Poker Hand History Review Essay

The Journal of Southern History


The Journal of Southern History, which is edited at and sponsored by Rice University, is a quarterly devoted to the history of the American South and is unrestricted as to chronological period, methodology, or southern historical topic. The Journal publishes refereed articles and solicited book reviews and book notes on all aspects of southern history. As the organ of the Southern Historical Association, which is headquartered in the Department of History at the University of Georgia, the Journal also publishes items pertaining to the business of the Association as well as news and notices of interest to historians of and in the South. The purpose of the Southern Historical Association is to encourage the study of history in the South with an emphasis on the history of the South.

Coverage: 1935-2012 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 78, No. 4)

Moving Wall: 5 years (What is the moving wall?)

The "moving wall" represents the time period between the last issue available in JSTOR and the most recently published issue of a journal. Moving walls are generally represented in years. In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication.
Note: In calculating the moving wall, the current year is not counted.
For example, if the current year is 2008 and a journal has a 5 year moving wall, articles from the year 2002 are available.

Terms Related to the Moving Wall
Fixed walls: Journals with no new volumes being added to the archive.
Absorbed: Journals that are combined with another title.
Complete: Journals that are no longer published or that have been combined with another title.

ISSN: 00224642

EISSN: 23256893

Subjects: History, American Studies, History, Area Studies

Collections: Arts & Sciences I Collection, JSTOR Essential Collection

Good Jim is conscious of, and sensitive to, his large mortgage, how deep he is into his home equity line, his children and his extremely understanding wife. ''A responsible journalist,'' he tells her when he reveals his plan not only to cover the championship but also to play in it, ''needed actual table experience to capture the rhythms and texture of the hair-raising brand of No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em that decides the world championship, right? Krakauer on Everest, I mentioned. McPhee in Alaska.'' You can picture her expression. Still, Good Jim never bets the grocery money. He pays for his gambling with his winnings and with the money he makes writing essays and book reviews. It's a fund to which this publication has occasionally contributed, albeit rather minutely.

To prepare himself for the competition, McManus bones up on the game (if you're ever crazy enough to want to play poker with the pros, he tells you which books are essential reading) and plays tens of thousands of hands against computer programs. These poker programs will beat the average player. But unlike their brethren, the chess programs, they can't compete with the best players. That's because, unlike chess, poker involves deception, cheating really. Despite all their advances, computers still have a hard time distinguishing between erratic play (stupidly misplaying a hand) and stealing a huge pot with a spectacular bluff.

Then the two Jims are off to Las Vegas and Binion's Horseshoe Casino. Benny Binion began gambling operations in Texas until for complicated reasons he left (''My sheriff got beat in the election'' is how he summed it up). In 1946 he piled his family and $2 million in cash into his Cadillac and drove to Las Vegas, where, with the help of Meyer Lansky, he set up business. In 1951 he opened Binion's Horseshoe. Never a Rat Pack hangout, the Horseshoe is the bastion of old-time serious gambling, the last family-owned casino in America and the gem in downtown Las Vegas's desperate, and probably doomed, attempt to compete with the Disneyfied palaces that line the Strip to the south. Benny Binion died in 1989, leaving his children to fight over his casino. For a time it was run by Ted Binion, one of his sons, who, like Benny, was known for never backing down from a bet. But Ted had problems, a fondness for heroin being only one of them. A historian of gambling tells McManus that ''Ted possessed all of his father Benny's bravado and none of his insight and good sense.'' This became apparent in 1998, when he was murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion by his girlfriend, a former topless dancer, and her other boyfriend, one of Ted's ostensible friends.

Their murder trial coincides with the 2000 World Series of Poker, and they are convicted just after the tournament ends. McManus integrates an account of the killing into his narrative of the poker competition. The latter is as tension-packed as any thriller. He antes up his $4,000 to buy into a qualifying game. Amazingly, he wins and collects a chit for his $10,000 entry fee. Then he goes off to Neiman Marcus to check out the story that Binion's girlfriend discussed Ted's impending death with her manicurist a week before his murder. When McManus finds the beauty salon closed, he buys his wife a $2,600 diamond ring even though he doesn't actually have any of that $10,000 he won. You can't fault that logic either, especially when he later confesses to the lap dance he bought, as part of his ''research'' at the aptly named club Cheetahs.

Then it's on to the World Series of Poker itself, the winner of which will take home more than $1 million. The Series is -- what else? -- a melting pot. ''Among toned jocks,'' McManus writes, ''we have about equal numbers of the obese and the skeletal, plus people in bare feet and wheelchairs and dance shoes. . . . C.E.O.'s and dot-com zillionaires versus call girls, masseuses and poker dealers. We also have gay men and lesbians, cowgirls and golfers and artists, black poker professionals and Jewish physicians, Jewish pros and black docs, at least one Aramaic scholar and rabbi, and several Vietnamese boat people.'' All have paid, or won, the $10,000 entry fee, and all know what they're doing.

And so the amateur sits down to play again, with his shades and baseball cap and, for luck, his ''brag book'' filled with photographs of that understanding wife and their two young daughters. And the album works. By the third day he has won $450,000. Anyone who has ever stood around stuffing $100 bills into a slot machine and paused to consider that back home he or she will drive across town to save a nickel on a gallon of gas will appreciate the surreal quality money can take on in Las Vegas. This happens to McManus, who, when contemplating that $450,000, realizes it is seven times his salary. ''In real life,'' he writes, ''I make sure the kitchen faucet handle points toward Cold before rinsing a sippy cup.''

At one point he wins $866,000 in a single hand and takes the lead. And now we're into this with him, willing to pore over his recounting of hand after hand and becoming intimate with the strategies of marathon no-limit poker. He's not afraid to admit his overwhelming fear when a hand is decided on the turn of a final card, ''fifth street.'' But for all his self-deprecation, McManus is smart. He knows that the professionals have him marked as a weak player, so he doesn't play like one. Or at least he tries hard not to. Then, abruptly, inevitably, the streak ends. Having made the final table on the fourth day, he finishes fifth (out of 512) and walks out with just under $250,000 -- and, even better for a writer, a great story.

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