The Education Of A Poker Writer
In 2003, James McManus became the best-known storyteller about poker when he published Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs & Binion's World Series of Poker. The book recounts McManus's reporting assignment for Harper's Magazine, in which he covered the 2000 World Series of Poker from the perspective of a player.
McManus began at a satellite table and ended up at the Main Event, taking fifth place -- and $247,760. Positively Fifth Street became a New York Times best-seller.
Now, a dozen years later, McManus has a book of fiction that borrows from his memories growing up in the 1960s. The Education of a Poker Player is a collection of seven linked stories about Vincent Killeen, a suburban Chicago boy who dreams of becoming a Jesuit priest -- until he discovers girls and poker.
Vince's parents and widowed grandmother are devout Irish Catholics who believe the highest calling is to serve in the priesthood. McManus's own family believed the same, hoping he'd enter a seminary. The author says the family pressure was considerable:
"My grandmother believed that everyone in the family, upon dying, would go directly to heaven," McManus says. "There would be no possibility of hell or purgatory if a member of the family was a priest."
The author transfers this belief to Vincent's grandmother, Grace, which heightens the tension as Vincent becomes a teenager and celibacy becomes an ever-greater challenge.
To prepare for his calling, McManus became an altar boy, which marked him as someone special. "Unlike my sisters or even my teachers, who were nuns, I was allowed to be on God's altar," he says. "It was a source of prestige, of ego."
Another ego-booster: The Catholic choice for president, Sen. John F. Kennedy, also served as an altar boy at St. Aidan's in Brookline, Mass.
McManus's main character is nine when we meet him, a student and altar boy at St. Joan of Arc in Lisle. It's 1959, and the Catholic community is buzzing about the possibility that JFK could become the first Catholic U.S. President:
"Here is the man who’s made us so proud,” Gramma tells me, showing me one of the articles she saves in her closet. Every week he’s in Life or Time, sometimes both. His hair is always dry, not slicked back like most dads’. And short sideburns. His official picture—pinstripe suit, tie slightly crooked—is in a Kelly green frame next to our dining-room thermostat. The day Gramma hung it, I decided to use much less Brylcreem.
In an interview with WNIJ, McManus talked about the effect on his family when Kennedy won the 1960 election. "The illegitimacy of Irish Catholics in a WASP-y country had been finally overcome," McManus says, adding that "the feeling was staggering, and it took over the house for many, many months."
During the Kennedy administration, Vincent enters his preteen years, and it becomes harder for him to resist the allure of girls and rock n' roll. One day, a nun catches him and his friends with the lyrics for "Louis, Louis," a hit song by the Kingsmen that was investigated by the FBI after it was declared pornographic by Indiana's governor.
Vincent is sitting in the principal's office when news breaks of Kennedy's assassination. He's sent home, still expecting to be punished, but his family is glued to the television. Walter Cronkite announced the President was dead. Soon the family learns that the suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was detained by the Dallas police:
“Godless bastid,” hisses Gramma. She must be the one who hung the black sash across the president’s picture. Hearing her swear is bizarro enough, but I’m watching TV on the couch while eating a PB&J and nobody says anything? Plus my dad’s at the A&P, shopping! What’s the world coming to?
Another major development in the book occurs on Vincent's 13th birthday when his maternal grandparents, both secular, give him a copy of Herbert O. Yardley's 1957 book, The Education of a Poker Player. Yardley was a government code breaker and skilled poker player, and his name was often invoked during hands Vince played at his mom's family home in New York.
“Oh, my dear Lord,” Gramma says, then something else under her breath. She shakes her head, blessing herself. My parents are silent so far, but it’s clear they are taken aback. Way aback. The author’s picture is on the front cover, right at the top, next to HOW TO WIN AT POKER! Wearing cufflinks and a tie, he looks like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and ex-President Eisenhower. Below the title it says, “A lusty, funny, cool, and knowing introduction to the great American sport by one of the great masters of all time – Herbert O. Yardley.”
"They think they're encouraging him in the manly ways of the time," McManus says of Vincent's New York elders. "Since poker came into the country, it was played by tough guys, cowboys and miners," he says. "It was a way to define yourself as a man."
The gift sets up a tug of war between the two sets of grandparents for Vince's soul, according to the author. "And a key battle in that war," McManus says, "is when his New York grandparents give him the book, and his father and grandmother take it away from him."
"Vince understands that there's a lot at stake here," McManus says. "Poker stands for worldliness; it's associated with alcohol and cigarettes, girls. It's not just a card game."
The effort by Vince's parents, and Grandma Grace, to keep poker out of the house only drives the former altar boy underground. He starts playing with fellow caddies at the country club or at his friends' homes when their parents aren't around.
During the time Vincent improves his poker game, his mind becomes increasingly preoccupied with the girls at his high school, St. Procopius. The latest to catch his attention is a new girl nicknamed Picasso because her uneven features resemble some of the works by the famous Cubist painter. When he first sees Picasso, she's kneeling in the hallway while a nun checks the skirt of her uniform:
“Oh my goodness, young lady.” Picasso said nothing. She shifted her weight from one knee to the other, but her face didn’t show any pain. The nun, clucking and tsking, had her back to me, with her veil draped over her shoulder. I couldn’t tell which one it was. “Oh my,” she said, straightening up. “This is quite serious.” No response from Picasso. Her maroon blazer, buttoned once below her ribs, was pulled taut across her. I swallowed. “Let me see here,” the nun said, circling with little jab steps, like a crow getting ready to peck out the eyes of a live baby rabbit. It was Sr. Mary Walter, who taught Latin IV. She was also the Associate Dean of Discipline. “This is quite serious,” she said, twirling the ends of her cincture. “Oh my my my my . . .” I didn’t turn around, but I sensed a few gawkers had stopped. Other gawkers, I guess. “Nothin’s more lewd than the mind of a prude,” one girl whispered. My ears and cheeks started to burn. “At least four inches there,” Walter said. “Maybe five. Five whole inches, young lady, from that hem to the floor.” The rule was that uniforms had to cover girls’ knees. Some of the fast ones rolled their skirts at the waist, to show off the backs of their knees, but they had to unroll them when the nuns or priests went on the warpath. That’s how it worked at St. Joan, but in high school they seemed to make a bigger deal about it, maybe because the girls were more voluptuous now. “Five at least . . .”
Picasso's name is Linda Krajacik, a recent transfer who's a year older than Vincent. One day, as he walks home from a poker game, Linda stops her red sports car and offers a ride. The Rolling Stones' latest album is blaring from her tape deck.
They talk. They share a joint. They listen to "Satisfaction," and play it again.
Then they go to her place.
For McManus, Vincent's ultimate rebellion against the Church -- premarital sex -- is emblematic of the time. "The Rolling Stones were about sexuality," he says. "The priests were about repressing sexuality, so it was binary, the shift that occurred in his life."
In the audio clip below, McManus describes how he wrote using Vincent's 9-year-old voice at the beginning of the book. He also shares a memory about losing a lot of money to a poker champion.
James McManus teaches creative writing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He lives in Kenilworth.
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Here's a video of the entire conversation with McManus, recorded by WNIJ's multimedia specialist Carl Nelson: