Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

Cowboys Full traces the story of poker from its roots in China, the Middle East, and Europe, through the back rooms of saloons and the parlors of U.S. presidents to its evolution as a global phenomenon. It describes how early Americans took a French parlor game and turned it into a national craze by the time of the Civil War. It explains how poker, once dominated by cardsharps, is now the most popular card game in Europe, East Asia, ...

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Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

Cowboys Full traces the story of poker from its roots in China, the Middle East, and Europe, through the back rooms of saloons and the parlors of U.S. presidents to its evolution as a global phenomenon. It describes how early Americans took a French parlor game and turned it into a national craze by the time of the Civil War. It explains how poker, once dominated by cardsharps, is now the most popular card game in Europe, East Asia, Australia, South America, and cyberspace, as well as on television. Along the way, James McManus examines the game's remarkable hold on American culture, seen in everything from Frederic Remington's paintings to countless poker novels, movies, and plays. Cowboys Full is raucous and fascinating, a lively, definitive history of the game that, more than any other, explains who we are and how we operate.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Cowboys Full

“The story of poker is that of risk-loving America and, recently, the rest of the world. Here is that crazy ride in unparalleled detail, driven by wit, wisdom, true love, and sizzling style. As analyst, historian, devotee, and no mean player, James McManus is poker’s most eloquent advocate.” Anthony Holden, author of Big Deal, Bigger Deal and Holden on Hold’em

“Mr. McManus writes about our American love of poker like James A. Michener describing the Plains Indians’ discovery of the buffalo: ‘Wait a second . . . I can eat it, wear it, make it into a drum . . . There’s nothing I can’t do with this sonofabitch.’ I would throw in ‘A joy for poker players and non-players alike,’ but, of the second group, who cares what they readand I don’t think there are enough of them to affect Mr. McManus’s royalties.” David Mamet

“Poker now has what must surely be its definitive history in this excellent, comprehensive account of the game from the author of the widely hailed poker memoir Positively Fifth Street. In tracing the game from its early 19th-century roots in New Orleans to today’s global phenomenon, McManus does more than present a history of poker: ‘My goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are.’ The ‘national card game,’ he asserts, embodies essential American qualities. It’s an ambitious objective, but the book achieves it by connecting the game to American culture. Poker, it turns out, is inextricably linked with history, from the Civil War to the cold war, and with politics . . . The book also outlines the re-emergence of poker in recent years as a pastime for many millions and, for a select few, a reasonably legitimate profession.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“ Before the burst of a million online geniuses, James McManus was already writing the best material on poker, and Cowboys Full proves that nothing’s changed. A must-read!” Antonio Esfandiari, professional poker player

 

“McManus writes with verve and knowledge. . . . Entertaining, informative and genial . . . a copious, lively account of poker’s past and present.” —Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review

 

“A captivating history of [poker] from a writer who happens to be one of its best players.” —John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle

 

“If there were a World Series of Poker Writing, then James McManus just won the main event. It’s not only that McManus delivers the definitive history of the game with Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, it’s that he’s so entertaining doing it that even non-pokeristas will get swept along for the ride.”  —Rathe Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer

 

“In his colossal new history of the game, ‘Cowboys Full,’ journalist James McManus casts the old-fashioned game in a whole new light with insightful, mesmerizing tales about its origins, the bizarre cast of historical figures, underworld creatures and celebrity players who have played it, and its lasting influence on politics, warfare and other national spectacles.” —Clayton Moore, Denver Post

 

“Go all-in on this one. . . Cowboys Full is loaded with colorful stories and even more colorful characters, not all of whom played by the rules.” —Paste

 

“McManus has a writer’s eye for anecdotes and details that bring the material to life. The book covers a lot of ground, but thanks to McManus’ particular blend of skills, it does so with insight, clarity and credibility.” —Jack Broom, Seattle Times

 

“The book is sensational. McManus is a writer of immense talent, deft with language and with an ear that seems to catch all the right conversations. And he has a cast of characters that would be the envy of the most imaginative novelist.” —Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

 

