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America’s Game: On James McManus’ new book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

From living rooms to casinos to the White House—poker pulses in the veins of the American character. Or so says James McManus in his new book, written while he gambled online

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In person, Jim McManus, 58, has both the sharp intensity and the friendly charm of a former competitive athlete who does not like to lose. On an afternoon in midsummer, he is dressed in a T-shirt and running shorts, his hair gray, beard carefully groomed, looking like a dad on the way to his daughter’s soccer game. Nothing about him betrays the fact that he spends most of his day in front of the computer gambling, and, between hands, working on a novel about a poker player, titled The Winter Casino. The office where he writes and plays poker is nothing out of the ordinary, except that it has two bookshelves clearly divided by subject matter, which display his two most salient intellectual interests: fiction and history.

Recently McManus has combined these two loves, fiction’s magnetic draw and history’s preference for context and meaning, to create Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, a dazzling new nonfiction book that covers the historical and cultural development of poker in the United States with all of the sweep, drama, and comedy of an epic novel. The book lays claim to the idea that poker—as often as it is maligned—is actually more demonstrative of our national character than any other American sport or game, even more than our dearly beloved baseball.

“Ever since the Mayflower carried [the Pilgrims] to Plymouth in 1620, what is often called the American Experiment has lavishly rewarded and punished those who take risks,” McManus writes. “We carry an immigrant-specific genotype, a genetic marker that expresses itself as energetic risk taking, restless curiosity, and competitive self-promotion.”

A prime example of the American character in poker technique is a formerly obscure Illinois state senator: “I’m a pretty good poker player,” Barack Obama once admitted. In Cowboys Full, McManus notes, “Springfield had long been the province of cynical, corrupt backroom operators. So how was this highly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.” Obama often joined Democrats, Republicans, and lobbyists in a friendly game, where the future commander in chief displayed a preference for “calculated poker, avoiding long-shot draws in favor of patiently waiting for strong starting hands.” More importantly, by McManus’s reckoning, Obama’s poker experience demonstrates his ability to read bluffs. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama saw through Iraq’s empty threat of weapons of mass destruction, asserting in 2002, “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” He understood even then that the most dire foreign threats to the United States were in Pakistan and Afghanistan, correctly reading the strength of the players in the game. McManus argues that Obama’s election affirms the nation’s inclination toward a leader who can coolly negotiate the ever-important balance between the slow play and going for the big score.

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Cowboys Full—being published this month by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux—is a tribute to America’s love of those among us who have the heart to gamble big. The new book is something of a gamble for McManus, who has no formal training as a historian, having begun his career as a fiction writer and poet. He readily points out that Cowboys Full (a poker term for a full house with kings) is not a typical historical account, but a story that gives readers the opportunity to delve into the bigger-than-life characters, high-stakes moments, and startling changes that have occurred in poker over the last 200 years.

“I started investigating the history of poker, reading everything I could, and I was shocked that there wasn’t a book like this,” McManus says. “To me, it was so central to the American way of thinking.” He also admits he was “out there flapping by myself, trying to learn to write a history. I was 55 years old, trying to teach myself a new genre. So I forced myself to read books about American history, and it was fantastic. So much of the story of poker is undocumentable, because it doesn’t have the apparatus of typical history.”

Which is exactly what makes Cowboys Full so compelling: It’s a history that follows all the under-the-table trickery, subterfuge, and presidential card games of the nation’s popular imagination, subjects that before had been captured mostly in literature or song. McManus adds, “There’s room in the world for a straight, square history of poker, and this isn’t it. It’s a combination of history and lore, and a hybrid of [the truth and] what’s likely true.”

Take one of the book’s liveliest chapters, “Styles and Technologies of Cheating.” Here McManus details the strategies of various 19th-century riverboat gamblers, who made their way up and down the Mississippi fleecing the unsuspecting and unfortunate. In use at the time were all varieties of cheating instruments, from marked decks to holdout devices “capable of snatching a card from one’s hand and tugging it up that sleeve until the time was right to push it back down again.” Even with these accessories, a suspicious sucker might still call for a fresh deck at every hand, so the cardsharp would sometimes have to mark the new deck right in plain view—perhaps using a needle point welded to a ring to make tiny scratches or holes on high-value cards. Or there were “shiners,” reflective devices such as the surfaces of cigarette cases, snuffboxes, or mirrored rings, angled to reveal the faces of an opponent’s cards. Although extremely popular at the time, these instruments eventually led to the development of various antigambling statutes and to poker’s outlaw cachet.

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