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Card sharks

Sunday, November 22, 2009

COWBOYS FULL

The Story of Poker

By James McManus

Farrar Straus Giroux. 516 pp. $30

Whether it's because of the post-Bear Stearns economy or the headache induced by watching Jennifer Tilly on Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," poker seems waaaay 2006 right now. But the mid-aughts poker boom hasn't gone bust, judging by the record participation in the 2009 World Series of Poker. Texas Hold 'Em, the game James McManus's 2003 memoir, "Positively Fifth Street," brought out of the cardrooms and into the streets, is more popular than ever. In fact, McManus argues in his new book that bluffing, raising, sandbagging and risking everything in the hope of winning more are still part of "American DNA."

"My goal is to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are," McManus writes. He tracks the evolution of poque, a French parlor-game that made landfall in 19th-century New Orleans, from Mississippi steamboats to Civil War battlefields to American kitchen tables, the White House and the Internet. This scattershot history makes tenuous connections between card games and war games -- "Parallels between poker and nuclear showdowns are never neat," McManus concedes. But the author is a reliable guide to a pastime that, as poker players form lobbying organizations and Rep. Barney Frank advocates the legalization of online gambling, seems less like subculture than culture. After all, if Ben Affleck can become California's poker champion, why shouldn't we all be able to ante up?

-- Justin Moyer

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