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Poker Lit 101

Poker Lit 101 0001

Author, poet, and damn good poker player James McManus made the final table at the 2000 World Series of Poker championship event and wrote Positively Fifth Street about the experience. Time Magazine called Fifth Street "irresistible . . . the writer's equivalent of a royal flush."

Today, Jim's time is spent playing poker, writing poetry, fiction and nonfiction books, and serving as a tenured professor of English at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He has written about poker for Harper's, Esquire, and was until recently the poker writer for the New York Times. His three-part series, "The Poker World is Flat," is a compelling analysis of today's poker landscape. He is moving over to a new publication of the Times, Play, where he will cover poker and other games.

Jim is currently on a nationwide promotional tour to plug his newest work, Physical: An American Checkup. This book is about the state of his (and America's) health. Each needs some help.

Professor Jim combines his love of poker and love of teaching in a unique course that he began in 1997, "The Literature and History of Poker." He has a book in the works on the history of the game. He is also writing a novel about Vegas, poker, and terrorism.

He takes only 20-22 students into the poker lit class each spring semester. Perhaps twice that many are left banging on his door to get in. There are class lectures, reading assignments, tests, and a poker tournament on the final day.

Class, attention, please. Your first assignment is to read Al Alvarez' 1983 work, The Biggest Game in Town. He calls Al's work, "the seminal book on the literature of poker. Gorgeously written. Very cool."

The Biggest Game covers the classic battle between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss, the early days of the World Series of Poker, and the many ways in which professional gamblers are different from mere mortals. McManus joins a chorus of others in praise of this book, along with the Evening Standard (London) which says it is "probably the best book on poker ever written."

Also high on the required reading list is another of Alvarez' books, Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats. This coffee-table book is beautifully illustrated and heavy on the history of poker.

David Sklansky's Theory of Poker appears on the reading list, of course. Harrington on Hold 'em serves as the primer on tournament play.

Read 'Em and Weep, a collection of poker lore ("a bedside poker companion") edited by John Stravinsky, is an important part of the curriculum. McManus wrote the introduction to this compendium of 39 stories about the game. Included here is another selection from Alvarez as well as pieces from Mark Twain and director and playwright, David Mamet.

McManus himself is represented in Read 'Em and Weep with a piece called "Black Magic." In this piece, McManus writes, "No limit hold' em has also been called black art, requiring players to broadcast and decipher fake tells, master complex (mis)information and amoral psychology, all of it illuminated by bolts of hideous and beneficent fortune."

Jim's course deals with the growing literature of poker, strategies of play, and the art of the game. Since this class is held within a world class art institute, one assignment requires that students submit a painting, a sculpture, a photograph or a film which depicts some artistic aspect of the game.

McManus issues "chip credits." A good paper or a good photograph earns a certain number of chips. The top eight chip holders in the class get to sit in with their prof in a three-hour Texas Hold 'em tournament on the last day.

Professor M. is too modest to assign his own book to the class as required reading. So it will have to be done in another way.

Class, your attention once again, please. Refer to James McManus' (you may have heard of him) book, Positively Fifth Street.

Read it. Study it. Devour it.

With Fifth Street in one hand and The Biggest Game in the other, there's no doubt about it: you are now holding top pair.

Ed Note: Do you own a Mac? You can play online anytime you want at

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