Cowboys Full is a deal-me-in delight. Starting with a sweeping survey of the history of the game and its role in American culture, McManus ends with a smart, insiders’ analysis of how poker has been—and should be—played . . . Stuffed with anecdotes. . . . Beyond its importance as a model and metaphor for American culture, society, and politics, Cowboys Full demonstrates, poker is fascinating in its own right.” —Glenn C. Altschuler, Boston Globe

 

“A comprehensive history . . . McManus ties poker tightly to American life—the presidents who used their regular game to unwind, network, or test a man’s mettle range from Honest Abe to Barack Obama—and clearly relishes retelling tales of legendary contests . . .  He also discusses how televised tournaments and Internet gaming continue to change the face of poker [and] spins a lot of meticulous research into a fast-paced, entertaining history.” —Kathie Bergquist, Chicago Reader

 

“McManus has done a tremendous job. [He] is uniquely qualified to tell this tale . . . A lot of research clearly went into the book, but it reads effortlessly, as if the author is spinning versions of oft-told yarns from memory. It weaves in and out of luxury mansions, backrooms of saloons, kitchen tables in middle-class suburbs and modern tournaments without missing a beat . . . It is a story of high mathematics and low-down dirty deeds, of proud men humbled and humble men grown rich, of a simple game you can learn in an hour, but not master in a lifetime.” —Aaron Brown, Poker Pro

 

“The most exhaustive and definitive account of the history of poker . . . McManus is an excellent stylist and storyteller, so the book is unfailingly entertaining. . . Read Cowboys Full to understand how this golden age came about—and to grasp that poker does have a meaning beyond the felt.” —Tim Peters, Card Player

 

“A witty and insightful book masterfully blending history, politics and strategy to produce an excellent definitive historical guide to the ‘national card game.’” —Online Poker News

 

“Takes the reader on a journey through poker history, and helps him appreciate how we have arrived at where we are . . . Fascinating reading.” —LaunchPoker

 

“Offers up a colorful history of the game—and comes up aces.” —Hemispheres

 

“A poet and novelist, McManus revels in the language of the game . . . whose long, colorful history in the U.S. comes to life through [his] research and narrative wit. McManus knows the green-felt world, having entered the World Series of Poker in 2000 while researching a magazine article. He finished fifth and produced a classic book in Positively Fifth Street. . . With its detailed history and 87 pages of notes, glossary and index, Cowboys Full manages to be authoritative and entertaining. The book closes with a look at the global explosion of Internet poker, the electronic fraud that quickly emerged with it and the U.S. legislative efforts to ban or rein in Web gambling—efforts that McManus convincingly portrays as uncommonly wrongheaded even by Washington standards.” —Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg News

 

“A book that describes, as well as any work ever written on the subject, how the game has evolved from being a cheating game to a legitimate enterprise over the course of the last 200 years. [McManus is] a first-rate storyteller. His study of the way poker-inflected game theory has influenced the thinking of some of our greatest military minds, especially those who guided us through the Cold War, is particularly fascinating . . . Aficionados will have a much better understanding of [poker’s] past thanks to Cowboys Full. McManus’s book promises to be the definitive work on the subject for years to come.” —Storms Reback, All-In

 

“Passion is enlivening, and authors who have it draw us in. We want it because without it we would be angels, and no one, really, wants that. James McManus is passionate about poker, not a game for angels but one once associated with sin and played in murky rooms by rough men. [His] Cowboys Full is 516 pages of all things poker: history, trivia, strategy, analysis. It’s a compendium, an omnium-gatherum, an anecdotal encyclopedia of poker. [He] shows its influence on every American war, the building of the great cities, the settlement of the West, politics and the election of presidents. [It] teaches us like no other game can how to survive in life, maybe even win more than we lose.” —Tom Dodge, Dallas Morning News

 

