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November 15, 2009

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Dealing a flush on America's top game

RICHARD Nixon played poker well. His winnings in the Navy (there is no evidence that they were stowed in a specially built footlocker with a false bottom) financed young Nixon's first, successful Congressional election campaign in 1946 against the admired incumbent Democrat, Jerry Voorhis.

I once told that story to a very eminent poet - not a poker player, but he knew that I was one. His response didn't shake my belief in the Nixon tale's basic truth, but he gave me a new context for its embellishments.

"I've always thought of that footlocker," my poet friend said, "as Nixon's log cabin."

That comment puts a skeptical spin on Nixon, on biographical tales in general and on lore about politicians in particular. The remark also pays an oblique compliment to the game of poker as a national totem. As long-ago American candidates invented or exaggerated their successful climb from humble, Lincolnesque roots on the frontier, so in later times claiming success at the great national card game is to claim, as well, certain American virtues.

Near the outset of his copious, lively account of poker's past and present, "Cowboys Full," James McManus describes the game, and the qualities it demands, as characteristically American. As the American game, he says, poker combines two contrasting strands in our national character, "the risk-averse Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneur's urge to seize the main chance." The "migratory gene" that sent emigrants to the New World was particularly strong in those willing to cross the Appalachians westward, then on to the gold fields of California and Nevada. So: "Our national card game still combines Puritan values - self-control, diligence, the steady accumulation of savings insured by the F.D.I.C. - with what might be called the open-market cowboy's desire to get very rich very quickly. ... Yet whenever the big-bet cowboy folds a weak hand, he submits to his puritan side."

The Puritan and the cowboy in one. The combination represents a tempering balance of dualities: steadiness and adventure, calculation and risk, skill and chance, caution and greed, the cool reality of numbers interacting with the warm reality of luck - getting hot or not. That is the recipe that makes poker a great American invention. (An invention, like jazz, with pre-American roots.) As Walter Matthau says, in a beautiful sentence McManus quotes: "Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

McManus has the credentials to write with authority about another quality of poker: the dreamlike and in a way democratic fact that an intelligent, persistent and lucky amateur can rise and thrive among the professionals.

In effect, join them, as his splendid earlier book "Positively Fifth Street" recounts. In 2000, McManus, a writer of poetry and fiction, was covering poker-related stories in Las Vegas. He rose from a feeder or "satellite" tournament to a seat at the final table in the World Series of Poker. He came in fifth overall and won, as we say in the poetry game, a lot of dough.

Other cultural and historical strands McManus covers include game theory, online poker and the friendly game among local regulars, played for harmless stakes. Devotees of the friendly game have included Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.

The friendly game, with a limit on bets (sometimes doubled for the last round), usually allows the dealer to choose the game, with an emphasis on the old, traditional stud and draw variants rather than the hyper-charged hold 'em, which in tournament play is no-limit, meaning a player can go bet all of one's chips at once.

McManus writes with verve and knowledge, though his book is a little sprawling. (Few readers will wish it were longer.) The thoughts on poker terms and principles in global politics, and on the application of game theory to fields like cancer research, are interesting, although McManus does sometimes exaggerate or stretch a point.

"Cowboys Full" is so entertaining, informative and genial that McManus can be forgiven for occasionally overplaying his hand.


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