Monday, January 4, 2010

Cowboys Full

This 427-page book by James Mcmanus, published in 2009, with 44 pages of end notes, a bibliography, an extensive glossary, and a 24-page index, is all about poker. There are fifty-two chapters altogether. The ISBN is 978-374-29924-8. The connection to ASJ is obvious but the title itself, which is a poker term meaning a full house that includes three kings, was enough to pique my interest.

This is not a how-to book that explains the rules of poker. Instead, it is an exhaustive history of the game that begins, after the first chapter's general introduction, by examining the evidence of gambling in prehistoric times. I found his analyses of early human behavior condescending rather than amusing but the factual information provided was interesting. McManus moves on to discuss the origins of poker itself, and this section of the book is absorbing. From early games of chance in Europe in the Middle Ages called brag, poch, and poque, these games made their way in the 18th century to what became America. The game evolved and eventually became known as poker. Descriptions of how the game was played in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who played it, are fascinating. In addition to numerous first-hand accounts, the author provides a multitude of stories culled from period books and newspapers that well illustrate the unsavory aspects of poker. Unfortunately, this history only takes readers through one-third of the book. The remaining pages describe poker in the 20th and 21st centuries. I guess I'm not a true aficionado--since although I learned how to play as a child, I don't rush to watch poker on TV whenever it is broadcast--because I found the chapters relating the minute details of the World Series of Poker pretty boring. In fact, I glossed over the last one hundred or so pages of the book because I was not interested in who won the WSOP (or its rival tournaments), what hands the winners had or how much money they won.

Throughout the book, McManus connects the strategies used in poker to explain why and how national and international events and incidents occurred. He describes the poker habits of all the 20th century US presidents and how the way they played poker influenced how they reacted on the world stage. This is often interesting but can sometimes be a stretch. I'm not sure how much Lyndon Johnson's attitude in poker games really had to do with his policy towards the Vietnam War, for example. Nevertheless, the author does prove his contention that poker is the quintessential American game because it most accurately reflects the spirit and history of America and Americans.

Publisher's website for James McManus:
http://us.macmillan.com/Author/jamesmcmanus

Book review in The New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/books/review/Pinsky-t.html?pagewanted=all

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