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'Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker,' by James McManus

COWBOYS FULL:The Story of Poker, by James McManus. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 516 pp., $30.

In 2005, two paintings of dogs playing poker by artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934) came to auction with a high estimate of $50,000 and sold for $590,400.

It's one of many effects of the recent boom in poker, a game whose long, colorful history in the United States comes to life through the research and narrative wit of James McManus in "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker."

McManus knows the green-felt world, having entered the World Series of Poker in 2000 while researching a magazine article. He finished fifth and produced a classic book in "Positively Fifth Street" (2003).

With its detailed history, "Cowboys Full" - the title refers to a full house where the triad is kings - is authoritative and entertaining. McManus brings up the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal to provide a cameo for its instigator, Arnold Rothstein, who would be murdered over a poker debt.

He gives a lot of space to Herbert O. Yardley, who was born in Indiana in 1889 to a railroad telegrapher and was a self-taught poker sharp by 16. Yardley's career included stints as the top cryptanalyst for Woodrow Wilson, a script adviser in Hollywood and a breaker of Japanese codes for Chiang Kai-shek.

The author is expansive on politicians, partly because bluffing has become a critical element of the nuclear age. "Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson all played five-card stud," he writes. He cites then-Sen. Barack Obama's regular Wednesday poker game, and points out the appeal of Franklin D. Roosevelt's term "New Deal" for those who felt the Great Depression had dealt them a lousy hand.

A poet and novelist, McManus revels in the language of the game: "Hindsight bias also happens to be a polite term for calling an all-in preflop raise with A-7 suited, rivering a straight, and yelling, 'Yeah, baby! Ship it!' "

McManus packs a lot of anecdotes and characters into his chapters on the rise of Texas hold'em and the gamblers who have played it for ever-bigger pots in the past 40 years. There's now a "quarter of a billion dollars at stake during the World Series every summer in Las Vegas," he writes.

The book closes with a look at the global explosion of Internet poker, the electronic fraud that emerged with it and the U.S. legislative efforts to ban or rein in Web gambling - efforts that McManus portrays as uncommonly wrongheaded even by Washington standards.

McManus is current enough to allude to an event in early 2009, which underlines my only regret: the absence of a chapter on poker and Wall Street, and particularly the bad bets that led to the subprime crisis and credit crunch. One of my colleagues recently wrote on financial firms' interest in poker pros.

I'd love to have heard McManus go heads-up with those cowboys downtown.

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