Cowboys Full – James McManus

Books, Reviews, Writers

Jim McManus’s Cowboys Full is a thorough and energetic history of poker. Or, perhaps more accurately, Cowboys Full is a history of how power, will, and guile intersect with luck to shape national destinies. McManus examines poker’s political and cultural influence, from its origins in China to the game’s explosive popularity online today. McManus delineates his program in his first chapter, “Pokerticians,” an overview of the book that details how poker has had a lasting impact on world politics. Covering the gambling habits of Presidents and generals, kings and clerics, McManus’s book makes a strong case for poker as a metaphor of power and capitalism.

This is no dry history tome, however. McManus is a professional poker player and a professional writer, and Cowboys Full reads with a vigor that approximates the energy of a good game. While American presidents and politicians dominate his narrative, there are also outlaws, cowboys, and confidence men. And writers. Lots and lots of writers. McManus draws not just from earlier histories of poker, but also from novelists like Herman Melville and Mark Twain. He prefaces each of his chapters with a quote, usually from a novel or short story or poem, and I’ll confess I warmed quickly to the book after the first two chapters led with some heavy lines from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (McManus also quotes from No Country for Old Men and uses The Road as a visual reference point). He’s also keen on Bob Dylan.

Of course, this is a history of poker (or “The Story of Poker,” rather, as its subtitle declares), and there’s plenty of poker here–famous games, cheating scams, and today’s big names–but not so much to elicit a yawn from a non-player (or a casual player like myself). The second half of the book moves to Las Vegas, detailing the ins and outs of big tournament action. It also seeks to explain how Texas Hold ‘Em became a spectator sport by the middle of the aughties. But McManus’s book does not fetishize (or unduly valorize) the superstars (and wannabes) of big time poker, and the narrative never falls into the kind of catty tell-all tone that often marks insider stories. McManus is more concerned with philosophy and game theory.

At its core, Cowboys Full is a cultural history of poker, and like the talk at many friendly games, there’s a rambling fluidity to McManus’s narrative, a willingness to run on and overflow in disparate directions. At the same time, there’s a considerable syntactic focus: McManus is handy with punchy sentences and sharp anecdotes, and he keeps most of his chapters short and lively. This is a fun book to read. Cowboys Full is well-researched, with a helpful index and a glossary of terms, but it should not be mistaken for a didactic theory manual or a comprehensive account of everything that ever happened in poker. Instead, McManus has given us a rewarding a volume that uses its subject to enlarge our understanding of both our past and our present–and maybe our future. Recommended.

Cowboys Full is new in trade paperback this week from Picador this week.

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