Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker
by James McManus
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
416 pages, 2003
Buy it online
In the spring of 2000, Harper's Magazine sent James McManus to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker -- in particular, the mushrooming progress of women in the $23 million event, and the murder of Ted Binion, the tournament's prodigal host, purportedly done in by a stripper and her boyfriend with a technique so outré it took a Manhattan pathologist to identify it. Whether a jury would convict the attractive young couple was another story altogether.
But when McManus sets foot in town, the lure of the table is too strong; he proceeds to risk his entire Harper's advance in a long-shot attempt to play in the tournament himself. Only with actual experience at the table (he tells his skeptical wife) can he capture the hair-raising subtleties of the kind of poker that determines the world champion. The heart of the book is his deliciously suspenseful account of the tournament itself -- the players, the hands, and his own unlikely progress in it.
Written in the tradition of The Gambler and The Biggest Game in Town, Positively Fifth Street is a high-stakes adventure, and a terrifying but often hilarious account of one man's effort to understand what Edward O. Wilson has called "Pleistocene exigencies" -- the eros and logistics of our primary competitive instincts.
A nubile blonde squats on her boyfriend's bare chest and he's too stoned to do much about it. Nipple clamps? No Sir, not this time. Even one would just be, like, way generous. Seizing him by the neck with both hands, she raises her shins from the carpet and presses her full dead weight onto his rib cage and solar plexus, forcing more air from his lungs. How's that feet? As she rocks back and forth, they lock eyes. "You like that?" she asks, flirty as ever. "How come?" Her name is Sandra Murphy. When she wears clothes, her taste runs to Gucci, Victoria's Secret, Versace. Her latest ride is the SL 500, in black. She used to work at a high-end sports car emporium in Long Beach, so she knows what the good stuff is. After that gig she moved to Las Vegas and danced topless professionally, but she hasn't had to work in three years -- not since she danced for the guy she is currently laying her hands on. "My old man," she calls him sometimes, or "my husband," especially since she moved in. And she would sort of like to get married. Settle down, kids, that whole deal. Not right now, though. Because you, you've got time, as Liz Phair advises in "Polyester Bride," one of Sandy's all-time favorite songs. Time to get rich, see the world, party hearty. And lately she's been having the time of her used-to-be- not-so-great life. Million-dollar mansion, cute boyfriend, bionic sex, Benz, plus she's keeping her looks, above all. That's the key. In 1989 she was runner-up for the title of Miss Bellflower, a south-central suburb of Los Angeles. That was nine years ago, when Sandy was seventeen, but she maintains her dancer's physique by working out five days a week, and she still keeps the sash in her closet. Most men, her boyfriend included, cannot get enough of her, especially the way she looks now. She is lithe, wet, determined, on top.
The boyfriend, Ted Binion, is heaving for air. He used to run the Horseshoe Casino with his father and brother, but those days are long gone. The Nevada State Gaming Commission threw its Black Book at Ted a few months ago, banning him from even setting foot in his family's venerable gaming house. Plus his heroin habit has been shutting him down sexually, closing him off from the world, getting him into real fixes. He's promised himself, promised Sandy, promised just about everyone (at least three or four times) that he's going to kick, stick to booze, but he isn't so sure that he can anymore. What he is goddamn sure of is that he's in serious pain. In fact, he could die any moment here. Wrenched into a bone-on-metal knot against the small of his back, his wrists are fastened together with the rhinestone-studded handcuffs he and Sandy picked up a few months ago at a boutique in Caesars Palace, down on the Strip. Clamps, thumbcuffs, clothespins, wet strips of rawhide -- this stuff has been part of their routine since they first got together, a day he's exhausted from cursing. It was part of what got them together, but whose fault was that? They'd always loved boosting their pain-pleasure thresholds with pot, XTC, Ketel martinis, tequila, sometimes bringing one or two of Sandy's girlfriends into the picture. This time Sandy got the drop on him, and she's used it to cross a big line. Ted doesn't have too much fight left, however, so there isn't much else he can do about it. Fifty-five years old, he's been smoking cigarettes, using street drugs, and drinking extravagantly since he was a teenager. Right now -- just after nine on the morning of September 17, 1998 -- he has three balloons' worth of tar heroin and eighty-two Xanax in his stomach and large intestine, some of it already coursing through his arteries, triggering the soporific enzymes he was hoping this time wouldn't take. He's always had a weakness for what he calls Sandy's pretty titties, and he's getting an eyeful right now, whether he wants to or not. In spite of the Xanax, the heroin, and the fact that she's choking him -- maybe these things have all canceled each other, he thinks, like waves out of phase -- there's really no denying the low, distant stir of an erection. It's a million miles away now, thank God, already receding at the speed of light squared . . .