“The epic story of how poker has grown from disreputable roots to become America’s—and the world’s—game. Poker journalist McManus follows up his bestselling memoir Positively Fifth Street (2003) with a comprehensively structured history of the game. He argues that the complexities of poker lend a uniquely intricate American metaphor for many aspects of society, from the codes of the antebellum South to the frontiers of Artificial Intelligence. Fittingly, he begins by observing that the leader of the free world prides himself on being “a pretty good poker player.” In fact, President Obama is the latest in a long line of presidents who “have used the card game to relax with friends, extend their network of colleagues, or even deploy its tactics and psychology in their role as commander in chief.” This line of discussion is typical of McManus’s arguments for poker’s metaphorical or talismanic status in society—essentially, that a majority of powerful, driven people have incorporated it into their lives. The author first explains how the game gradually evolved—often covertly—in multiple cultures over hundreds of years. It was first known as poque and “pokuh,” and came into its own on the Mississippi steamboats of the early 19th century, among soldiers in the Civil War and on Western ranches. McManus also highlights some fascinating classic cheating methods, surely for entertainment purposes only—especially since these techniques would require more skill to pull off than honest play. The game’s outlaw status began to fade around the turn of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt was one high-profile fan), the author writes, and he alternates discussions of cultural phenomena in which poker plays a part with explorations of how the game became less crooked and more streamlined and difficult. This resulted in the development of the now-famous World Series of Poker. These suspenseful chapters on contemporary poker play—McManus asserts mathematical professionalism has replaced the “sharps” of old—may be difficult for neophytes to follow, but the author provides a helpful glossary.

A satisfying, useful overview—given poker’s popularity, this is sure to be a prominent book this holiday season.” —Kirkus Reviews

Justin Moyer
[McManus] tracks the evolution of poque, a French parlor-game that made landfall in 19th-century New Orleans, from Mississippi steamboats to Civil War battlefields to American kitchen tables, the White House and the Internet…[McManus] is a reliable guide to a pastime that…seems less like subculture than culture.
—The Washington Post
Robert Pinsky
McManus writes with verve and knowledge…The thoughts on poker terms and principles in global politics, and on the application of game theory to fields like cancer research, are interesting, although McManus does sometimes exaggerate or stretch a point…Cowboys Full is so entertaining, informative and genial that McManus can be forgiven for occasionally overplaying his hand.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Poker now has what must surely be its definitive history in this excellent, comprehensive account of the game from the author of the widely hailed poker memoir Positively Fifth Street. In tracing the game from its early 19th-century roots in New Orleans to today's global phenomenon, McManus does more than present a history of poker: “My goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are.” The “national card game,” he asserts, embodies essential American qualities. It's an ambitious objective, but the book achieves it by connecting the game to American culture. Poker, it turns out, is inextricably linked with history, from the Civil War to the cold war, and with politics (Nixon financed his first run for office with poker winnings earned during his WWII service; President Obama may owe some of his political fortunes to a regular poker game he joined after election to the Illinois senate). The book also outlines the re-emergence of poker in recent years as a pastime for many millions and, for a select few, a reasonably legitimate profession. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
The epic story of how poker has grown from disreputable roots to become America's-and the world's-game. Poker journalist McManus follows up his bestselling memoir Positively Fifth Street (2003) with a comprehensively structured history of the game. He argues that the complexities of poker lend a uniquely intricate American metaphor for many aspects of society, from the codes of the antebellum South to the frontiers of Artificial Intelligence. Fittingly, he begins by observing that the leader of the free world prides himself on being "a pretty good poker player." In fact, President Obama is the latest in a long line of presidents who "have used the card game to relax with friends, extend their network of colleagues, or even deploy its tactics and psychology in their role as commander in chief." This line of discussion is typical of McManus's arguments for poker's metaphorical or talismanic status in society-essentially, that a majority of powerful, driven people have incorporated it into their lives. The author first explains how the game gradually evolved-often covertly-in multiple cultures over hundreds of years. It was first known as poque and "pokuh," and came into its own on the Mississippi steamboats of the early 19th century, among soldiers in the Civil War and on Western ranches. McManus also highlights some fascinating classic cheating methods, surely for entertainment purposes only-especially since these techniques would require more skill to pull off than honest play. The game's outlaw status began to fade around the turn of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt was one high-profile fan), the author writes, and he alternates discussions of cultural phenomena in which poker playsa part with explorations of how the game became less crooked and more streamlined and difficult. This resulted in the development of the now-famous World Series of Poker. These suspenseful chapters on contemporary poker play-McManus asserts mathematical professionalism has replaced the "sharps" of old-may be difficult for neophytes to follow, but the author provides a helpful glossary. A satisfying, useful overview-given poker's popularity, this is sure to be a prominent book this holiday season.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. In 2009, 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. --John Williams

