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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

(page 3 of 4)

This sometimes outlandish history seems to parallel Jim McManus’s lifelong love of the game. His story, like the story of America and the story of poker, begins with the gutsiness of immigrants: “There’s this amazing idea that America introduced to the world, that regular folk could control their own possibilities,” he says. “People today forget that. Throughout most of the world and all of human history, there have been hierarchies. In a poker tournament, everyone starts with the same number of chips. To win, you don’t have to be well-born—you just need to be inclined to take risks. We all know most of us are immigrants, but by studying the [social makeup of Americans], we’ve learned that certain characteristics have become more dominant here in America than in other places. This willingness to leave your homeland and take a risk is what we all have in common.”

McManus’s own great-great-great-grandparents traveled oversea from Ireland and ended up in an Irish community in the Bronx, New York. McManus was born there in 1951. His maternal grandparents, Thomas and Betsy Madden, first taught him how to play poker at the age of nine. Although McManus’s parents were devout Catholics who bristled at the idea of gambling, his grandfather Thomas “worked in the building trades and spent a lot of time at the racetracks, gin halls, and playing card games,” McManus says. “Both of my grandparents had gone through the Great Depression, and so we used to play what they called relief poker, which meant a fraction of every pot would go to a relief fund so that if you went bust, you could go and get money from that. I always thought that said a lot about what they thought of America. It was exactly like FDR.”

In 1958, McManus’s family moved to Joliet. Although he had been raised in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, McManus quickly became a diehard fan of the Chicago White Sox. His interest in poker also changed. By the time he was high-school age, he was playing more seriously and having to hide his winnings. Gone were the days of relief poker; by the mid-1960s he had his cards and buy-in money stashed in a baggie in the gravel of the family’s crawlspace. “If my parents caught me with seven or eight dollars—that was a huge amount of money in 1965—I would have some serious explaining to do.”

While still in high school, McManus began caddying at the Hinsdale Golf Club. “Caddyshacks are hotbeds of poker,” he says. “It was the first job where I made pretty good money, and some of the professional caddies were full-grown men, and they really knew how to play. I got schooled by those guys. One of the guys, his name was Tennessee. The other guy, the caddy master, his name was Doc. I remember one day, I caddied for nine or ten hours and had made 16 dollars or so, and in a few minutes, I had lost all the money I had made, playing poker. I must have been 15 at the time, because my father was picking me up. He said, ‘How did you do?’ and I don’t know why I admitted it, but I told him what happened. My father was sad and disappointed and furious, all at the same time. He was torn between not letting me go back to caddying and knowing it was good money, and so of course I had to swear up and down on a stack of Bibles that I wouldn’t play poker again. Of course, I did.”

 

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