Sunday, May 28, 2006

Flights of Fancy

Paradise (So-Called)Took a trip to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. Strictly business, of course. (Incidentally discovered after my return that Hawaii is one of two states in the union where all forms of gambling are outlawed.) Stayed on O’ahu, near Honolulu, and from a 13th (called 14th) floor corner room enjoyed madly grandiose views of Diamond Head brooding to the left and those intensely bluish-turquoise waters off Waikiki Beach to the right.

Mainlanders who’ve never been instinctively consider Hawaii an earthly paradise, though those who have know that while it has much to offer it isn’t quite that. Now this ain’t no travel guide, so I won’t go into the all the whys and how-comes. We’ll just say of the 50th state that it’s plenty nice but not quite the cat’s pajamas. More JJ or AQ-off than aces or kings.

I connected in Chicago, and from there the flight was about eight-and-a-half hours long, so I took the opportunity finally to read James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street. I already knew the rough outline of McManus’s story. How he’d gone to Vegas in the spring of 2000 primarily to cover the trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, the pair accused of murdering Ted Binion (son of Benny), and how he ended up playing in the WSOP main event while there and finishing a remarkable 5th out of 512 entrants.

Even with such foreknowledge of the book’s two main plots, I found Positively Fifth Street a great read. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it also is more than a little insightful about some of the normally hard-to-explain aspects of human psychology (e.g., our need to take risks, to be “bad,” etc.), about the importance of family, and, yes, even about poker.

Positively Fifth Street by James McManusI was a little surprised (and impressed, actually) that McManus ultimately doesn’t make too much of his accomplishment. One almost gathers that despite his frequent admissions of self-doubt, he expected to do well -- even to win the damn thing (which probably partly explains his getting so far). Most enjoyable are the digressive historical bits (e.g., about the Binions and the Horseshoe, the history of poker and the WSOP, overviews of famous poker books, stories about McManus’s family).

The recounting of particular hands is also fairly gripping. And there are some humorous moments, such as when McManus encounters the main event’s eventual winner Chris “Jesus” Ferguson in the men’s room and tells him how even though he’s trying to play conservatively, he can’t stop his right hand from firing chips. Ferguson understands completely, and “suddenly spooky-voiced, strobing his bony fingers toward [McManus’s] face in psychedelic fashion” says to McManus it’s “‘Almost as though . . . you’ve been hyp-no-tized . . . [!]’”

The WSOP main event is poker players’ Hawaii. Even us micronauts are constantly scheming to win our way to this apparent paradise. McManus’s book does little to dissuade us of that notion; indeed, it likely reinforces it. Like Hawaii, no matter how much we read or hear about it (good or bad), we all want to see it for ourselves.

Images: WSOP logo, Hawaii (adapted) (top); Positively Fifth Street (2003), James McManus (bottom).

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