John Williams is the founder and editor of the literary website The Second Pass [thesecond Pass.com]. His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, McSweeney's, Stop Smiling, the Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, the New York Sun, and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312430085
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/28/2010
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 684,730
  • Product dimensions: 6.94 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

James McManus

James McManus has covered poker for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Magazine, Card Player, ESPN.com, and The NewYorker. Positively Fifth Street (FSG, 2003), his memoir of finishing fifth in the World Series of Poker championship event, was a New York Times bestseller and is already considered a classic.

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Read an Excerpt

1

pokerticians

The game is the same, it’s just up on another level.

—bob dylan, “po’ boy”

Poker skill didn’t vault Barack Obama into the presidency. No cool-eyed read of a Hillary Clinton tell made it obvious he should reraise her claims to be an agent of change. Nor did he shrewdly calculate the pot odds necessary to call John McCain on his commitment to the Bush economic policies or extending the war in Iraq. At least not literally, he didn’t. But when Senator Obama was asked by the Associated Press in 2007 to list a hidden talent, he said, “I’m a pretty good poker player.” He seemed to be talking about the tabletop card game, but the evidence also suggests he was right in the much larger sense. As a writer, law professor, and community organizer, Obama was greeted coolly by some of his fellow legislators when, in 1998, he arrived in Springfield to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. Springfield had long been the province of cynical, corrupt backroom operators, hide bound Republicans and Democrats addicted to partisan gridlock. So how was this ink-stained, highly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.

“When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going,” Obama recalled, “I probably confounded some of their expectations.” He was referring to the regular Wednesday night game that he and his fellow freshman senator, Terry Link, a Democrat from suburban Lake County, got going in the basement of Link’s Springfield house. Called the Committee Meeting, its initial core was four players, but it quickly grew to eight regulars, including Republicans and lobbyists, and developed a waiting list. But whatever your affiliation, Link says, “You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about their jobs or politics, and certainly no ‘influence’ was bartered or even discussed. It was boys’ night out—a release from our legislative responsibilities.” The banking lobbyist David Manning recalls, “We all became buddies in the card games, but there never were any favors granted.” Another regular was a lobbyist for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, and the game eventually moved to the association’s office—which didn’t keep Senator Obama from voting to raise taxes and fees for manufacturers. He says the games were simply “a fun way for people to relax and share stories and give each other a hard time over friendly competition,” adding that they provided “an easy way to get to know other senators—including Republicans.”

Most Committee Meetings began at seven o’clock and ran until two in the morning, with the players sustained by pizza, chips, beer, cigars, and good fellowship. Obama wore workout clothes and a baseball cap, but his approach to the cards wasn’t casual. He wanted to win. His analytical background—president of the Harvard Law Review, University of Chicago law professor—helped him hold his own at stud and hold’em, though it did him less good in the sillier, luck-based variants other players chose, such as baseball and 7-33.

Link, who probably played more hands with Obama than anyone else in Springfield, observed that his lanky table-mate played “calculated” poker, avoiding long-shot draws in favor of patiently waiting for strong starting hands. “Barack wasn’t one of those foolish gamblers who just thought all of a sudden that card in the middle [of the deck] was going to show up mysteriously.” He relied on his brain, in other words, instead of his gut or the seat of his pants. “When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he’s got a good hand,” recalls Larry Walsh, a conservative corn farmer representing Joliet, who neglected to note that such a rock-solid image made it easier for Obama to bluff. “He had the stone face,” Link recalled.

Yet even as one of the boys—bluffing, drinking, bumming smokes, laughing at off-color yarns—there were lines he wouldn’t cross. When a married lobbyist arrived at a Springfield office game with someone described as “an inebriated woman companion who did not acquit herself in a particularly wholesome fashion,” Obama made it clear he wasn’t pleased, though he managed to do it without offending his poker buddies. Link says they all were displeased, and that the lobbyist and his girlfriend were “quickly whisked out of the place.”

