Poker history

June 15, 2010 7:01 AM


‘Cowboys Full’ is super reference

With the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas for the next month or so, an "everything you wanted to know about poker" book might make good reading, at least between tournaments.

Jim McManus, whose blockbuster Positively Fifth Street was an instant hit some years ago, has penned a super poker history book titled Cowboys Full (516 pages, hardbound, $30) designed to answer a jillion questions about the origins of the game, the characters, showdowns, big money days and stuff you never knew before.

With 70 pages of research sources, footnotes, index and photos, this book is destined to be a classic reference work. Coincidentally, there are 52 chapters describing everything from the development of playing cards to cheats, the big smoky-room play, no-limit, tournaments to super tournaments, the authors who made the greatest contributions to the game along with the role of television and high tech gadgetry in moving poker into an international money-making phenomenon.

One of the more fascinating chapters discusses the evolution of poker from the game of five-card stud and draw to hold’em. One theory about the beginnings of the game involves a group of Texas ranch hands who had only one deck but knew almost two dozen players could still play if each were dealt two cards. That chapter also contains several other theories about who, where and how the game came about.

The old-age question of skill versus luck is discussed. Lawyers, judges and those regulating gaming should be aware of the controversy and McManus covers the subject well.

The book raises the now age-old question about the big game Nick the Greek played against Johnny Moss in 1949. Was the game played the way people seem to remember it? Did it actually occur or was it a publicity stunt to attract players to Binion’s? The controversy continues today, and McManus documents it colorfully and with depth.

Authors like Herbert Yardley, A. Alvarez, David Sklansky rarely get the praise they truly earned for the shot in the arm they gave the game. Yardley’s Education of a Poker Player in the 1950s brought in thousands of new players. Alvarez’s Biggest Game in Town brought worldwide attention to the tournament format, in particular, the World Series of Poker. Sklansky’s 1976 Hold’em Poker became the must-read work for beginners and of course Doyle Brunson’s Super System two years later became a virtual "bible" for advanced and tournament players.

Presidents, politicians, military leaders, astute businessmen all learned the game – some were better than others, but the principles they applied helped them in battle in making big money decisions. It was risk-taking at the highest level, a school teaching survival, bluffing and attack techniques – reading the "tells" and making the other guy blink.

There’s enough colorful stuff in McManus’ book to make several movies and to make many a reader a "maven" on the game. It’s a fine gift item for the relative, friend or co-worker with many a question or for one who loves history and the role poker played in a developing nation.

For McManus, this book seems a true labor of love. He enjoys the details, the stories, the theories, the hand re-creations (amazing how people can remember those key hands or all the hands for that matter). His enjoyment of the game and the people shines through. Bravo McManus – a dynamite classic.

This book and thousands more are available at Gambler’s Book Shop in Las Vegas. The store’s website is You can order there or by phoning the store Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time at 1-800-522-1777.