Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, By James McManus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2009)
In the spring of 2000, still three years shy of Chris Moneymaker’s World Series win and the subsequent commencement of the poker boom, Harper’s assigned novelist James McManus to Las Vegas to report on the increasing presence of women in that traditionally macho competition. Though McManus would ultimately meet his journalistic obligations, he possessed an ulterior motive: to compete in the $10,000 Main Event of the World Series of Poker.
McManus had spent months prepping for the trip, poring over books on strategy, practicing on computer software, and honing his rapidly-improving skills with friends. After arriving in Vegas, he used part of his magazine advance to buy into a series of satellite tournaments, eventually succeeding in playing his way into the Big One. A week later, McManus had outlasted more than five hundred opponents, placing fifth. His prize was a quarter of a million dollars but his real accomplishment may have been Positively 5th Street, a 2003 memoir of that experience. The book drew praise from everyone—from poet Billy Collins to poker celebrity Danny Negreanu.
Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, McManus’s latest, also bears the endorsement of a poker professional on its back cover. (Magician-turned high stakes pro Antonio Esfandiari: “A must read!”) Yet it’s hard to imagine very many compulsive gamblers slogging through this doorstop of a book.
Which isn’t necessarily a criticism. McManus, in Cowboys Full, has provided an exhaustively-detailed history of poker—more fodder for academics, one suspects, than rounders. He traces the origins of playing cards to the Korean peninsula, where silk cards evolved from an ancient ritual of shooting arrows into the sky and then interpreting their fallen patterns; to China, where a hybrid of playing cards and dominoes became popular among the idle harem of a T’ang dynasty emperor; and to Persia, where the first decks, in an act of Islamo-chauvinism, went without queens.
Poker itself is thought to have descended from the French poque, a game played using 20 cards that holds a similar hand hierarchy. Carried by French Canadians to the Louisiana territory in the late 18th century, poque mutated into modern-day five card draw, then migrated via steamboat up the busy Mississippi. By the start of the Civil War, the game was well enough known throughout the country that Abraham Lincoln was using poker metaphors to defend his political decisions.
Cowboys Full, in a way, is a history of America filtered through the lens of poker. Our greatest wars, leaders, and folk heroes all make appearances in the book. And as McManus repeatedly demonstrates, there is something deeply American about a game that encourages self-reliance and “psychological acuity” (McManus’s term), but also deception, manipulation, and even outright immorality in the pursuit of profit.
“My goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are,” McManus writes in the book’s first chapter. He means the curious blend of puritan and cowboy, the hardworking tightwad and relentless risk-taker. To be a winning poker player—or, it could be argued, a successful American—one must encompass both of these character traits. You can’t sit at home on the sidelines. But you also can’t go all in all of the time.
Despite poker’s widespread popularity in the 20th century, it wasn’t until the early years of the 21st that the game achieved its true cultural cachet. Amateur Chris Moneymaker’s groundbreaking win in the 2003 World Series, the invention and implementation of the “hole cam” (a special camera allowing television viewers to see player’s hole cards for the first time), and the development of online poker, all helped the game to evolve from kitchen table hobby into its current corporate-sponsored spectacle.
Though McManus refrains from offering much personal perspective in the book, it is clear he admires the cocktail of personality traits—aggression, acuity, discipline—that constitute a successful player. He seems to have no problem proselytizing for poker. In addition to his books, he has written articles for the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications that celebrate the game’s virtues. And in a chapter of Cowboys Full called “Poker School, Poker Law, Poker Ethics,” he writes approvingly of the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, an organization founded by Harvard professors Charles Nesson and Lawrence Lessig to “teach strategic thinking, geopolitical analysis, risk assessment and money management” through poker.
From the point of view of McManus and these other advocates, poker is distinct from blackjack or craps in that the former is a game of skill, the latter games of chance. This despite two chapters in McManus’s book—“Fooled by Randomness” and “Bunches of Luck”—that serve to show just how much luck involved in poker there is. Or that games of skill as well as games of chance contain losers and winners both, presumably many of whom are playing above their means. If one can discern a moral perspective in McManus’s book at all, it is only that he believes there should be less government regulation—fewer impediments to playing poker.
Yet as one arrives at the book’s final chapter—a Family of Man-like tribute to the range of color, culture, and creed found around the poker table these days—the gruesome story of Stu Ungar, related more than one hundred pages earlier, bobs back to the surface. Ungar is the only player in poker history to win the Main Event three times: back to back in 1980 and 1981, then again in 1997. Like many other poker savants before him and since, he blew most of his tournament winnings on gambling—games of chance, where he had no advantage—and drugs. By the time of the 1997 tournament, McManus tells us, his nostrils were partially collapsed from the years of cocaine abuse. He would win that one, cementing his place in poker history, but a short six months later he was dead, overdosed in a seedy Las Vegas motel room. He was 45 years old and, despite his million dollar prize half a year earlier, dead broke.
“Addiction and mental illness remain disgracefully misunderstood in our culture,” McManus writes in reference to Ungar. And one has to wonder, in this booming poker economy, how many others have been drawn to poker’s bright flame, only to end up burned, broke, and forgotten. Yet the pages on Ungar are the only mention in Cowboys Full that something called gambling addiction even exists.
Maybe the old adage about the history books being written by the winners applies here, but in an otherwise painstaking work, one can’t help but feel that this omission is, well, disgraceful.
Alex Gallo-Brown is a Seattleite living in Brooklyn.