Obama also made sure he never played for stakes he couldn’t easily afford. Only on a very bad night could one drop a hundred bucks in these games, typical wins and losses being closer to twenty-five. Among the regulars, the consensus was that “Obama usually left a winner.” The bottom line politically was that poker helped Obama break the ice with people he needed to work with in the legislature.

“Barry,” as he was called before college, had learned the game from his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, a World War II army veteran whose black friends played poker as well. Barry also played with classmates at Punahou High School in Honolulu. His best game, however, was basketball. He wore a Dr. J ’fro, and his teammates respectfully called him “Barry O’Bomber.” They won the state championship in 1979, and Obama later told HBO’s Bryant Gumbel that, despite the O’Bomber nickname, “My actual talent was in my first step. I could get to the rim on anybody.” His problem as an in-shape, thirty-six-year-old legislator was that very few pols who’d been around long enough to run things in Springfield could still make it up and down a hard court. His solution was the game in Link’s basement. To connect with those who didn’t play basketball or poker, he also took up golf, a game at which Link says “he wasn’t a natural.” But he counted every stroke. “When he’d shoot an 11 on a hole, I’d say, ‘Boss, what did you shoot?’ and he’d say, ‘I had an 11.’ And that’s what he’d write on his scorecard. I always respected that.” Determined to write down fewer 11s, Obama took enough lessons to be able to shoot in the low nineties, and he eventually beat Link a few times.

But the freshman legislator seems to have understood that, as a networking tool, poker is the most efficient pastime of all. Its tables often serve as less genteel clubs for students, workers, businessmen, and politicians of every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways forty yards apart from each other, throwing elbows in the paint, or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all night, competing and drinking and talking. The experience can tell them a lot about the other fellows’ ability to make sound decisions, whether electoral or parliamentary, tactical or strategic. As Abner Mikva, one of the deans of Chicago’s legal and political worlds and a longtime Obama adviser, put it simply, “He understands how you network.” The networking paid off when, against all expectations, Obama hammered out a compromise bill called “the first significant campaign reform law in Illinois in 25 years” and other bills mandating tax credits for the working poor, the videotaping of police interrogations, and reform of the state’s antiquated campaign-finance system.

After being “spanked”—his word for losing by 31 percent to the incumbent, Bobby Rush, in a run for Illinois’s first congressional district in 2000—Obama returned to Springfield and set to work even harder. He also began speaking publicly about national issues. After September 11, 2001, he said, “Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families, I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy,” and called for a better understanding of “the sources of such madness.” After President Bush called for the invasion of Iraq, Obama chose an antiwar rally to say, “I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.” He cited his grandfather’s service and praised the sacrifices made during the Civil War and World War II, before saying, “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

After his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in July 2004 made him an even brighter political star, Obama easily won election to the United States Senate in November. John Kerry’s loss at the top of the ticket, however, prompted David Mamet to write an unconventional postmortem for the Los Angeles Times. “The Republicans, like the perpetual raiser at the poker table, became increasingly bold as the Democrats signaled their absolute reluctance to seize the initiative,” he said, arguing that Kerry had lost in part because of his timid response to the distortion of his service in Vietnam. “A decorated war hero muddled himself in merely ‘calling’ the attacks of a man with, curiously, a vanishing record of military attendance.” Mamet went on to say, “Control of the initiative is control of the battle. In the alley, at the poker table or in politics, one must raise. . . . How, the undecided electorate rightly wondered, could one believe that Kerry would stand up for America when he could not stand up to Bush?” Mamet made his poker parallel even more specific by suggesting that a better “response to the Swift boat veterans would have been, ‘I served. He didn’t. I didn’t bring up the subject, but, if all George Bush has to show for his time in the Guard is a scrap of paper with some doodling on it, I say the man was a deserter.’ This would have been a raise. Here the initiative has been seized, and the opponent must now fume and bluster and scream unfair. In combat, in politics, in poker, there is no certainty; there is only likelihood, and the likelihood is that aggression will prevail.” Anticipating future elections, Mamet chided the Democrats for “anteing away their time at the table. They may be bold and risk defeat, or be passive and ensure it.”

