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In 2000, author James McManus took a $4,000 advance from Harper's magazine to cover (and participate in) the World Series of Poker, back when it was still held at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Vegas. He made it all the way to the final table, and his book about playing in that tournament, Positively Fifth Street, became a bestseller.

His latest book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, is as comprehensive as the first book was thrilling, tracing the history of the game from early playing cards to riverboats to the Bellagio and (In fact, Publisher's Weekly called it a "definitive history" of the game.)


Possibly the most fascinating revelation is the role that poker and its most fundamental skill—bluffing—have played in our country's history. As the author says in chapter two:
"Poker has gone hand in hand with the ways we've done battle and business for 200 years now, bluffing and sussing out bluffers, leveraging uncertainly, managing risk and reward."

McManus taught me how to play (I took his "Literature and Poker" class), so I was excited to hear that he was coming to Town Hall tonight to read from this amazing book. Of course, I had questions:

BookNerd: You have a lot of interesting little facts in this book. For example, that aces and eights (what Wild Bill Hickok was said to be holding in his hand when he died) is still called the Dead Man's Hand. What discovery were you most excited or surprised about?

James McManus: How integral poker logic was to tactics in warfare, from the cavalry and infantry clashes of the Civil War to the nuclear bluffs and counterbluffs during the cold war and today.

BN: Throughout the history of poker, there's been a tension between honest games and cons, as well as the expectation on the part of the general public that the world of poker has been full of cardsharps and unsavory characters. You portray how the game has become more legit or square, partially due to the influence of the World Series of Poker. But do you think the distinction between cardsharps and high stakes professional gamblers is still a bit blurry for people?

JM: Poker's outlaw cachet continues to linger, despite the fact that most live games are played in legally sanctioned card rooms by middle-class folks sipping mineral water. Tournaments are broadcast into middle-class living rooms. The most cerebral advice books still use a Colt .45 as a cover image, probably because that will sell more books than a bottle of Evian.

BN: Religion pops up from time to time in the book. In your mind, what's the relationship between religion and poker, or religion and risk-taking in general?

JM: As I say early on, in chapter two, the first rolls of dice (actually the hucklebones of sheep) were forms of augury and/or divination. Most gambling games, poker included, continue to be ways of tempting, or discovering, one's fate.

BN: I was struck by the prevalence of poker primers—books on how to play—going almost as far back as the game itself. Were you able to read most of them? How did reading them inform your sense of the game?

JM: Far too many to read them all, though I've skimmed several dozen and studied others quite closely, including most of the primers in the selected bibliography. They help to reveal what the prevalent strategy was at the time: rock solid conservatism of Herbert O. Yardley in the 1950s, relentless aggression of Gus Hansen more recently, and just about everything else in between at one time or another.

BN: The book is so comprehensive in its search for the game, so full of presidential anecdotes, war stories, art, literature, film, and music—all with references to poker. It made me wonder: When you're working on a book like this, do you start to see poker in everything?

JM: No, not in everything. Poker's most basic tactic is the bluff, which is designed to mislead or in a sense "lie to" your opponent—the very opposite of what we should do in friendly, romantic or family relationships.

BN: As I read the last few chapters, I felt sad about how Hollywoodized the WSOP and other big games have become, as well as by the idea of the stringent etiquette requirements. (It's hard to imagine WSOP w/o Phil Helmuth's tantrums, for example.) Do you feel nostalgic about the Horseshoe and the days before poker "hit it big"?

JM: No, I actually prefer the post-boom poker world, where the action takes you to dozens of cool cities on five continents. And the less adolescent behavior, the better.

BN: When you wrote Positively Fifth Street, you were the outsider, now you're the authority. The tone of this book is so different, so much more pragmatic. Do you see or play poker differently now?

JM: Of course. Playing on and off on the circuit for nine years obviously teaches you things you didn't know when you played your first event. The luck factor in tournaments has made me prefer cash games, though I still always play in the WSOP.

BN: Are you more practical about it?

JM: Having three kids and a jumbo mortgage encourages me to be practical 24/7. I now write about poker, teach a poker lit course, and play just about every day online. Sometime that feels like three jobs, sometimes just one. But I feel very lucky to have them.

Jim McManus reads from Cowboys Full tonight at 7:30 at Town Hall.
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