Review

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

by James McManus

Mark Twain’s experience on the Mississippi River exposed
the writer to the riverboats and the poker games that flourished on
board. He observed, “There are few things that are so
unpardonably neglected in our country as poker.” Were he
alive today, Twain could not make that observation. Poker has
become a national obsession with ESPN and other television networks
devoting countless hours to presenting the game to players and
viewers, and revenue for online poker has reached several billion
dollars annually. Coupled with the fact that players also may play
online for free, it is impossible to estimate the number of players
around the world.

For those poker aficionados who thirst for insight into the
history of the game, COWBOYS FULL by James McManus is, simply put,
an encyclopedia of the card game played in almost every conceivable
venue where one can place a table, chairs, deck of cards and stacks
of poker chips, tracing the game from its creation in Europe and
Asia. As immigrants travelled to our shores, they brought the
various manifestations of the card game with them, and as America
expanded westward, there was an accompanying infatuation with poker
that spread from the colonies to the frontier.

Along the way, McManus points out many interesting and
informative facts representing the interplay between poker and our
nation’s history. For example, he notes that while Barack
Obama brought many unique new accomplishments to his presidency, he
shared one trait with almost all former occupants of the White
House: a love of poker. From the founding fathers to Andrew
Jackson, from FDR to Truman, there is a long and exalted history of
poker-playing presidents. Indeed, Richard Nixon is thought to have
used poker winnings acquired during his military service in World
War II to finance his first congressional campaign in California.
There is no doubt that part of the history of this great nation was
made during the course of the occasional poker night at the White
House.

McManus knows the game of poker well. In 2000, he travelled to
Las Vegas to cover the murder of casino owner Ted Binion for
Harper’s Magazine. McManus used his advance on this
article as a stake to enter the World Series of Poker and finished
fifth, winning nearly one-quarter of a million dollars. He also
described the experience in POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET, an
entertaining account of the poker he played and the people he
played with.

COWBOYS FULL is a wonderful book on several levels. First is the
history of the game brought to America by immigrants from many
lands. Next is the rich history of poker: as the country grew,
poker became a staple of the expanding nation and, in many ways,
exemplified the frontier spirit that was America. McManus describes
many famous historical poker incidents, including perhaps the
best-known poker legend: the death of Wild Bill Hickok in a saloon
in Deadwood in the Dakota Territory.

More important than the history of poker is the impact of the
game on American life. Its various strategies have profoundly
influenced not only game theory but strategies of nuclear
deterrence as well. Perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a
successful conclusion because John F. Kennedy was a better poker
player than Nikita Khrushchev.

Of course, no discussion of poker can be complete without
talking about the modern-day phenomenon that is the World Series of
Poker. From its inception in the 1950s as a two-man showdown
between Johnny Moss and Nick “the Greek” Dandalos, the
World Series has become an event that draws more than 8,000
contestants and coverage broadcast to a worldwide audience. McManus
provides a substantial history of the various events as well as the
myriad of unique personalities who have become known for the skill
exhibited during the World Series.

COWBOYS FULL is an excellent book for anyone who plays or enjoys
watching poker. If you are looking for a gift for a poker-playing
friend, this is a sure bet. And that is no bluff.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 28, 2010

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker
by James McManus

  • Publication Date: September 28, 2010
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312430086
  • ISBN-13: 9780312430085