The playwright’s point was uncannily in sync with advice Admiral John S. McCain Jr. once gave his children. “Life is run by poker players, not the systems analysts,” he told them, referring to poker players’ cunning and toughness, and their tendency to have a bold strategic vision, not fussy myopia. His son John III, while certainly cunning and tough, turned out to prefer craps, a loud, mindless game in which the player never has a strategic advantage and must make impulsive decisions and then rely on blind luck. His selection of Sarah Palin for the vice presidential slot and his unsteady response to the economic crisis were two of the better examples of a dice-rolling mind-set.

By contrast, the Obama campaign’s preparation of a separate website featuring a fifteen-minute documentary video about McCain’s role in the savings-and-loan scandal of 1989 was but one piece of evidence that the candidate understood Mamet’s point about raising. “We don’t throw the first punch,” he said, “but we’ll throw the last.” In other words, if the McCain campaign or its surrogates wanted to raise the specter of Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright, Obama was going to reraise. As he’d told his fledgling staff back in January 2007, “Let’s put our chips in the middle of the table and see how we do.”

Mamet’s and Obama’s analogies appear more traditional when we learn that as early as 1875, a New York Times editorial declared that “the national game is not base-ball, but poker,” noting that the newspapers of the day were already in the “daily” habit of using “the technical terms of poker to illustrate the manner in which political questions strike the Thoughtful Patriot.” This book will offer cases in point from nearly every decade since.

Where Mamet made clear why a politician must raise, especially with a stronger hand, Andy Bloch, a poker pro with degrees from Harvard and MIT, explained how bluffs might be read in military and diplomatic arenas. “In poker you have to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents, get inside their heads and figure out what they’re thinking, what their actions mean, what they would think your actions mean.” Contrasting Obama with his predecessor, Bloch said, “One thing that got us into the Iraq War was that George Bush didn’t realize that Saddam Hussein was basically bluffing, trying to look like a big man, when he really had no weapons of mass destruction.”

Back in 2002, Obama read that bluff correctly. He also understood that the most pressing threats to American security were the bin Laden strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, John McCain, and seventy-six other senators misread (or allowed themselves to be misled about) Saddam’s bluff. The Bush administration then proceeded to squander tall stacks of military and diplomatic chips it should have deployed against Al Qaeda.

In April 2003, the Iraqi Most Wanted poker deck, with Saddam as the ace of spades and fifty-one other Baathists beneath him in the hierarchy, was officially designated the “personality identification playing cards” by Brigadier General Vincent Brooks of the U.S. Central Command. The pattern on their backs was the desert camouflage worn by our troops. Cards with a similar purpose had been deployed by both sides during the Civil War and in every important American military campaign since. So it seemed rather telling that no deck depicting members of Al Qaeda was requisitioned by President Bush.

Although he was more likely to be seen on the campaign trail playing Uno with his daughters, or a pickup game of basketball, than poker, Obama has already extended the long tradition of presidents who have used the card game to relax with friends, extend their network of colleagues, or even deploy its tactics and psychology in their role as commander in chief. His tendency to finish poker sessions in the black puts him in the company of Chester Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. But by limiting his play to small, friendly games, Obama is more like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He has also played the national card game, as Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson did, at least in part because of the entrée it gave him to political circles he would not have had otherwise.

George Washington (1732–1799) and Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) both loved to play cards and gamble, and would no doubt have taken up poker had the game been around in their heydays. As a young officer, Washington received a rebuke “for wasting so much of his time at the gaming table,” and Jackson was one of the most notorious gamblers of the early nineteenth century. But it wasn’t until Jackson’s old age that the French game of poque evolved in New Orleans—the city he’d saved from the British in 1815—and began moving north on Mississippi steamboats as poker. By the 1850s, however, it was the card game of choice among savvy risk takers in nearly every state and territory, and most politicians were playing it.

