Friday, November 27, 2015

James McManus' "The Education of a Poker Player": Facts or Fiction

There are at least four other books I can find online with “education of a poker player” as part of their title:

·        John Billingham’s The Education of a Modern Poker Player LINK
·        Richard Sparks’ Getting Lucky: The Education of a Mad Poker Player LINK
·        Robert Jameson’s The Education of a Poker Player (self-published) LINK
·        Herbert O. Yardley’s Education of a Poker Player LINK

All of them are what you might expect from their titles – stories about how the authors came to the game of poker and some sort of treatise on how they learned the game along with advice and strategies for the readers to emulate should they choose to embark on the same journey.
James McManus’ The Education of a Poker Player LINK is not anything like the books mentioned above!

The first hint that McManus’ 2015 published work is not going to be typical is the fact that it is not “fact.” It is a collection of stories, a few previously published elsewhere, that are billed as fiction but smack of autobiographical or semi-autobiographical vignettes from a boy’s life. I say “from a boy’s life” because the narrator barely makes it out of his teens before the close of the final story in the collection.

There are seven stories in all with only “Kings Up” and “Romeoville” giving poker more than a passing mention. I’ll come back to those two.

James McManus is more than a good writer. He is a thorough, professional, recognized chronicler of the kind the poker community has not seen since A. Alvarez and The Biggest Game in Town LINK. McManus’ Positively Fifth Street LINK is a major cog in the machine that brought poker to pop culture-like popularity in the early part of the current century. Along with the atmospheric rise of online poker sites, and the astounding World Series of Poker victory of Chris Moneymaker in 2003, McManus is credited by many as a founding father of the modern poker boom.

In Positively Fifth Street and the later Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009) LINK, James McManus is at his journalistic best – a keen observer of the human condition and a thorough, relentless researcher of times past. Non-fiction is his milieu and, although I am reasonably sure that every non-fiction writer has a burning desire deep inside to create a stunning piece of fiction that will blow everyone away, that’s not always as easy as it seems. McManus has written fiction before and has been rewarded for his efforts – he was awarded a Carl Sandburg Award for Fiction. Nevertheless, he is at his best in the real world of non-fiction.

The Education of a Poker Player, throughout all seven stories, follows Vincent Killeen, an Irish-born, Bronx transplant living in the Chicago suburbs with his mother and father, a gaggle of siblings, and his uber Catholic grandmother who also works in the parish rectory. In addition to the standard Catholic trappings of going to church, saying prayers, and attending parochial school, Vince is treated to doses of intense religious propaganda promulgated mostly by his grandmother but also by the clerics involved. The propaganda includes where babies come from, a series of untruths that are not sorted out until he is middle school age, the wisdom of joining the clergy - the prospect of becoming a priest so that his entire family’s time in Purgatory will be eliminated - and the ubiquitous aura that sex, and anything remotely sexual, will land you in the fires of hell for eternity where your skin will be painfully seared from your body only to grow back and be seared off again and again. 

 To Vince’s credit he eventually sees through most of the hype, like virtually all Catholic school children eventually do. Like all normal prepubescent boys he soon gives in to the temptation and relieves the stubborn “doozers” that he so often gets whenever he is around a good looking female lay teacher or a distaff classmate that he fantasizes about. Guilt, shame, and other pre-programmed feelings of inadequacy soon fade with age.

The members of Vince’s nuclear family are not big fans of gambling or carousing although on his mother’s side that’s not the case at all. The Madden’s introduce Vince to poker and a few other borderline vices when he spends a summer with them in Mahopac, NY. When he receives “a pair of Bicycle decks” and a copy of Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player for his thirteenth birthday from his maternal grandmother and grandfather and their randy son, Uncle Thomas, the scandal is great enough that his father confiscates the gift for a while with the admonishment to never play poker for anything but “matchsticks” or “pennies.”

You can guess that Vince pays no mind to his father’s advice leaving room for the only real “poker” story of the book, “Kings Up.” The setting for the poker game is a caddy shack at the local country club where Vince is a B caddie. The regulars, A caddies, consist of a variety of unsavory characters who have chosen caddying as their life’s work. Actually what they prefer doing is spending drizzly afternoons separating the local teenagers from their meager earnings. Vince has a knack for poker and usually can hold his own against the toughs, Swede and Tennessee. The final encounter in this game of draw poker to which the title refers has Vince pitted against Swede in a mega pot. Both players think they have a read on their opponent and they do since the ultimate showdown reveals both have kings over sevens. Vince scrapes up the pot though and the lesson learned is “kicker, kicker, kicker” – his Ace kicking Swede’s Jack! But that wasn’t the end. Like many junk yard card games, this one, too, ended in a brawl with coins and bills strewn all over the dirty floor.

It’s a good story but not a great story,

The other mostly poker story is the final “Romeoville” wherein a losing player at a home game Vince is involved in crashes his car and dies on the way home for no apparent reason. Guilt, questions, and soul searching follow and thankfully the story does not yield to the Catholic pressure of bad things (dying) follow bad things (playing poker).

James McManus’ The Education of a Poker Player is not a bad book. Unfortunately it is not a good book either if you take into account what we have come to expect from the author. If any of you who have been unfortunate enough to experience the surreptitious proselytizing of all Catholic institutions, including and especially the Irish Catholic family and parochial schools, would like revisit those chilling feelings, be my guest! I, for one, remember them all too well.

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