- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

COWBOYS FULL: THE STORY OF POKER
By James McManus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 528 pages
REVIEWED BY GABRIEL SCHECHTER

Poker is our national pastime. Baseball, football and racing have at various times been the dominant spectator sport, but more people have always played poker than any other form of competition, and their numbers are growing exponentially. The boom in televised poker this decade has elevated its status as a spectator sport, and Internet poker sites have enabled the game to spread globally, making it the international pastime as well.

How and why did this become so? In “Cowboys Full,” a comprehensive account of humanity’s fascination with games of chance, James McManus aims “to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are.” He succeeds by using a born storyteller’s gifts to trace the qualities needed to win at poker from prehistoric origins through endless societal and psychological permutations.

Risk has always been part of life, a delicate balance of courage and caution, and the spoils go to those — Mr. McManus parades before us an array of generals, politicians, entrepreneurs and gamblers — who combine ambitious aggression with a cool-headed ability to read and outmaneuver the opposition.

Mr. McManus rose to poker prominence in 2000 as an amateur player who somehow finished fifth in the main event of the World Series of Poker, an improbable adventure detailed in the best-selling “Positively Fifth Street” (2003). That blow-by-blow treatment had the immediacy of confession and the roller-coaster urgency of the tournament’s maelstrom of strategy buffeted by fortune. “Cowboys Full” is no less fascinating, though its impersonal tone and scholarly approach may make some readers yearn for the riveting suspense of his earlier classic.

“Nothing is more natural,” Mr. McManus writes, “or more essential to human achievement, than gambling.” Prehistoric man sought portents to optimize hunting prospects. Rolling bones gave way to dice, which were mentioned in “The Iliad.” The first “cards” were produced in Korea and China roughly 1,500 years ago, and card games have evolved steadily since then.

The ancestors of poker were “bluffing games” played in Europe in Renaissance times. Each country had its own variant, some using 20-card decks, others 36 or 52, with cards of assorted rank, number and likelihood. The common features were deception, bluffing, odds, judgment, and, above all, luck. Anybody could play, and anybody could win, as we’ve seen again in this year’s World Series of Poker, when a raw 21-year-old became the youngest champion in the event’s 40-year history, breaking the record set last year by another 21-year-old.

It seems inevitable that a specific place and time would allow these second-cousin games to congeal into one form that would capture everyone’s devotion. That place was New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, when a polyglot swarm of immigrants brought their games with them. The new American amalgam — draw poker — moved up the Mississippi River on steamboats and into the American West. Mr. McManus excels in showing how the daring and resourcefulness that sent settlers westward into a wilderness fraught with danger and opportunity also brought an affinity for this new game.

A poker player could not only assert his manhood but also accumulate the wealth that would measure his social prominence. As the 19th century progressed, the game grew with the nation; like baseball, it got a big boost during the Civil War from the interchange of games between soldiers of both sides. New forms of poker evolved. Stud replaced draw as the game of choice, just as hold ‘em has become the game of the past half-century.

Mr. McManus demonstrates how each chain in poker’s evolution served the needs and penchants of the people who popularized them. His cast of characters is plentiful and engaging, and all get their due: Girolamo Cardano, the 16th-century Milanese pioneer of probabilities; Jonathan Harrington Green, the riverboat cardsharp; the legendary Wild Bill Hickok; Herbert O. Yardley, the cryptographer whose book “The Education of a Poker Player” remains a classic; and many more.

Diligently researched (enough for 40 pages of notes), this is the most entertaining collection of poker tales ever published, stories that illustrate Mr. McManus‘ main thesis, namely that poker principles are applied every day in vital areas of life, notably warfare and politics. There is a lengthy section on the Civil War, during which the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest repeatedly bluffed and deceived his Union counterparts until the Union prevailed due to the superior skills of Ulysses S. Grant.

“Like any good poker player,” Mr. McManus writes, “Grant had a knack for capitalizing on the overly passive or aggressive tendencies of rebel generals,” many of whom he knew from West Point. “He could tell bluff and bluster from real courage.” A more recent parallel was the Cuban missile crisis, where President Kennedy called Premier Khrushchev’s world-risking bluff.

Kennedy was one of the few presidents who wasn’t an avid poker player. Richard Nixon financed his first congressional campaign with poker winnings. Dwight Eisenhower was an even better player. Franklin Roosevelt hosted late-night low-stakes games at the White House to relieve the stress of guiding the nation through the Depression and war.

Many future presidents have used poker as a networking tool, self-perceived outsiders joining backroom games to gain acceptance as one of the boys. They include Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and, yes, Barack Obama, who used the game to become a player in Illinois politics and in 2007 answered a campaign reporter’s question about his hidden talents by admitting that “I’m a pretty good poker player.”

Mr. McManus also emphasizes poker’s long history as “the cheating game.” Stacked decks and crooked schemes have always existed, and he details the current investigation of a former World Series of Poker champion whose Internet cheating netted him more than a million dollars. In that light, it is surprising that Mr. McManus doesn’t discuss the role of professional dealers in making poker a legitimate, thriving industry in Las Vegas and elsewhere. He also betrays his player’s bias by failing to mention dealer abuse in his discussion of objectionable poker behavior.

Aside from that glaring omission, “Cowboys Full” should remain the definitive study of poker history long after the next 21-year-old wins the game’s biggest prize.

Gabriel Schechter is a 20-year veteran of the poker industry, including five years of dealing at the World Series of Poker.

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