In November 1861, with Union armies generally stymied and the capital threatened by rebel armies under Beauregard and Johnston, Abraham Lincoln used a poker analogy to explain a difficult wartime decision to an anxious Northern public. The British mail steamer Trent, bearing two Confederate envoys to London, was intercepted by the Yankee captain Charles Wilkes. When Wilkes decided to take the envoys prisoner, he created an incident that threatened to bring Britain into the war on the side of the South. The British delivered a stern ultimatum: release the ambassadors and apologize, or else. “One war at a time” was Lincoln’s rationale as he “cheerfully” freed them. Yet reporters and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to know whether the president would also apologize, as the British had insisted. Said Lincoln to one of them: “Your question reminds me of an incident which occurred out west. Two roughs were playing cards for high stakes, when one of them, suspecting his adversary of foul play, straightway drew his bowie-knife from his belt and pinned the hand of the other player upon the table, exclaiming: ‘If you haven’t got the ace of spades under your palm, I’ll apologize.’” As the great Civil War historian Shelby Foote would write of the Trent Affair: “Poker was not the national game for nothing; the people understood that their leaders had bowed, not to the British, but to expediency.”

Theodore Roosevelt gained access to the middle echelons of New York’s Republican Party in the early 1880s by showing up at their informal gatherings in a smoky room above a saloon on East Fifty-ninth Street. To overcome the mostly Irish bosses’ impression that he was a “mornin’ glory,” a well-to-do poseur who “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up” quickly, he insisted on taking part in every profanitylaced “bull session,” in spite of his loathing for vulgarity and tobacco. “Some of them sneered at my black coat and tall hat. But I made them understand I should come dressed as I chose,” he recalled. “Then after the discussions I used to play poker and smoke with them.” His intention, writes David McCullough, was “to get inside the machine.”

And it worked. These and other masculine gambits helped the formerly frail young man shimmy up the political totem pole with astonishing speed: assistant secretary of the navy by thirty-eight, governor of New York by forty, president of the United States by forty-two. What our youngest chief executive called the Square Deal was inspired by a set of silver scales presented to him by the black citizens of Butte, Montana, in 1903. Roosevelt used the term to promote a sweeping series of policies designed to ensure that all Americans could earn a living wage and that the scales of justice would be put into balance for black and white, rich and poor citizens. “When I say I believe in a square deal,” he explained, “I do not mean to give every man the best hand. If the cards do not come to any man, or if they do come, and he has not got the power to play them, that is his affair. All I mean is that there shall not be any crookedness in the dealing.”

When the dark-horse candidate Warren Harding was asked by reporters how he’d managed to win the Republican Party’s nomination in 1920, he said, “We drew to a pair of deuces, and filled.” (That is, he made a full house.) After soundly defeating James M. Cox in the first national election in which women could vote, he continued playing poker at least once a week. Harding’s games while in office were for fun and relaxation, not profit or political advantage, and the rumor that he lost the White House china in one of them is merely a bit of embroidery. The more significant charges are that Harding took poker, alcohol, and his affairs with at least two women more seriously than his responsibilities as president, and that he fostered a spirit of corruption. One of the regulars in his game, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, went to prison in the Teapot Dome scandal for accepting bribes for leasing oil-rich fields in Wyoming without competitive bids. Other regulars included Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth and his wife, Alice, a daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, along with other members of Harding’s administration, who came to be known as the Poker Cabinet. “Forget that I’m President of the United States. I’m Warren Harding, playing poker with friends,” he would say, “and I’m going to beat hell out of them.” Alice Longworth described the Prohibition-era gatherings this way: “No rumor could have exceeded the reality; the study was filled with cronies . . . the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on desk, and spittoons alongside.”

It was to promote policies designed to lift the United States out of the Depression in 1933 that Franklin D. Roosevelt, following the example of his fifth cousin, Theodore, chose a term from the game he knew millions of ordinary Americans loved: the New Deal. Throughout his three terms (and the few weeks he served of his fourth), FDR played relatively sober nickel-ante stud games in the White House to unwind after his grueling days managing the Depression and then the Second World War. Beginning only eight days after his first inauguration, he steadied and soothed anxious Americans with a series of popular evening radio broadcasts from his second-floor study, where the poker games also took place. “Good evening, friends,” he’d begin. As he delivered at least one of these Fireside Chats, he kept hold of some of his chips, fingering them the way others might use worry beads or a rosary. His friends gathered around their boxy wooden radios could hear them clicking together in his hand.

