Fall Books SpecialCowboys Full: The Story of Poker | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Fall Books Special
Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker 

James McManus | Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Six years after the release of his best-selling World Series of Poker tell-all, Positively Fifth Street, local poet, novelist, teacher, and competitive cardplayer James McManus gives a little something back to the game that made his name. A comprehensive history, Cowboys Full traces card playing back to Korean shamans and Chinese imperial courtesans, then follows "America's favorite game" up the Mississippi from New Orleans and through the battlefields of every significant American conflict. McManus ties poker tightly to American life—the presidents who used their regular game to unwind, network, or test a man's mettle range from Honest Abe to Barack Obama—and clearly relishes retelling tales of legendary contests, from the one where Wild Bill Hickok lost his life to the "Andy Game," a multimillion-dollar, multiyear series of matches pitting Texas billionaire Andy Beal against a tag team of top Vegas players. He also discusses how televised tournaments and Internet gaming continue to change the face of poker.

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Hypothesizing about why there are so few women represented in the top tiers of the game, McManus cites behavioral evolution—women just haven't been bred to be as aggressive as men—and the sexism associated with many Vegas poker rooms, while neglecting economic factors and the cultural stereotyping that stigmatizes women who display traits desirable in poker players, like greed, manipulation, and pugnacity. Armchair sociology notwithstanding, McManus spins a lot of meticulous research into a fast-paced, entertaining history. Odds are, poker players will savor the book, and nonplayers . . . well, to paraphrase David Mamet in his praise of it, who cares what they think? —Kathie Bergquist

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