Cod, of course. And salt. Coffee, cotton, and coal. Vanilla. And chocolate. The pencil. The potato. Penicillin. Bananas, olives, and corn. Tobacco and aspirin. Rats and pigeons. Honey. Gunpowder. Even dust.
In recent years, all of these subjects have had their “biographies” published. So why not poker? It’s certainly more popular than rats. In 1999, 393 players participated in the World Series of Poker’s main event. This year, 6,494 hopefuls ponied up $10,000 each for the privilege. And who better to write the game’s history than James McManus, whose 2003 bestseller Positively Fifth Street immediately joined the ranks of poker classics like The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez and Big Deal by Anthony Holden?
One feels an initial wave of relief and gratitude that McManus chose a relatively modest subtitle — “The Story of Poker” — for this history, resisting the temptation (and the likely pressure from the marketing department) to go with something like, “How a Card Game Transformed America and the World Forever.” But in the first chapter, we get this ominously ambitious statement of purpose: “My goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are.”
The explanation goes back, God help us, to the very beginning. Even by the increasingly low standards for the application of the ideas of evolutionary psychology to any and all subjects, it’s hard to see where McManus is headed when he drones that all organisms, from beetles to hyenas, need to “maintain their physical safety while competing for nourishment and opportunities to copulate.” (Talk of poker is coming soon, yes?) Or when he proclaims that sports fans are passionate because “the home-protecting prowess of a center or goalie or catcher evokes the life-and-death urgency felt on hunting grounds and battlefields a thousand generations ago.” (Really now, about that poker…)
Luckily, we don’t loiter long on the primordial plains, jumping ahead to Renaissance Europe. The antecedents to poker were an international lot — games like primiera (Italy), mus (Spain), brag (England), poch (Germany), and, most directly, as nas (Persia) and poque (France), the last of which had the same hierarchy of hands as poker would, minus straights and flushes — but poker as it’s currently played is an American invention. McManus spends the first chapter arguing that the skill set it rewards — logic, intuition, and risk assessment — is a compelling stand-in for the skills valuable in American capitalism, domestic politics, and foreign affairs.
This hypothesis finds a laboratory in the U.S. Civil War. Those battlefields laid the foundation for poker’s later widespread popularity. Soldiers had taken to betting on races between lice, so it was well past time for a leisure upgrade. When they returned to civilian life, they brought with them their enthusiasm for the young card game. McManus also sees the conflict as providing one of the earliest examples of poker’s deeper, metaphorical resonance. Ulysses S. Grant “preferred forcing the [military] action with poker-inflected aplomb. He’d proved to be especially good at misrepresenting his own position and strength and at divining his opponents’ intentions, which he usually countered with devastating effectiveness. Chattanooga was surrounded? Vicksburg refortified? Raise!”
Though he’s smart enough to hedge his bets (“Parallels between poker and nuclear showdowns are never neat”), McManus trots out Realpolitik comparisons too frequently and too confidently. When it comes to the Cold War, from Kennedy to Reagan, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the survival of Western civilization depended on bluffing effectively.” When dealing with Iran’s capabilities, “If Ahmadinejad claims to already have ‘the full gamut of nuclear technology,’ a pokerticious diplomat will infer that he doesn’t.” Even if you agree with McManus’s analysis — his lessons are occasionally convincing — there’s something strange about so much figurative preoccupation in a book about poker; it’s like reading a history of football that devotes dozens of pages to “Hail Mary” solutions to business problems, or one of jazz that stresses the importance of improvisation in acing a job interview.
When McManus turns his attention to poker qua poker, it becomes clear why he felt the need to impose such an organizing conceit. There isn’t really a story of poker so much as stories about poker, and stringing them together forms a kind of Chicken Soup for the Poker Player’s Soul. So we get the formative facts that constitute what you might call poker’s baby book: it emerged, as best we can tell, in the early 1800s (McManus gives it a birthdate of July 4, 1803, admitting the choice is more “symbolic” than verifiable). It first appeared in print in an 1836 memoir by James Hildreth. It thrived as a rambunctious kid on riverboats, “waterborne Bellagios” fitted with “hand-carved staircases, cut-glass chandeliers, bone china, and the cuisine of famous chefs.” (Fitted, too, with card cheats left and right. For much of the game’s first century, “what we would call poker skill was never an issue.”)
And we get stories of action from the tables: games played in the fertile club scene of Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb; five chapters about the history of the World Series; and two chapters devoted to the story of Andy Beal, a brilliant Dallas billionaire who, intermittently starting in 2001, played one-on-one hold ‘em against a rotating roster of pros, with “$2 million pots being won every 10 minutes or so.” Beal’s story is its own epic, hard to seamlessly make part of a broader history (and in fact, Michael Craig wrote a book about it, The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time, published four years ago).
By trying to stitch together all this history and lore, McManus has chosen a tough starting hand, which he does his best to salvage. He has an eye for the diverting anecdote. To wit: As part of a poker pot on a movie set, John Wayne once won the dogs that played Lassie (he ended up returning them). And the miniature biographies here of legendary figures like Herbert O. Yardley — a codebreaker for the U.S. during and after WWI and author of The Education of a Poker Player, one of the game’s central texts — are models of concision. McManus even manages to wring interest from the famously kitschy paintings of dogs playing poker, by profiling Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, the artist who painted them in the early 1900s as the game was gaining respectability in the suburbs.
For too many stretches, McManus strains to make his subject relevant, larding the book with political and military analysis that feels out of place. But for devoted poker fans and players, Cowboys Full, despite its flaws, is a worthwhile addition to the shelves. General readers looking for a literary introduction to the game, a way into its drama and charms, should begin elsewhere. Say, with Positively Fifth Street.