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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cowboys Full

James McManus begins his free-wheeling and wide-ranging history of poker, Cowboys Full (that's a term for a full house with three kings, by the way) with a theme that he will return to over and over again--that poker has been played by many important people. He starts with discussing Barack Obama's poker-playing acumen, and contrasts this with John McCain's favorite game, craps, which relies less on skill and more on risk-taking (which he ties to the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate). He then repeats the oft-told tale of how Richard Nixon earned a small fortune playing poker during World War II, which he used to fund his first campaign for congress.

I won't deny the facts that presidents have by and large been poker players, or that poker can be seen as a metaphor for many things, such as the bluff that John F. Kennedy used in the Cuban missile crisis, but McManus, as if challenged by a doubter, spends too much time laboring on this point. He also gives us warmed over history when discussing the history that surrounds poker, including factoids that are entirely beside the point, such as that Franklin Roosevelt, though paralyzed, could still get an erection.

But when McManus sticks to the history of the game, and how it has come to be as huge and popular as it is, then the book sings. The game's history is somewhat nebulous, possibly coming from a Persian game, which developed into the German Poch, the French Poque, and then, traveling up riverboats from New Orleans, poker. McManus also throws in a brief but elucidating history of playing cards.

He then hits on poker throughout the ages, from the Wild West (a detailed discussion of Wild Bill Hickok's last hand, when he held aces and eights) to gangster/gambler Arnold Rothstein to the kitschy paintings of dogs playing poker by C.M. Coolidge. Whether it's poker in literature or in the movies, McManus touches on it. He then spends a great deal of time on Herbert O. Yardley, a cryptographer who wrote one of the first primers on the game.

McManus also wrote a wonderful book about his participation in a World Series of Poker called Positively Fifth Street. This is perhaps why the best section of the book covers the history of that competition from its humble beginnings in 1970--just a few dozen of contestants and a prize of $30,000, to the extravaganza it is today, with over six-thousand players and a multimillion-dollar jackpot. He skillfully sketches the more colorful and gifted players, from Johnny Moss, the first winner, to Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar (who is dubbed the Keith Richards of poker), and the two Phils--Hellmuth and Ivey. At times I had to slow down when McManus gives details of hands, as I'm not a poker player and it takes me a while to figure out who's got a straight and what exactly beats what. His style is also very conversational, using a lot of lingo, but there's a helpful glossary in the back (although I'm still not quite sure what "the nuts" means).

This book offers poker from soup to nuts, with sections on cheating, both in the old days and in the Internet days, and takes a stand against the law signed by George W. Bush that outlawed Internet gambling. He also is very informative on how Texas Hold 'Em displaced draw poker as the most commonly played variant. I'm not quite sold on his claim that it is "America's game," perhaps because I don't know anyone who plays it, but I can't deny that it's a ubiquitous presence on television (due to the invention of a glass-table and camera set-up that allowed viewers to see the players' hold cards). I refuse to except it as a sport--any endeavor that doesn't call for players to leave their chairs is not a sport.

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