FDR’s final vice president, Harry Truman, had played poker as a doughboy in France and kept up with war buddies at small, friendly games in Missouri. In Truman, David McCullough teased out poker’s role in our most mainstream president’s careers as an artillery officer, haberdasher, judge, and politician. “He never learned to play golf or tennis, never belonged to a country club. Poker was his game, not bridge or mah-jongg.” Truman’s Monday-night sessions with old army buddies “had a 10-cent limit. A little beer or bourbon was consumed, Prohibition notwithstanding, and the conversation usually turned to politics. Such was the social life of Judge Harry Truman in the early 1930s, the worst of the Depression.” During his years in the White House, he played with chips embossed with the presidential seal, though only once did he allow himself to be photographed doing so.

Eisenhower and Nixon, both of whom came from working-class backgrounds, played for significant stakes during their military service. At West Point in 1915, Ike attended cadet dances “only now and then, preferring to devote my time to poker.” During the First World War he paid for his dress uniform and courted the wealthy Mamie Doud with his winnings. As supreme allied commander in 1944, he outfoxed the Germans on D-day with a series of bluffing maneuvers before taking Normandy Beach.

As a navy lieutenant in the Paci.c theater, Nixon won enough in five-card draw and stud games to finance his first congressional campaign in 1946. That same year, an up-and-coming Texas congressman named Lyndon Johnson tried to get himself invited to President Truman’s poker sessions aboard the yacht Williamsburg—not to win money, of course, but because a seat in that game would have been a precious political asset. When those efforts failed, Johnson started his own game with more junior politicians, though he did play with Truman a couple of times at the home of Treasury Secretary Fred Vinson. And while John Kennedy didn’t play much poker with cards and chips, his ability to call Khrushchev’s bluff without triggering a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 may be the best example we have of how the tactic at the heart of our national card game helped alter the course of our history. Even so, Aaron Brown, the hedge fund manager who wrote The Poker Face of Wall Street, credits Khrushchev as “the one who made a wise fold. He had a strong hand but not an unbeatable one, and he sensed the other guy was going to call everything to the river. Good laydown.”

As we’ll see in Chapter 29, bluffs, counterbluffs, and strong lay-downs throughout the cold war, from Khrushchev’s threats to nuke Britain during the Suez crisis to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative, gradually made it more apparent how important poker’s most basic maneuver was to modern military and diplomatic strategy. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the survival of Western civilization depended on bluf.ng effectively. One of the most inventive scientists of the nuclear age, John von Neumann, began his monumental Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, cowritten with the economist Oskar Morgenstern, as a mathematical expression of bluffing. “As in poker,” wrote Morgenstern after serving as an adviser to Eisenhower, “both we and the Russians must realize the importance of making threats commensurate with the value of the position to be defended, and not bluff so grossly that the raise is sure to be called.”

Chapter 34 tells the story of the Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill’s tide-turning change of heart about Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy. During a poker game at the Army and Navy Club, General David Shoup told the hawkish O’Neill that the con.ict was a civil war between Vietnamese factions and wasn’t winnable by U.S. forces, at least not the way LBJ was fighting it.

 

Excerpted from Cowboys Full by James McManus.

Copyright © 2009 by James McManus.

Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and

reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in

any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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  • Posted August 7, 2011

    A Must for the Thinking Poker Addict

    You won't learn how to play poker by reading this book but you will learn how poker is played...in business, politics, on the battlefield, and in life. McManus has done meticulous research from the paddle wheelers on the Mississippi to the dark confines of the Hanoi Hilton, to the White House and beyond.

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  • Posted May 29, 2011

    Ok, but stick to the poker

    A generally entertaining read, puntcuated by frequent absurd bouts of politics. I can't believe a competent editor let that stuff through. Take out the politics and you have a competent book. As it stands, though, I can not recommend it. Keep shopping.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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