Tuesday, April 20, 2010

James McManus -- Cowboys full: the story of poker

Let's hear it for the new historians, who take a subject -- an idea, an artifact, a slogan, a style of dress, a game -- and study it carefully, using the same analytic tools their colleagues use while studying the "big" topics like war. To understand our culture, it's sometimes more useful to view it from ground level rather than from the broader academic lens.

Cowboys Full
, written by a journalist who himself was a participant in a World Series of Poker, is an entertaining and educational trip through western history, starting before the 1400s and continuing to the present. In fifteenth century Italy, decks of cards had coins, cups, scimitars and polo sticks. Stiff cardboard, too stiff to shuffle, was used later, and just about any group of people -- especially wanderers, warriors, professional gamblers and prospectors -- made decks of cards from whatever material was easiest to come by.

One of McManus' favorite topics is the connection between poker and politics. He includes the well-known stories, such as Nixon's financing his first political campaign with his poker winnings, but he also tells stories of other presidents and important people, illustrating the importance of discipline: the poker face.

Closer to the present, he covers the beginning and growth of the World Series of Poker, which all of us have seen at least on television. Since its inception, the admission fee has been $10,000. McManus says:

...For perspective, it's what Robert Ford was paid to kill Jesse James in 1882, and what John Backus cheats the cheaters out of with a double cold deck during the voyage to San Francisco in Twain's "The Professor's Yarn." ...

...Ten thousand dollars had been roughly the median family income when the World Series began in 1970, and despite inflation the sum will still buy a year's tuition at an excellent state university, a used VW Beetle in pretty good shape, or a family vacation to Hawaii. It's also the amount won by the high-stakes pro Howard Lederer, a vegetarian, from his fellow pro David Grey, who had bet him that he wouldn't eat a cheeseburger...

This book is stimulating, a fun read that will send you off in many direction as you decide you want to know more about the people, places, and events relating to poker. A born story-teller, McManus delights.


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