PW: Please say a few words about the title of Positively Fifth Street.
James McManus: I'm a huge fan of Bob Dylan. The song "Positively Fourth Street" is about very unhappily resolved relationships, where there's invective and a high level of nastiness. So that fit the mood of the book. The last card dealt, the final community card, is called Fifth Street—my revision of the title, as it were—and it's at that point that everything tends to be resolved. In other words, the outcome of relationships, poker hands and even people's lives can be understood metaphorically as Fifth Street.
PW: You're known as a poet and a novelist. Did writing nonfiction present a challenge for you?
JM: Actually, it was a great pleasure. My four novels have usually been better appreciated for their language and structure, and less well appreciated for their plots. I write novels more as a poet, and my ability as a plotter of narrative is probably my weakest suit. So the stories of [Las Vegas casino scion] Ted Binion's murder and the World Series of Poker and my progress in the tournament gave me the narrative action that I need.
PW: You've played more tournaments since the 2000 World Series of Poker—how has that gone?
JM: Well, I had two final table finishes at the United States poker championship in 2001. In December 2002, I read T.J. Cloutier's new book on Pot Limit Omaha, and I finished fifth in the Bellagio Five Diamonds tournament last month. He finished first, thereby capturing the Player of the Year championship. I haven't won any tournaments, but I've made the final table in five tournaments since then.
PW: Are you coming out ahead?
JM: Way ahead. I play lower stakes—I guess what could be called medium-stakes side games at home. I play every Thursday night in a local game. But I try to travel to tournaments four or five times a year, and those have been more lucrative.
PW: Who's the greatest poker player of all time?
JM: I think that most people would agree that it's Dewey Unger, who died in 1997 after winning his third Word Series championship. He won almost 30% of the big-buy-in, No Limit Hold'em tournaments that he entered. Of the living players, certainly T.J. Cloutier would be one of the best. Jennifer Harman, a young woman who plays in Las Vegas, is emerging as one of the game's great players. Scotty Nguyen is without question one of the best players in the world today.
PW: What conclusions did you take away from the Binion murder and trial?
JM: One, there's no question in my mind that Sandy Murphy [Binion's girlfriend] and Rick Tabish [her lover] are guilty. They've been petitioning the Nevada Supreme Court for a retrial with the help of Alan Dershowitz, but I don't think they're going to get one. I came perilously close to being either Ted Binion or Rick Tabish. Both of those guys got seduced by the uglier temptations of Las Vegas—Ted Binion lost his life, and Rick Tabish is going to do a very, very long stretch in prison. I got lucky—I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I married the right woman in 1992. The seductions of Vegas are very real and powerful, especially for compulsive gamblers and risk-takers, of which I am one.