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From the beginning

This month Duncan Wilkie reviews Positively Fifth Street author James McManus’s recently-released trawl through the annals of poker history

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

James McManus, Souvenir Press, £14.99

Anyone with even the most fleeting of interests in the game of poker will no doubt be able to tell you that it is a pastime steeped in history and surrounded by colourful anecdotes – but there’s certainly no substitute for having someone document the game’s entertaining evolution from the very start.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what James McManus’s latest book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker sets out to do and it is a task that it tackles with great gusto and verve. Here, McManus outlines both how poker has entrenched itself in the American psyche and the impact the game has had on American life and culture.

Indeed, the ‘American Dream’ ideal of prospering through nothing more than perseverance, graft and keen opportunism is a theme that is central to the book – and indeed McManus’s own poker story – with the author having finished fifth in the World Series of Poker Main Event after qualifying through a satellite tournament.

Cowboys Full draws allusions between the skills utilised in a game of poker and the very values that are core to the American national character – from the polarised Puritan work ethic through to the entrepreneur’s urge to seize any initiative – but it is a comparison that is at times overly laboured and alienating to any non-US readers.

A key example of McManus’s over-emphasis can be seen where he states John Kennedy “didn’t play much poker with cards and chips,” but “his ability to call Krushchev’s bluff … during the Cuban missile crisis may be the best example we have of how a tactic at the heart of our national card game helped alter our history”.

This over-stretching of a point can grow tiresome at times and though the book is painstakingly researched and engagingly written, these often tenuous tangential musings by the author turn it into a sprawling 500-page odyssey – a total which even the most die-hard fan of McManus’s writing would have to concede is much too long.

That is not to say that McManus’s analysis of poker’s history does not have moments of genuine insight, however, and in particular his thoughts on how the concept of game theory can be applied to subjects as diverse as global politics and cancer research make interesting reading, even if he does occasionally overplay his hand.

Regardless of whether or not the author’s interpretation of poker’s social significance resonates with his readers – American or otherwise – it is beyond dispute that in terms of outlining a skeleton of the game’s vibrant history, Cowboys Full comes up trumps with a series well-thought out and chronologically-ordered short chapters.

Covering each and every era of the game from its humble French origins to the proliferation of Draw and Stud games in the Wild West and going all the way up until the explosion of Texas Hold’em and the golden era of televised poker, Cowboys Full provides a detailed overview of poker’s epic journey from backroom to centre stage.

As such, Cowboys Full makes for an entertaining and informative read for anyone who is interested in the story of how poker came to be the game it is today – and though the author’s discourses can sometimes verge on the wrong side of contrived, they are delivered with such wit and wisdom that the book remains no busted flush.


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