Cowboys Full

The Story of Poker

By James McManus

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

516 pp. $30.

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Reviewed by Rathe Miller


If there were a World Series of Poker Writing, then James McManus just won the main event.

It's not only that McManus delivers the definitive history of the game with Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, it's that he's so entertaining doing it that even non-pokeristas will get swept along for the ride.

When it comes to poker writing, novelist/poet/journalist McManus established his credentials with Positively Fifth Street, the 2003 best-selling memoir that limned his tormented success making the final table of the World Series of Poker main event - and winning a quarter of a million dollars - while covering the tawdry Ted Binion murder case.

Cowboys is less dramatic and more episodic by nature, yet McManus manages to transform poker into a character in a historical novel - a character we follow from its ancestry in Asia, Europe and the Middle East to New Orleans in the early 1800s, then up the Mississippi on riverboats to every corner of the inchoate country.

By 1875, the New York Times concluded that poker was the national pastime.

"My goal is to show how the story of poker helps explain who we are," writes McManus. His cultural tour of the United States seen through the lens of poker tells how this stew of skill, guts, deception and luck mixed so well with the emerging American psyche.

Or as Walter Matthau put it, "poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

McManus defines "poker thinking" as "shrewdness, psychological acuity, risk and resource management and the ability to leverage uncertainty." Turns out, for the last 200 years, our movers and shakers, military leaders and presidents have used poker mentality to succeed personally, in diplomacy and in war.

Especially presidents. Harry Truman had a set of poker chips embossed with the White House seal and took Winston Churchill for $250 the night before Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech. Truman's motto, "The buck stops here" comes from poker - the buck being a marker, which had often been a knife with a buckhorn handle, to signify who has the deal and hence, the responsibility.

In 1946, when the up-and-coming U.S. Rep. Lyndon Johnson tried to get into Truman's game and couldn't, he started his own. Dwight Eisenhower used poker winnings to woo Mamie, and Richard Nixon used his to finance his first congressional campaign.

Barack Obama used the game to help network his way to the White House and describes himself as "a pretty good poker player." McManus takes that to mean "at and away from the table," and contrasts Obama's "poker mindset" to the "dice-rolling mindset" of John McCain, who prefers craps - "a loud, mindless game in which the player never has a strategic advantage and must make impulsive decisions and then rely on blind luck." Ergo, McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate.

Some of the early chapters (there are 52, get it?) on such things as the history of papermaking and the origins of probability theory may seem far removed from the all-in action of today's televised, multimillion-dollar tournaments. I can hear the twentysomething, no-limit Texas Hold 'em players shouting, "Dude! Who cares? Tell me how to win the World Series of Poker!"

Well, take it easy, Action. Even the most parochial poker philistine gets his fix, with tales of Wild Bill Hickok and Poker Alice Duffield; the cryptographer Herbert O. Yardley, who helped usher in the age of the modern, non-cheating game; and the cocaine-addled card genius Stu Ungar, who won $25 million and was found dead and broke in a cheap motel.

Half-a-dozen chapters cover the Vegas scene, including the game's big dance, the World Series of Poker, from founder Benny Binion and early combatants Nick "the Greek" Dandalos and Johnny Moss up to the recently poker-made multimillionaires Chris Moneymaker, Phil Ivey and Barry Greenstein (the Robin Hood of poker, who gives all his winnings to charity).

To the question of luck versus skill in poker, McManus devotes several chapters and says that poker, like chess or bridge, is a thinking person's game that relies on logic, intelligence and the ability to adjust one's tactics to what opponents are doing. To compare it to playing the lottery, slot machines or craps "couldn't be much more ridiculous."

McManus overreaches at times for the poker tie-in and too often uses vague statements where specifics would better serve: "The odds against quads over quads fairly dealt are longer than January in International Falls." Cute, but tell us what the odds are.

In the tale of billionaire banker Andy Beal taking on a cadre of Vegas pros, McManus makes one of his few mistakes, giving Todd Brunson 17 outs (unseen cards that would complete a winning hand) on an open-ended, straight-flush draw, instead of the correct 15.

But we can forgive him the occasional misplayed hand. McManus wins almost every pot he enters.

Just as Doyle Brunson's Super System and Dan Harrington's Harrington on Hold 'em are the books on playing poker, Cowboys Full is now the book about the game.

Rathe Miller (rathemiller@aol.com), a Philadelphia writer, can be found most Saturday nights in the high-limit poker room at the Borgata in Atlantic City.