'Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker': an all-American game comes of age
James McManus' "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker" is a comprehensive look at how the game of poker is interwoven with the American psyche in its focus on risk-taking, strategy and the ability to gauge your opponent's strength. McManus discusses his book Thursday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "Cowboys Full" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5; available through www.brownpapertickets.com, and at the door.
'Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker'
by James McManus
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 516 pp., $30
How many books about poker would it take, flooding into the American marketplace, to prompt The New York Times to observe that "poker literature is assuming formidable proportions"?
Whatever that number, it was reached — not this year or last — but in 1875.
That tidbit of information comes courtesy of author James McManus, who tosses another blue chip into the swelling pot of poker literature with the publication of "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker."
Browse any sizable bookstore, or online book purveyor, and you may decide that seemingly every player who has won (or nearly won) a significant poker event has something indispensable to say about the game. McManus focuses his attention on the game's past and its development into a worldwide phenomenon. He tracks card-playing's roots as far back as the 6th-century Korean practice of reading randomly tossed silk strips to guide important decisions, and a game developed in China a century later with dotted cards similar to thin dominoes.
But his main focus is on poker in the U.S. and how the nation and the game came of age together.
There's something particularly American, McManus posits, in the psyche of poker, how it rewards risk-taking, strategic vision and the ability to accurately gauge your opponent's strength while trying to prevent that opponent from assessing yours. Poker tactics and strategies have been employed by presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, according to McManus.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? That was a high-stakes poker hand, in which President Kennedy successfully called the bluff of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had sent nuclear missiles to Cuba. With the highest stakes imaginable in play — the potential use of nuclear weapons — Khrushchev folded, ordering the missiles back home. Reprising a piece he published in The New Yorker last year, McManus describes how a weekly poker game in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1990s helped Obama, then a young state senator, connect with political allies and adversaries alike.
"Cowboys Full" tracks the maturation process of poker through a troublesome adolescence in which cheating "card sharps" proliferated during the era of riverboat gamblers into a more socially — though not universally — respected pastime. He documents the rise of Texas Hold 'Em as today's poker game of choice, the development of the World Series of Poker as the game's first mega-tournament and poker's Internet evolution into a game played online by competitors on every continent. In the realm of poker literature, "Cowboys Full" faces some stiff competition from McManus himself, whose "Positively Fifth Street" (2003) is a fast-paced account of McManus' foray into big-time poker, in which he not only covers, but competes in, the World Series of Poker's marquee event, while simultaneously tracking a murder trial in the messy death of Vegas casino heir Ted Binion. In contrast, "Cowboys Full" at times feels more comprehensive than compelling, more study than story.
Still, there's no denying that the author has done his homework. Moreover, McManus has a writer's eye for anecdotes and details that bring the material to life. The book covers a lot of ground, but thanks to McManus' particular blend of skills, it does so with insight, clarity and credibility.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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