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Poker Book Review -- Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

Author James McManus Tells The Most Accomplished Story of Poker Ever Committed To Paper in His New Book Out Today


Cowboys Full - The Story of Poker by James McManusAcclaimed novelist, poet, academic, and poker player James McManus is back with what is undoubtedly the most definitive account of poker and card playing yet committed to paper.

Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker is indeed the story of poker. It will be cherished by aficionados’ and laymen alike and its exhaustive research and clear historical analysis will thrill scholars of the game for years to come.

The author of the much-loved Positively Fifth Street, a groundbreaking book about his own journey to fifth place at the World Series of Poker main event in 2000, has painstaking pulled together all the disparate threads of the game, from the development of playing cards through the codification of modern poker to the present day Internet boom in an eminently readable study on how poker has helped shape the world.

Indeed, early in the book McManus states his “…goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are.”

Not unpredictably this accomplished writer, who has penned articles for the likes of The New York Times, The Economist, and The New Yorker, does so with an knowing eye to the colour, characters, and, of course, cowboys of the game.

Seamlessly blending fastidious historical research with analytical observation and a sophisticated sense of humour McManus manages to effortlessly contextualise poker through history with reference to religion, militarism, diplomacy, law, business, education, mathematics, economics, and technology.

If that somehow makes it sound like it might not be a page-turner, think again.

The cast of characters alone reads like a history of the last millennium writ small over the felt and includes Eisenhower, Nixon, Truman, Roosevelt, Johnson, Grant, Hoover, Clinton, Obama, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Goethe, Moliere, Shakespeare, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, Joan of Arc, Cassanova, Einstein, Crockett, Holliday, Hickock, Churchill, Goebbels, Hitler, Binion, Ahmadinejad, Garbo, Garrett, and Gobachev.

And all of that before we get to the players who are the media darlings of today.

Taking as its starting point the notion first posited by the New York Times in 1875 that, “The national game is not base-ball but poker” the book begins its journey through the story of poker back with the invention of playing cards.

Anthropoligist Stuart Culin traced their development back to Korean divinatory arrows which were eventually miniaturised in the six century to strips of oiled silk – the first playing cards.

The invention of paper and portable money, and the growth of the silk route hastened their internationalisation and popularity.

A second boom occurred after dark ages in Europe in the 1300s as people began to live longer, knew more, and had leisure time to play.

In Rouen, France by the late 1400s suits had generally been settled upon in a way we James McManusrecognise today: Hearts representing the church, diamonds the merchant class, spades the state, and clubs signifying farmers.

In 1564 Milanese physician and mathematician Griolamo Cardano ⎯ Dr. Jerome Cardplayer as McManus playfully translates ⎯ invented a way to combine probabilities, laying the groundwork not only for modern algebra, probability theory, and financial analysis but for the basic poker odds we all know and take for granted today.

The card game Primiera was simplified by the French into Poque (pronounced Pok-uh) and is now regarded as the most direct antecedent of the modern game.

By the early 1800s the French had taken control of New Orleans, Louisiana and in this cultural melting pot of English, Spanish, French, and new American the modern game of poker was born and spread like wildfire on the steamboat routes out of the Creole capital.

McManus astutely describes the Mississippi steamboats as the Internet poker rooms of their day.

From there things pick up a head of steam (literally) like a prototype information superhighway ⎯ the wild west years where lawlessness and chicanery threatened to destroy the game through the wars of the late 19th and early 20th century which saw poker language and concepts permeate mainstream language.

Dancing like Spider in Goodfellas through the road gambling years to the dusty neon oasis of Las Vegas, Benny Binion’s visionary development of the World Series of Poker, and the “perfect storm” of the year poker went “boom” in 2003 the book fetches up at the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, the online poker cheating scandals, and ultimately the mainstream globalisation of the game.

Cowboys Full ⎯ The Story of Poker delights and informs in equal measure and it will surely be a long time before we see such a comprehensive book on card playing and players.

Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker by James McManus is published in the UK and Ireland today by Souvenir Press priced £14.99. American readers can purchase the book online at Amazon for as little as $15.

Check back at over the weekend for an interview with author James McManus.



11 years ago

I didn't expect something of this calibre coming from McManus. I'm halfway through with it, and it's worthy of the highest accolades with imo one exception.

How can someone who loves poker gush over Obama who has done nothing to stamp out UIGEA?


11 years ago

Freudian slip: I'm halfway through it.


11 years ago

Poppy, I'm assuming that Prez Obama has some bigger issues on his plate right now. Also, has the UIGEA really stopped anyone from participating in online gaming?

btw, I'm also halfway through the book as well. Enjoying it very much.