The Education of a Poker Player by James McManus

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Education of a Poker Player is a thoroughly refreshing read, and you know that with McManus you’re going to get an engaging journey. McManus has been there and done it, and he certainly speaks with the voice of experience.

In 1957, Herbert O Yardley wrote a book called ‘The Education of a Poker Player’, at the time a groundbreaking instruction manual for the burgeoning poker world on how they could win at the game.

Of course, it came about 20-odd years before Doyle Brunson compiled Super/System, and some 45 years before amateur Chris Moneymaker was busy taking down the World Series of Poker after qualifying online.

The Birth of the Poker Novella

Though not an homage to the original, this new book from the author of Positively Fifth Street, in which the writer took his Harper’s advance to enter the WSOP himself and ended up at the final table, does reference Yardley’s classic. This isn’t theft, though and nor is it an homage, but, it was clearly a significant text in James McManus’s education because these stories, moulded into a novella, revolve around the pivotal moment when the hero receives the book as a gift.

We first meet Vince Killeen (dubbed ‘D’uh Vinci’ by his witty pals) as a third grader (about 8/9 years old) at St Joan’s Catholic school in 1960s Illinois.

His family are deeply religious and proud of their son. A model child and a model altar boy, still at that precious age when you take as gospel anything that adults tell you, he’s determined to be the first priest in the family.

We get a wonderfully, surreal, naïve view of the world through Vince’s young, impressionable explorations and encounters. From his notions of and increasing fascination with where babies come from to his innocent obsession with girls’ knees if the skirt is a little too short and affords him a forbidden sight.

From Altar Boy to Poker Shark

This protected world is fleetingly exposed on a visit to New York to stay with his grandparents. About 12 years old, Vince’s grandparents let him drink, swim with girls in the lake, and – shock horror – play poker.

Of course, the poker has him hooked, and he received a copy of the titular book by Yardley for his 13th birthday present. In the face of Vince’s parents’ outrage we suddenly encounter the seed of rebellion and of teenage anger and resentment.

Fast forward a few years and D’uh Vinci is becoming a mean poker shark taking down his first significant pot against his fellow golfing caddies and becoming a model student of Yardley in the process.

In this coming of age snapshot we travel through Vince’s teen years, through early games and first fumblings with the girl next door, to glimpse his conversion, being entertained en route with his amusing early naivety and engaged by page-turning poker hands.

I’ve termed the book a ‘novella’, but McManus more accurately terms it a group of stories, as three of the later chapters have previously been published in other formats.

A Grain of Truth in the Fiction?

McManus seems to have sewn together these stories with Vince as a through-line and, one could reasonably assume, some autobiographical experiences.

The book is a bit of a patchwork sometimes, but it’s rare to come across a fictional book about poker these days that you actually want to read all the way through to the end. In fact, it’s rare in this world of endless strategy books, to find anything fiction at all.

Education…is therefore a refreshing read, and you know that with McManus you’re going to get an engaging journey. McManus has been there and done it, and he certainly speaks with the voice of experience.

While Martin Scorsese might not be calling any time soon to turn this into his next Hollywood adaptation, it will certainly do before we get that Devilfish biopic everyone’s obviously craving for.