Poker star alum shares wisdom
The UIC library’s reserve reading room held an uncommon resource Tuesday, March 16th: a bestselling author and World Series of Poker veteran.
Popular and accomplished UIC alum, James McManus came to speak about his experience in the worlds of poker and writing. The two subjects may appear dissonant on the surface, but McManus’ life managed to intertwine them into a very successful and exciting writing career.
McManus admitted that it never occurred to him to become a writer when he was younger. He said he wasn’t very good in classes that emphasized writing. Philosophical thought and literature was his preferred subject. He picked up an appreciation for novels, and claims that it is the highest art form a writer can achieve. He entered an MA program in 1974.
McManus provided a way for himself to stay in school, though he was helping to provide for his wife and two children at the time. While in school he held a part time job at the office of financial aid making friends with influential people. He worked as a teacher’s assistant and accumulated connections which would help determine his future. McManus made an effort to thank the people involved in shaping his life, stressing the importance of the connections he’s forged and the impact the people close to him have had.
Through time, McManus was selected by Harper’s magazine to cover the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Using the $4,000 advance he acquired for writing the assignment, he entered the tournament. Through a trying three days he managed to get a seat at the final table where he was overcome by bad luck and forced to quit. Jack Binion’s murder trial was going on just across the street, a well known casino mogul. McManus covered both events simultaneously, and the end result is called Positively Fifth Street – his bestselling nonfiction novel.
America, he says, has been shaped by poker. American Civil War generals relied more on the tactics of poker via deception and bluffing rather than the cliche standby of chess as the ultimate war game. “In chess, you have the advantage of seeing every piece on the board. You can’t have this advantage in reality, that’s why poker is a more accurate model,” he said. According to participation rather than viewership, poker is the most frequently played game in the country. He expands on this perspective in his newest book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker.
As a writer, he is concerned about the literacy of Americans. “I’m starting to doubt that many people will continue to read books in the coming years,” he said, “I am 100% certain that books are on their way out the door.” He expressed his frustration that he used to understand the system a writer uses to get published. “It used to be hard,” he said “it’s a lot harder now.” He said he isn’t sure which direction writers in the future will take, as magazine writing is also losing popularity.
When asked about his stance on the legalization of gambling, he stated that he is in favor of legalizing poker. Game rooms don’t have to be places of vice, he said, poker can be a clean game of at least 50% skill and some luck. Good poker players will always separate themselves from bad players given enough time – even players who mainly play online. “I think the way that states which are strapped for cash are going to be doing is taxing online poker,” he said referring to Illinois and California.