I reviewed Jim's book for Card Player magazine, and it appears in the November 4, 2009, issue, as follows:
Poker & The American Experience
A Review of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus
For some players, poker is just a game. But for many players, it's tempting to see the game as a microcosm of life itself, as having a significance that transcends the cardroom. James McManus, the author of the justly celebrated Positively Fifth Street (his 2003 account of his run to the final table of the 2000 WSOP Main Event), is one of those people, and his new book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, explains why "sometimes...the game is much more than just a game."
Much of the book has been published in Card Player over the past few years under the heading "History of Poker." Now that it's in book form, Cowboys Full will surely be viewed as the most exhaustive and definite account of the history of poker yet published.
And it is a very much a history, chronicling the ancient roots of poker to its birth and flowering in New Orleans to the global phenomenon of today. But what makes Cowboys Full so interesting is how McManus articulates the role of poker in society (primarily American society). He writes about how the game spread across the country, how it evolved, and the lessons that people have drawn from it. As the subtitle "The Story of Poker" suggests, McManus rightly understands that poker is part of a larger narrative. "My goal," he writes, "is to show how the story of poker helps to explains who we are. The game has gone hand in hand with pivotal aspects of our national experience for a couple of centuries now."
McManus asserts July 4, 1803, can be seen as the "symbolic birth date" for the game: the date of the Louisiana Purchase, which helped open the American West. He writes that poker was the perfect game for this era in American history, a game "whose rules favored a frontiersman's initiative and cunning, an entrepreneur's creative sense of risk, and a democratic openness to every class of player." Poker really is the quintessential American game.
Poker's infancy was marked by scandal, particularly during the heyday of the Mississippi River steamboats ( "the Internet card rooms of 1814"). "By the 1830s, at least six hundred sharps were working the riverboats, with one estimate putting their number as high as fifteen hundred," he writes. Poker was known as "the cheating game" with good reason, and McManus devotes a whole chapter to the "styles and technologies of cheating" back in the day.
Despite the rampant cheating, at least in big-money games, poker spread far and wide in the young country. The steamboats introduced poker to players in the North and the West; the Civil War introduced the game to players in battlefields across the South. McManus has thoroughly scoured the existing literature of poker to recount all kinds of stories, familiar and less so, of the game, including stalwarts like the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota, holding Aces and Eights. But because McManus is a cultural historian, he searches for the meaning behind the event: "It was Wild Bill Hickok who forged the strong links in the popular imagination between gunfighting, poker, and manliness--all this despite being known as a losing player who was shot from behind by a cowardly punk at the table."
That's a good example of his strategy in the book: recount the facts, at least to the extent they are known, then search for the meaning and significance behind the facts.
With the origins and spread of poker behind him, McManus turns to a less linear style for the rest of the book, with chapters on important people in the history of the game (such as Herbert O. Yardley, American cryptologist and the author of The Education of a Poker Player) and events where poker played a role (such as the terrific account of poker and its relation to the Cold War).
And there are chapters on key aspects of poker history. The birth of Texas Hold'em, for example, the rise of the WSOP, and the detonation of the contemporary poker boom, which McManus dates to March 30, 2003, when the Travel Channel broadcast the Five Diamond World Poker Classic from the Bellagio. The book is particularly good on the ensuing boom (poker as a global phenomenon) and the current legal mess of the UIGEA.
McManus is an excellent stylist and storyteller, so the book is unfailingly entertaining. Structurally, he struggles a bit with chapters that belong in the book but don't have a neat slot to fit into (like the chapter on Gardena, California, and its important place in poker history). But some of these difficult-to-pigeonhole bits are excellent, like the chapter "Fooled by Randomness."
Most of the books reviewed in Card Player are designed to help you improve your play. But some are intended to help you appreciate the game you're playing--its history, its traditions, and its cultural impact. We are living in what must surely be the golden age of poker, with games spread around the globe in unprecedented numbers, with a year-long tournament circuit with staggering prize pools, and, for a few people, the chance to turn poker playing into a career. Read Cowboys Full to understand how this golden age came about--and to grasp that poker does have a meaning beyond the felt.