“The national game is not base-ball but poker”
~NY Times 1875~
Ask virtually any poker player to list the best non-strategic poker books and there is undoubtedly one title that will appear on every single list: Positively Fifth Street, by James McManus. After Positively Fifth Street hit bookshelves in 2003 the poker world has waited a long time for a second offering from McManus on poker, which finally came in 2009 under the title Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker.
With Cowboys Full prepping for its paperback release on October 4th, 2010 –you can get Cowboys Full on September 28th through Amazon.com—I figured the timing was perfect to post a review on what is, in my opinion, a MUST-HAVE poker book. Cowboys Full will be a cherished addition to the libraries of poker enthusiasts, scholars, and laymen alike.
I’ll let James McManus’s writing skills speak for themselves; as a Novelist, Journalist, Poet, and Teacher he is definitely a highly qualified, and a proven writer. What few people realize about the man is that McManus wasn’t just a one-trick-pony in 2000, where he finished 5thin the World Series of Poker Main Event. With over $700k in career tournament earnings and three WSOP Final Tables, McManus has proven to be a formidable poker player, so who better to write the history of poker than poker’s greatest writer, who not only is a master with paper and pen, but can also hold his own with playing cards and clay chips.
As a student of the game I consider myself well-versed in poker history –I could probably name the 100 best poker players back at a time when even hardcore players would be lucky to name three professional poker players—so the idea of poring over a history of the game was never really high on my reading list. Well, my skepticism/cynicism ended about five pages into the book! Reading Cowboys Full made me feel much the same way I did when I saw my first starting hand chart, woefully ignorant. I quickly realized I was working off of the Cliff’s Notes version of poker history, while McManus had access to the Library of Congress!
McManus weaves the story of poker throughout world history –obviously mostly American History—so effortlessly that you can envision the narratives he is telling: Whether the tale is a poker game that will decide WWII, or a former card-sharp turned huckster hawking his book across America. His ability to combine information with entertainment is really what makes Cowboys Full work. In the hands of a pure historian Cowboys Full could have read like an academic paper, and in the hands of a poker enthusiast could have ended up as nothing but conjecture and fanciful stories: Fortunately in McManus we have a perfect blend of both worlds.
I think most readers will be shaking their head in disbelief as they come to the realization that poker isn’t simply a cute way to make witty analogies regarding life, but that the game of poker is life!
After a chapter titled ‘Pokerticians’, Cowboys Full takes you on a chronological adventure starting with the games origins –which are fuzzy to say the least– in Turkey, Germany, Italy and France. The story of poker in America occurs when the game lands in New Orleans and winds its way up the Mississippi River. The book ends with poker coming full-circle as the Internet turns poker into a global game, spreading like a wildfire in every corner of the globe, including a rebirth in the areas where the game was likely created. In McManus’s witty engaging style you’ll read about famous poker players, famous people who played poker, and how poker principles have been the genesis for some of the most important decisions in world history.
Cowboys Full can best be summed up by its sub-title, The Story of Poker. And at 491 pages for the paperback version –with a further 53 pages of end-notes, as well as a Glossary and Index—Cowboys Full is not what you would call light reading!
On the other hand, if you want to read an interesting, detailed, look at the history of poker, or you might call it history through poker, than Cowboys Full is definitely recommended reading. In my opinion, poker players who haven’t read Cowboys Full are like baseball players who are unaware of Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth or Cy Young. Regardless of what you think you know about the history of poker, Cowboys Full will open your eyes and offer a new perspective of the game you think you know –It did for me.