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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By the late sixties, with the war in Vietnam raging, McManus was enrolled as a freshman at Loyola University and was less interested in card games and more interested in the politics of resistance. “We’d take over the campus and throw rocks through windows, thinking that was going to stop the war in Vietnam.” In May 1970, the Loyola campus closed briefly after the shootings at Kent State. McManus took some time off from college and later transferred to the University of Illinois Circle Campus (now UIC) to finish his degree in philosophy. “The next thing I knew, my girlfriend was pregnant, and I was having a kid; so I had a kid before I graduated from college. I don’t recommend it. I was so stuck for cash, trying to support a family on a teaching assistantship, so there was no time, no money, no opportunity to play poker.”
McManus began teaching full-time at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s, and in 1983 A. Alvarez’s nonfiction poker book, The Biggest Game in Town, was published. Reading about the still-developing World Series of Poker—held annually at Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas—McManus was mesmerized. “There were these no-limit Hold ’Em games for gigantic sums of money. I would have loved to play in an event like that, but it cost $10,000 to enter, and I was supporting my family on $8,000 a year.” Throughout the eighties, McManus routinely played in small, friendly games “whenever my budget allowed me to play, but I wasn’t making more than going-out-to-dinner money.”
His first marriage ended in 1988, and he began dating Jennifer Arra a year later. Around the same time, he ventured into journalism, which eventually led to the breakthrough book of his career. In 2000, McManus pitched Harper’s magazine a story about a killing in Vegas and how women and computer nerds were beginning to do well in poker tournaments. He admits that his dreams of Vegas and the World Series of Poker factored in. “The real reason I chose that subject is that I wanted a free trip to the tournament with expense money and a check. It was $4,000 for 4,000 words. My second child with Jennifer had just been born. It was a huge amount of money to write an article, going up against my 30-year burn to go play in a tournament out there. And so Jennifer and I had a debate. And then she said okay. So then I had to win the satellite tournament and get very, very off-the-charts lucky. I mean, it intensified my interest in poker by a million times—I’m writing about it for Harper’s, and I’m in this tournament, and all the people I’ve been reading about are at the table across from me. Some confluences of events turn out really, really badly. That was the year I got lucky.” He expanded the Harper’s story into Positively Fifth Street, which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Even after the success of Positively Fifth Street, McManus continues to teach writing and literature at the Art Institute, though one of the biggest changes in his life is the income he now earns playing poker online. A beneficiary of the wireless age, he works on various writing assignments while simultaneously playing at fulltilt.com (where he’s listed and pictured as a “Friend of Full Tilt,” along with such other notables as the actor Don Cheadle and Brian Koppelman, who wrote the poker movie Rounders). Much of Cowboys Full was actually composed while playing small-stakes Hold ’Em, a technique he’s continuing for The Winter Casino. “I sit here and work on my book while I’m playing online. I’ll write, and occasionally, depending on what I get dealt, I’ll play the hand. I wait for a huge hand—kings, queens, aces. I get an hourly wage and rakeback, which adds up over the course of a month. Part of my job is to chat with online players. So as soon as I get to my desk in the morning, I put a game on, and then I begin writing. It makes me feel good to kill a bunch of birds with one stone.
“That’s more or less how my day goes—and instead of being in Las Vegas or Indiana, I’m right here with my wife and kids. Usually, it’s 80 or 90 percent of me writing. But I’m very happy to be writing a novel about a guy who’s addicted to playing poker, because I’m addicted. There’s no question about it.”