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Interview: James McManus--Author, Teacher, Poker Player

By Anonymous in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 29, 2005 5:02PM

James McManus - Photo: A longtime poet, novelist, teacher, and amateur poker poker player, James McManus joined the ranks of bestsellers with his 2003 nonfiction account of the 2000 World Series of Poker, Positively Fifth Street. McManus hit it big not only thanks to the fabulous timing of PFT's release with the surge in pop culture's attention to poker, but also due to the fact that as a player in the 2000 WSOP, he made it to the final table--a rare feat for anyone, let alone a talented writer who had never before competed in a poker tournament. Adding further drama to the book McManus's intertwining of his own meteoric experience at the WSOP with the lurid murder trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish, who were accused of killing Ted Binion, the former host of the tournament. It's a novelistic carnival ride of a true story, and a great read.

Chicagoist recently had the opportunity to speak with McManus, who will be joining Stuart Dybek and recent Chicago transplant Jeffrey Eugenides for a reading and Q&A at the Harold Washington Library next Thursday, September 8 at 6 PM. You'll be hearing more about the event (and your chance to win some sweet, sweet books--including Positively Fifth Street) in the coming days...

Chicagoist: You're a professional teacher, writer, and, might I say, poker player? Do you find that these vocations complement each other, and how?

James McManus: Well, I've been very fortunate in the last few because I've been teaching writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute since the early 1980's. And since the mid-90's I've been teaching a course called "The Literature and Science of Poker." And then, I got an assignment in 2000 from Harper's to write about women in the World Series [of Poker] and that led to my book Positively Fifth Street. And since then, I've become the poker columnist at the New York Times and I'm writing a history [of poker], so that my vocations—-writing and teaching—-and my avocation, which is to play poker tournaments, all come together very… there's a lot of overlap, and I feel very lucky certainly, because they all feed on each other.

C: As a novelist and a poet, were you surprised at all at the success of your first nonfiction book?

McManus: Yeah, it very dramatically changed my writing life. I had been working on a novel about Las Vegas since 1997, but now I'm writing my third nonfiction book since then. I find it difficult for me to get back into the novel, because the audience for nonfiction and my publisher's interest in me writing nonfiction has been so much greater than fiction, and I do feel that the narrative—-there is a fictional narrative feel to my nonfiction, so I feel like …my scene-writing and prose-writing and story-writing impulses are coming out in the nonfiction.

C: Are you still writing fiction?

McManus: Yeah, I'm still working on that novel—-it's sort of a 9/11 novel having to do with Las Vegas and Venice, Italy. But most of my time is spent writing the history of poker and the poker column. Although I'm about to publish a book about health care in America.

C: You mentioned in a 2003 interview with Publisher's Weekly that your previous fictional work was appreciated largely for language and structure, and less so for plot. Did your experience writing PFT change the way you write fiction at all?

McManus: Well, [with] Positively Fifth Street, a lot of plot was handed to me on a platter, so that sort of compensated for my weakness as a plot constructor. I don't know if you're aware of—-a couple of years ago, there was a terrorist threat to attack Las Vegas and the mayor responded very aggressively, and the plot of [my current] novel is based on speculation that is associated with stuff that actually happened. In my nonfiction, I obviously rely on stuff that has happened, and I think that in the future, my fiction will also do that.

C: At the beginning of PFT, you contrast yourself with Hunter S. Thompson, noting that you have "plenty of fear about what's in store for me downstairs at the satellite tables, but not a single iota of loathing for now." In the afterword to the paperback printing, though, I feel like there's a strong sense of disdain toward the place where Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish's murder convictions could be overturned. How has the course of that case, including the fact that they were acquitted in the second trial, changed your feelings toward Vegas, or has it at all?

McManus: It hasn't changed my feelings toward Las Vegas. I feel that the jury system is deeply flawed. I think that the justice system in Nevada, and Las Vegas in particular, is a little bit dicey, as it is in many parts of the country and the rest of the world. And at least in the highly publicized trials, you know, going back to O.J. and certainly in the case of Murphy and Tabish, that juries often make startling decisions. But it doesn't diminish my ardor for Las Vegas.

C: In articles about PFT, your rise to the final table at the 2000 World Series of Poker is generally described as a great triumph, and I think most people would agree. But you describe bitter disappointment with your final standing of 5th place. Do you still feel that way?

McManus: Oh, no. At the time, when you get knocked out, especially if you have the best hand, and the other player sucks out on you, it's devastating. And you feel tremendously unlucky. But it doesn't take long to realize how lucky you were to get into that spot to begin with. Nobody wins a poker tournament or makes the final table without getting very lucky and playing reasonably well. And, playing my first tournament, I was astoundingly lucky to be there.

C: I understand that your course on the literature and science of poker [at the School of the Art Institute] is in really high demand. What do you think draws artists to an academic course on poker?

McManus: Well, you know, people of all ages are playing the game, and certainly college students are included in that group. We look at the art of poker as well—-you know, we look at old playing card decks, and part of the coursework requires [students] to make poker-related art. I don't know exactly what other teachers are doing, but it's not an academic-feeling course. Also, you can learn how to do something better that is fairly lucrative. So I think, among the appeals are the entertainment value of the literature that we read, and also the instructional value. You are a dramatically better poker player at the end of the course than you are at the beginning.

C: What does Chicago mean to you as a writer?

McManus: This is the place that I live, and work, and have raised my family, but I'm not like Stuart Dybek or Scott Turow, in that … Chicago is not a primary inspiration for me …Chicago is not my subject matter, although in my 1983 novel Chin Music, it is absolutely the subject matter. It's entirely in Chicago, and it presupposes that the White Sox are in the World Series. My earlier fiction was set in Chicago, but lately it has moved to the background—-or, other places have been the location.

C: How do you feel about the White Sox right now?

McManus: Well, …obviously they're going to be in the playoffs, and I'm real happy about that, but I don't feel tremendously optimistic about what's going to happen in the playoffs, because the teams, especially the West Coast teams--the Angels and the A's—-have dominated the White Sox, so I'm not real optimistic right now.

C: I hear you wore a White Sox cap to your wedding.

McManus: I did. I'm kind of a two-team person. I was born in the Bronx. So I was raised as a Yankee fan. And then in 1959 we moved to Chicago, [and the White Sox] were in the World Series against the Dodgers. So I have been a fan of those two teams forever, basically.

C: Where's your favorite place to play poker in the Chicago area?

McManus: Well, Chicago and Illinois in general are very bad poker places. I play in a couple of home games up in the northern suburbs. And when I play in a casino around here, I play in the East Chicago Resorts casino. Used to be Harrah's. That's not technically in Chicago, but when I do play in a casino around here—sometimes I go up to Pottawattamie—-but usually I go to Resorts in East Chicago.