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Poker News | Poker Book Review

A Review of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

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There are many who feel that James McManus’ first book on poker, Positively Fifth Street, is the best book ever written on the subject.  In that legendary account, the author himself became a major part of the story when he reported on his successful attempt to satellite into and play the 2000 World Series of Poker Main Event, ultimately making the final table, while describing both the tournament and the trial of the suspected killers of Ted Binon, scion of the family that founded the WSOP.  Now, McManus has written a new volume, and many will suggest that he has now crafted the TWO best non-strategy poker books in history.  Cowboys Full:  The Story of Poker, is, on the face of it, a history of poker.  But unlike Ghosts at the Table, Des Wilson’s fairly recently published and entertaining poker history (read a review of it), Cowboys Full is a much more ambitious work.  Rather than just telling the story of poker, it is more a history of the United States seen through a poker lens, demonstrating the impact of “our national game” on the development of a nation.

McManus wastes no time in creating a large canvas for his work.  The very first chapter begins with the story of how Barack Obama, at the time a freshman state senator in Illinois, integrated himself into the Springfield political scene through regular poker games with his fellow lawmakers.  McManus boldly contrasts Obama, the poker player, always thinking in strategic terms and looking at long-range maneuvers to “bust” his adversaries, with his presidential opponent, John McCain, a notorious craps shooter, describing McCain’s choice of the “maverick” Sarah Palin for his running mate as the desperate roll of the dice that it was.  We know how the competition between the poker player and the craps player turned out.

While many of the characters upon which McManus dwells will be familiar to those who know some of poker’s history (yes, the story of Wild Bill Hickock is told there in loving detail, with some added anecdotes that I had never seen before), the author never simply presents the tales as isolated incidents, but instead, puts them in the larger context of the time in which they occurred.  He focuses on the unique character of Americans that inevitably led to a game like poker becoming so popular.  He takes us to bloody battles in the Civil War, and demonstrates the bluffing skills of some of the legendary Union and Confederate generals.  He shows the influence of poker on some of the most important legislations in American history (both Theodore Roosevelt’s “square deal” and FDR’s “new deal” are terms directly taken from the game, with the square deal referring both to the difficulty poker players had of finding an honest game around the turn of the century and to the challenges the average worker faced in making an honest living).

For those who are looking for more recent history, you will find it here as well.  McManus spends numerous chapters detailing the rise of the World Series of Poker.  There is coverage of the Andy Beal match, the rise of the Internet, and the legend of Johnny Moss and Nick the Greek.  However, I found the stories of events and people that I didn’t know to be even more fascinating and enlightening than those with which I was familiar.  The tale of the cryptographer and poker player Herbert Yardley, the story of the legendary racketeer Arnold Rothstein, accused of fixing the 1919 baseball World Series and later killed over a poker game, the long journey of Alice Ivers, the earliest great woman player, and even the history behind the “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings make for superb reading.

What really separates McManus’ work from other histories of poker is, quite frankly, the quality of the writing.  Poker is fortunate to have found such a thorough and expressive voice in a historian of its legacy.  While others have told many of the same stories, McManus adds an artist’s flair to every phrase.  This was clearly a labor of love for the author, and he goes out of his way to mine gold in every corner of the poker universe.  Whether he is describing the corruption in the Harding presidential administration or relishing in the details of cheating aboard a Mississippi riverboat, the reader feels as if he is inside the action, getting a birds-eye perspective on the attitudes and motivations of all the major players.

McManus doesn’t stop at the actual historical events surrounding the game, but also makes reference to poker’s influence on the arts, with nods to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and David Mamet’s American Buffalo, along with the expected references to such poker-heavy films as The Cincinnati Kid, The Sting and, of course, Rounders.  The Sting is referenced in a chapter on the history of cheating within the game, as the author spends quite a lot of time breaking down the many ways amateurs were separated from their money by the early “professionals.”

Cowboys Full:  The Story of Poker is a book to be relished and savored, like a fine seven-course meal.  Personally, I was inspired to revisit a number of eras of American history by McManus’ writing, as this book reignited my love for the topic that has long lain dormant.  While it may not have the same effect on the average reader, I promise that you will look at the history of poker in ways that you have likely never considered before.  While it is easy to see poker as “just” a game, McManus demonstrates how powerful a force it has been throughout the growth and emergence of the American ethos.  Although this book will not help you win a single additional hand the next time you sit down to play, it will likely do more for your self-image as a poker player than any other book you have read.  Cowboys Full:  The Story of Poker is a must-have book for anyone who has any interest in our game.  You will return to it over and over, and relish the love that the author clearly has for this most American of pastimes.

*Read Clearspine's Blog*

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