Because Sandy's new boyfriend, Rick Tabish, kneels on the carpet behind Binion's head, facing Sandy. Standing up, Rick is tall, dark, and, to Sandy's mind, handsome. Six two, two thirty, with springy hair, beady brown eyes. Plenty strong. A star linebacker in high school and college back in Montana, he is now thirty-three, getting soft through the middle, hairline receding above his temples, developing confidence issues. For non-early bloomers, thirty-three can become the age of miracles -- the time to start a family, launch a new venture, make partner, publish your first novel, even found your own worldwide religion. For the last couple of years, though, Rick's been afraid that his best days are a decade behind him, and he desperately needs to make sure that he proves himself wrong. Because what the fuck else is he doing here? People around Las Vegas know him as Ted Binion's friend. They met manning side-by-side urinals at Piero's, and since then they've partied at Delmonico's, the Voodoo Lounge, and plenty of strip clubs together, both with and without Sandy Murphy. When Ted needed a place to stash six tons of silver bullion, he hired Rick's company, MRT Transport, to dig and construct a secret underground vault on Ted's ranch in Pahrump. They used an MRT truck to haul the bars of silver from the Horseshoe's vault out to the new one, along with a few million bucks' worth of rare coins, paper currency, and $5,000 Horseshoe chips. Rick and Ted, in fact, are the only two people who know how to get at that vault. The ranch is now managed by Rick's latest partner, Boyd Mattsen, and its front gate is guarded by peacocks. The peacocks were Teddy's idea.
Ted knew. When he wasn't out (or back home) raising hell, he read books and magazines as though his life depended on it. Civil War, western history, biographies of Sherman and Grant, Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln. He loved local and national politics, public television, the History and Discovery channels. He even loved reading the dictionary. So exactly how had a smart guy like him gotten himself in this fix?
Ninety minutes earlier, Rick and Sandy forced him to choke down nearly half a liter of tar heroin after facing it with a hundred and seven 50 mg Xanax tablets. They'd handcuffed him at gunpoint and told him to lie on the floor, on his back. After cursing them out, even snickering at their gall, he complied. Still wearing shorts and a navel-baring T-shirt, Sandy straddled Ted's chest and yanked up his shirt, something she'd done countless times -- only now, instead of tweaking his nipples, she was pinching his nostrils together, leaving him no choice but to open his mouth. Careful not to scratch the esophagus, Rick used a turkey baster to squirt the gunky beige concoction past Ted's teeth, down his throat. The stuff reminded Sandy of melting brown pearls, like some stupid mini-sculpture you'd find in New York or LA. In the meantime, gagging and desperate, Ted was offering her $5 million to get off him, and she could tell from the sound of his voice that he meant it. He'd pay her. They could kill Rick right now in self-defense, then get married, have a baby -- a girl baby, maybe, named Tiffany -- and never even have to talk about this crazy Rick bullshit again. All she had to do was take the 9-mm pistol they both knew was hidden in the bench of her white baby grand piano and blow Rick away. (Ted and some cops had taught her to shoot at that range, and later she'd practiced on bottles and cacti in the desert.) Ted was begging her, calling her "baby." That hurt.
Sandy's outward response was to smirk, glance at Rick, shake her head. Even so, she was tempted. As Ted kept on pleading, her jangly nerves made her cackle and pick up a cardboard Halloween goblin. The goblin, with R.I.P. stenciled across the front in white-lightning letters, was left over from last year's trick-or-treat decorations, and she thought it might add a nice touch; that's why she'd tossed it onto the sofa last night in the first place. "You're already dead," she said now, jouncing the goblin in front of both men. Even Rick, who had beaten and tortured people before to get money, was taken aback by the ghoulish dementia of this weird cardboard Totentanz. Yikes!
While Sandy puppeteered the death dance on his half-naked chest, Ted was reduced to proposing to set Rick up in a series of ad hoc construction projects, overpaying him lavishly. "Whatever you want, man. Enough to, you know, change your life."
"Change my life!?" Rick snorted, "Change my life?!" while Sandy jeered, "Rest in peace, motherfucker."
"I'm about to start laying the pipe to your wife," Rick added more coolly, making the rhyme without meaning to. He undid his belt. "Keep laying the pipe to her, Teddy, is what I should say." And Teddy had swallowed enough of this gunk, Rick decided as he watched Sandy inch off her T-shirt. Three and a half creamy doses. If that didn't do it, then fuck him. | April 2003
Copyright © 2003 James McManus
James McManus is the author of four novels, including Going to the Sun, which won the Carl Sandburg Award in 1996, and two books of poetry, most recently Great America. His writing has been featured in Harper's and The New York Times and on This American Life, and has been reprinted in The Good Parts: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Poetry. In 2001 McManus received the Peter Lisagor Award for sports journalism. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including a course on the literature and science of poker.