James McManus wrote the book on poker.
His 2003 Positively Fifth Street is widely regarded as one of the best poker books ever written and to this day remains a best-seller in the category.
It was pretty much the perfect storm as McManus chronicled his participation in the 2000 WSOP Main Event just as the game was getting ready to hit the big time.
Since then McManus has released Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker and teaches a course at the Art Institute of Chicago about the history of the game.
He also plays poker. In fact he had a decent stack in front of him after buying into the World Series of Poker $1,500 50/50 event earlier today.
PokerListings caught up with McManus to talk about Positively Fifth Street and his thoughts on the current state of the poker industry.
PokerListings: We understand you’re coming out with a new book titled The Education of a Poker Player this fall. Can you tell us about it?
James McManus: It’s fictional but it’s very auto-biographical. It’s close to fact.
It’s about a kid who is persuaded by his grandmother to become a priest in order to save everyone in the family from hell and purgatory.
He signs up to do that at eight years old, not understanding that when he eventually goes into the seminary he’ll have to be celibate.
Along the way he discovers girls and poker. That’s the plot more or less.
PL: Was it fun being able to write some stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily get away with in a non-fiction book?
Yeah. The other important thing to know about the book is that it’s not entirely about poker. I would say it’s a little over half about poker. It’s about the progress of a mind and a soul of a young boy emerging into adolescence. He’s gradually picking up the sexual situation and poker.
The title comes from [Herbert] Yardley’s book. It’s a life-changing event when his grandfather gives him that book for his birthday. His parents freak out. His devout grandmother also gets very upset.
A lot of people don’t know that in the 1950s Yardley’s book was a tremendous best-seller.
It’s also one of the first books that made the case for square, honest poker. It inspired many hundreds of thousands or even millions to play.
PL: It’s been over a decade since Positively Fifth Street came out. We consider it a pretty landmark title in the poker world. How do you look back on it now?
I got very lucky. It was a life-changing book.
The thing that frustrates me is that [Positively Fifth Street] has sold extremely well around the world but much less so is my 2009 history of poker book Cowboys Full.
I figure that so many people pick up Positively Fifth Street do it because they love poker… so why not buy the actual history of poker that comes out six years later?
It continues to baffle me. I’m just very curious about it. It’s clearly the definitive history of poker. There’s no real challenge to it. It just doesn’t sell the way sex, violence, drugs and strippers do.
If you love poker, how can you not want to know the history of the game?
PL: Are you surprised by maybe the dearth of quality poker books?
Still the gold standard in poker movies.
No. I wouldn’t say there is a dearth. There is a dearth of terrific poker fiction and poker films. Rounders — with all it’s flaws — is still by far the best poker movie.
I’m surprised how fiction and film makers have not done it justice.
There just hasn’t been terrific fiction about a game that’s so susceptible to a written account. You really don’t want a written account of a basketball or a soccer game because they are so colorful and dynamic.
Poker is one of those games where the written version is often more exciting.
It translates to the page because of the slowness of the action and all the things you can tell about who is setting whom up.
There is great non-fiction writing about the game in terms of narrative and advice. Some of the advice books, like Gus [Hansen’s] book and Harrington’s books are really enlightening and funny.
PL: Do you think another great poker movie like Rounders would have an impact on the industry?
The game has changed since James McManus started playing.
Well there was supposed to be another Rounders… it turned out to be Runner Runner. I’m a friend of Ben Affleck and I thought it was a piece of crap.
They got all those people together for Lucky You. They built the Bellagio poker room, they had all these actual poker stars and it was unwatchable.
I’m amazed how badly they’ve done in these two areas.
I think my book is a good piece of fiction. I’m sure a lot of people will pick it up because they like poker but if they want to learn about other stuff like how poker changes the arc of a life then it will probably be interesting to them.
PL: How do you feel about the current state of poker?
I played poker since 1959. Almost everyone at the final tables was over 40. The average age was closer to 50.
Initially we felt sorry for kids. We thought, ‘How the hell are they gonna get the experience playing No-Limit Hold’em?’
The underrated Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker
It was a tiny number of people who could play. Then four or five years later we stopped making fun of “Internet” players. Now, nobody wins a tournament who is over the age of 25.
As I’ve become older the disparity has gotten larger.
It’s not surprising at all that young guys who study strategy dominate the game. I discuss it in detail in Cowboys Full.
PL: Do you think the game is in a good place with legislation still an issue in the US?
My god, no. It was an idiotic law that was slipped into a bill. It’s a disaster in terms of the online game. All the money that got taken out of the United States.
All the sponsorships, TV shows and players that were taken away. The American nanny-state conservatives took it all away. When they were supposed to be in favor of individual freedom. It’s a complete outrage. In terms of the definitive American game that we can’t even play anymore… it’s almost funny. But it’s not.
PL: Do you still enjoy poker?
I’m here! Yeah I’ve been looking forward to his for months. I play regularly at home and tournaments in Chicago. My whole year is built around the WSOP.
It’s an incredibly interesting game. I play it, I write about it and I teach an American History class about it. I’m obsessed with it.