty far away from a straightforward poker narrative, and people who enjoyed some of the bestselling POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET’s more lurid Vegas details may not go along with McManus here. “I was raised as an experimental, Joycean writer,” he tells me, “and in a way, I’ve returned to that.” For this reason, he has shifted publishers for this book, taking temporary leave from the major Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and landing with BOA Editions, a boutique independent publisher.

I was raised as an experimental, Joycean writer, and in a way, I've returned to that.

But McManus has no interest in begrudging his previous nonfiction success; POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET is nothing he wants to run from. “I’ve had one big bestseller,” he told me, “and it’s a really fun thing to have, because I’d published eight books before that which didn’t do as well in terms of sales, so to have a book that’s critically and commercially strong is very satisfying.” Indeed, he hopes to publish another big nonfiction book with FSG…just not quite right now.

Still, McManus doesn’t feel like a slave to any one genre in particular—he correctly points out that in Europe and South America, they don’t have such rigid generic lines, still subscribing to the notion of a “man (or woman) of letters”—and history animates much of THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER, as the narrator comes of age against many of the 1960s’ pivotal moments. “JFK was an immense presence,” McManus tells me of his Irish Catholic childhood home. “He was on the TV, he was on the walls of our dining room. The adulation and admiration—especially from adults—was easy for me to recollect.” He points to a specific yet archetypal moment in the book—learning about “the birds and the bees”—and refers it back to his real life, when he learned about that against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “That’s just how it happened,” he says.

This is how history works in THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER: big events intersect with the narrator’s experience in micro ways. For example, when JFK is assassinated, the narrator—by then in seventh grade—understands it only insofar as it gets him out of school.

“You can be very naïve about thermonuclear showdowns,” McManus tells me, “but you still know it’s going on because you hear your parents talking about it.” It was easy for him to craft a narrative that’s narrow-minded in its approach to history because, now, “I recall how dumb I was. When I was protesting the war in Vietnam at fourteen or fifteen, I couldn’t have found Vietnam on a map. I didn’t know anything.” This is the bildungsroman part of THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER: the narrator moves from blind belief to questioning the foundations of that system—or as McManus puts it, he moves “from a faith-based comprehension to a more reason-based comprehension.”

When I was protesting the war in Vietnam at fourteen or fifteen, I couldn't have found Vietnam on a map. I didn't know anything.

For McManus, an amateur (which, here, only means “not-professional”) poker player who famously finished fifth in the World Series of Poker (see POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET) and who still enters the tournament every year—for somebody so wrapped up in this game, poker is the ideal playing field for notions of faith versus reason. When a good poker player is at work, he understands all the odds, the likelihood that the necessary card(s) will arrive, the hard cold math of it—yet bad luck busts great players all the time. This makes poker a different sort of game from, say, chess. As McManus points out, there’s no line around the block of amateurs wanting to play against a world chess champion, but lots of people want to play against poker masters like Phil Hellmuth or Daniel Negreanu because, hey, you never know, you might just catch some luck. Likewise, nobody’s surprised when a great player like Phil Ivey loses all his money in day one of tournament play. You can master poker, but there’s still no guarantee you’ll win.

Even for a man of reason, McManus understands that there are some ways poker is a bit like a religion—like something built on faith. “I am one-hundred percent atheist,” he tells me, “but if I’m playing poker, and I’m wearing a hat and running bad, I’ll take that hat off and put on another.” It’s superstition, yes, but superstition can be a potent, visceral force. “When I first saw THE EXORCIST,” McManus remembers, “I was twenty or twenty-one, and I no longer believed in God—but I had been raised to believe in God and the Devil, so for months after THE EXORCIST, I was scared of the dark, even though I knew, intellectually, that I didn’t believe. But in my viscera, it lingered.”

THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER captures this feeling, the imprint childhood leaves on our adult selves, oftentimes circumventing reason to return us, however startlingly, to the belief systems that sorted our adolescent brains. And McManus—now atheist, now based in reason—still plays a game that involves a great deal of luck and superstition. So I ask him, is poker completely free of faith?

“If I ever write a poker novel,” he says, “that’ll be at the heart of it.”

The Education of a Poker Player By James McManus Cover Image
ISBN: 9781938160851
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: BOA Editions - October 13th, 2015

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