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Cowboys Full
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Cowboys Full

3.4 10
by James McManus

From James McManus, author of the bestselling Positively Fifth Street, comes the definitive story of the game that, more than any other, reflects who we are and how we operate.

Cowboys Full is the story of poker, from its roots in China, the Middle East, and Europe to its ascent as a globalbut especially an


From James McManus, author of the bestselling Positively Fifth Street, comes the definitive story of the game that, more than any other, reflects who we are and how we operate.

Cowboys Full is the story of poker, from its roots in China, the Middle East, and Europe to its ascent as a globalbut especially an Americanphenomenon. It describes how early Americans took a French parlor game and, with a few extra cards and an entrepreneurial spirit, turned it into a national craze by the time of the Civil War. From the kitchen-table games of ordinary citizens to its influence on generals and diplomats, poker has gone hand in hand with our national experience. Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama have deployed poker and its strategies to explain policy, to relax with friends, to negotiate treaties and crises, and as a political networking tool. The ways we all do battle and business are echoed by poker tactics: cheating and thwarting cheaters, leveraging uncertainty, bluffing and sussing out bluffers, managing risk and reward.

Cowboys Full shows how what was once accurately called the cheater’s game has become amostly honest contest of cunning, mathematical precision, and luck. It explains how poker, formerly dominated by cardsharps, is now the most popular card game in Europe, East Asia, Australia, South America, and cyberspace, as well as on television. It combines colorful history with firsthand experience from today’s professional tour. And it examines poker’s remarkable hold on American culture, from paintings by Frederic Remington to countless poker novels, movies, and plays. Braiding the thrill of individual hands with new ways of seeing poker’s relevance to our military, diplomatic, business, and personal affairs, Cowboys Full is sure to become the classic account of America’s favorite pastime.

Editorial Reviews

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
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
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.

Product Details

Macmillan Audio
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition, Abridged
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 Spring.eld to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. Spring.eld 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 LakeCounty, got going in the basement of Link’s Spring.eld 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 af.liation, Link says, “You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about their jobs or politics, and certainly no ‘in.uence’ 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 of.ce—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 Spring.eld, 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 .gured 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—bluf.ng, drinking, bumming smokes, laughing at off-color yarns—there were lines he wouldn’t cross. When a married lobbyist arrived at a Spring.eld of.ce 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-.ve. 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 .rst 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 Spring.eld 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 11on 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 ef.cient 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 .rst signi.cant 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-.nance system.
After being “spanked”—his word for losing by 31 percent to

Meet the Author

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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