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PokerNews Book Review: The Education of a Poker Player by Jim McManus

Jim McManus
  • A review of Jim McManus' new book, The Education of a Poker Player, which was released this month by BOA Editions.

There's good reason why Jim McManus is often referred to as the "Shakespeare of Poker." Any serious poker fan has read Positively Fifth Street, widely considered one of the best poker narratives ever written, while Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker is the most comprehensive text on poker's expansive history. Now, McManus has added another poker book, The Education of a Poker Player, to his already impressive résumé.

Released this month by BOA Editions, McManus' new book is neither a memoir like Positively Fifth Street, nor a historical text like Cowboys Full. Instead, McManus has ventured into the realm of poker fiction, utilizing strong influences from his childhood to construct a narrative on just how strongly religion, world events, and of course poker, can shape a young man, in this case Vincent Killeen (who you can safely substitute for McManus himself).

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Here's how BOA Edition describes the book:

"James McManus offers up a collection of seven linked stories narrated by Vincent Killeen, an Irish Catholic altar boy, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Persuaded at age eight by his grandmother that entering the priesthood will guarantee salvation for every member of his family, Vince eagerly commits to attending a Jesuit seminary for high school. As the meaning of a vow of celibacy becomes clearer to him, however, and he is exposed to the irresistible temptations of poker and girls, life as a seminarian begins to seem less appealing. These autobiographical stories are enlightening and evocative, providing keen, often humorous insight into Catholicism, faith, celibacy and its opposite, as well as into America's—and increasingly the world's—favorite card game."

During the 2015 World Series of Poker, I was honored to receive a copy of The Education of a Poker Player and asked to write a review. Poker fiction certainly isn't my favorite genre, but knowing the strong connection to McManus' actual life made it a must read, at least for me.

The book is basically broken into two parts – Killeen's younger days, which are dominated by family, religion, and the JFK assassination; and his formative years, which involve some sex, drugs, and poker. As such, you won't find much about the game we love in the first part of the book, but there's plenty of stories to be had in the latter half.

The youthful experiences of Killeen, and for all intents and purposes McManus, were foreign to me – I grew up in a different time period in a family devoid of religion – but the stories in The Education of a Poker Player succeeded in providing an intimate look back at the universal motifs – guilt, rebellion, lust, and adventure — that permeate every boy's childhood.

At just $16.00 for a paperback, and even a more affordable $9.99 for the E-book, The Education of a Poker Player is well worth the price tag. If you don't want to take it from me, then consider what the noted author David Sedaris had to say:

"In writing about poker Jim McManus has managed to write about everything, and it's glorious."

PokerNews had the opportunity to speak with McManus to talk about his new book.

PokerNews: What inspired you to write The Education of a Poker Player, which is a fictional collection of seven stories essentially about a boy growing up?

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Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player

McManus: Reading Herb Yardley's book of that title changed my life at age 13 or 14. So did reading Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, which is about a boy in Dublin dealing with pressure his family and teachers are putting on him to be a devout Catholic and maybe a priest. My own parents, as well as my dad's mother, who lived with us, were all fiercely Irish Catholic and deeply opposed to me playing poker, even though our parish raised money by having "poker smokers" right in the church's basement. They wanted me to become a priest, and not just any kind of priest, but a Jesuit. Those books and facts were the strongest influences while writing my own book. Toward the end, I was also thinking of it as the third book of a three-genre poker trilogy: Fifth Street as memoir, Cowboys Full as history, The Education as fiction.

But it's also important to know that only about half of The Education, mainly the second half, focuses on poker. The rest is about Irish Americans during the Kennedy years (1960-63), the ways Catholic school boys and girls interact with nuns and priests and each other, and Vince Killeen's efforts to remain celibate as an altar boy and future priest as he ages from 8 to 16.

The Education of a Poker Player is also the name of Herbert O. Yardley's book. Did you have any issues using the same title?

I believe, and hope, that borrowing it is clearly an homage, a tip of the cap, a signal of how crucial Yardley's book is in Vince's life. It isn't a rip-off because the books are too different. Yardley combines straightforward advice about how to play a half dozen variants popular in the 1950s with factual accounts of hands he played for fairly high stakes over five decades, on four continents, during two world wars. My book is a fiction narrated by a naive kid growing up in the 60s, a kid who plays for much lower stakes, though the outcomes of certain hands do change his life.

Herbert O. Yardley had a big impact on the main character of the book. Did he on you as well?

Yardley's Education was probably the first book an adult gave me that I actually loved reading. It was also a huge national bestseller, a source of pleasure for one side of my family, an outrage for the other. When it was serialized on the cover of the November 9, 1957, Saturday Evening Post, the issue broke newsstand records. It helped usher in the age of square, tactically sound poker, after more than a century as a game dominated by cheaters.

His adventures as a spy, a writer, and a stud player, often in life-threatening situations, were about as far removed from my life as an altar boy and future priest as it was possible to imagine. Yardley's book showed me alternatives to the career my family and clergy were arranging for me. Even though he looked like Alfred Hitchcock, he was right up there with the Stones, Nellie Fox, and James Joyce as a role model.

While the book is fictional, I understand it to be somewhat biographical in nature. To what extent do the events in the book mirror your real life?

Much more than somewhat. The timing and coincidence of some things is more dramatic in the stories than things that happened to me, but I've done just about everything Vince does. His family lives in the Bronx, upstate New York, and suburban Chicago, like mine did.

Are some of the poker hands mentioned in the books really ones you played when you were younger? If so, how is it you remember them so vividly?

I certainly can't remember the cards, let alone the suits, of pots I played fifty years ago. I had to add details to make the poker feel real to the reader. But I can recall the contours of how certain big hands played out and their consequences away from the table, especially the last hand of the book.

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A look at the diary.

Were the war journal entries from the main character's grandfather real?

Those are taken verbatim from my grandfather James McManus's diary aboard the USS Baltimore during the North Sea Mine Barrage of World War I. It's sitting right here on my desk.

Whether real or fictional, whatever became (or do you imagine became) of Figueroa's $20 bill?

I'd say it was either confiscated by Vince's dad or the cops, or Vince used it to help pay for that Mercury parked over at Smitty's, and to take Laurie out on a date. It depends on whether the reader is a pessimist or an optimist.

Why does the seven of clubs appear on the cover of the book? What's its significance?

Sandy Knight, the designer, used it to indicate the number of stories in the book. She used an actual photo of the author in fourth grade on the spine to emphasize the autobiographical element.

Do you gave any other books in the pipeline? If so, can you tell us a little about them?

I'm working on a script drawn from the stories "Detention," "Picasso," and "Romeoville." I'm also covering a two-year-long case in Boise to decide whether poker is legal in Idaho because it's a game of skill. I'm testifying again in the jury trial, which begins in November.

To get your copy of Jim McManus' The Education of a Poker Player, visit our dedicated page in PokerNews' Book Section.

*Lead photo courtesy of Chicago Magazine

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