Photograph: © Aynsley Floyd
In 2000, Harper’s magazine sent writer James McManus to cover the World Series of Poker, a popular annual tournament in Las Vegas. He entered the event and unexpectedly came in fifth, won a pile of loot, and had a very different type of story on his hands. Magazine article became book (Positively Fifth Street), book became bestseller, McManus became poker celebrity. But the School of the Art Institute writing professor isn’t confining himself to a life of cards; his new book, Physical: An American Checkup, details McManus’s very personal expedition to the Mayo Clinic to get a comprehensive examination called the “executive checkup,” while detouring into everything from stem-cell research, family dynamics, fertility, faith, and the drinking of cow’s blood (see this issue for an excerpt). Victoria Lautman talked with McManus, who spoke by phone from his home on the North Shore.
Q: From the world of poker to the world of being poked by doctors. Sort of a surprising follow-up after all that Texas Hold ‘Em.
A: Well, I’ve definitely become The Poker Writer in that I’m writing a history of poker, and I’m the poker contributor for The New York Times. But I’m happy that there’s this non-poker book coming out in the midst of it all, because I really do continue to think about other things. Physical is a kind of comedy about facing one’s mortality while trying to live as long as possible. I don’t have longevity in my genes.
Q: The core of this book, your visit to the Mayo Clinic, was originally an article meant for Harper’s magazine, but it never appeared there.
A: Right. Harper’s hired me on the same principle of sending me to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker. This time, in the summer of 2002, they wanted me to get an “executive checkup” at Mayo and turn it into a story, but then they killed the piece. The reason, I think, is because I fell completely in love with the Mayo Clinic and didn’t wind up writing a critical exposé. It was my impression that Mayo was one of the most beautiful things that human beings had ever produced, that it was absolutely glorious.
Q: Did your poker acumen serve you in writing the book, or during any of those icky medical procedures?
A: Um. No. But poker is about risk management and the calculus for how much fun you want to have in your life. How long you want to live is also risk management . . . Hey! I should have put that in the book! Wish you’d asked me that two years ago.
Q: What will your poker buddies think, reading so much about your colon?
A: I play poker with a bunch of older, middle-aged guys, so there’s lots of dark health humor and talk about PSA tests and triglycerides. But if I’m in the middle of a cheese course at Alinea, I probably won’t want to talk about what goes on three and a half feet up my rectum.
Q: I noticed that the James McManus Web site is all poker and nothing about medicine.
A: There is no James McManus Web site.
Q: Yes, there is. Go see for yourself.
A: Are you kidding me? I swear to you I have no connection to it whatsoever. Are they selling anything? Can I make money from it? Thanks for telling me. I’m absolutely rocked to my plimsolls.
Find out how you can see a live discussion with James McManus and Victoria Lautman sponsored by Chicago magazine on January 22nd.
Purchase a copy of James McManus’ new book, Physical, from Amazon.com: