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Poker, Power Go Hand In Hand, Author Says

Poker's lessons have informed some of America's most powerful leaders, says James McManus, author of <em>Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker</em>. McManus is also the author of <em>Positively Fifth Street</em>.
Poker's lessons have informed some of America's most powerful leaders, says James McManus, author of <em>Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker</em>. McManus is also the author of <em>Positively Fifth Street</em>.

Author James McManus believes poker explains a lot about who we are as a culture. America is where the game was popularized, and in his new book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, McManus lists dozens of powerful Americans who have spent long nights hunched over a card table betting — and bluffing — their way to riches or ruin.

"The ways we've done battle and business have reflected and are reflected by poker logic," McManus tells Guy Raz. "The entrepreneurial spirit of a fledgling democracy made it fairly natural that poker would become the game. Its language is money."

Poker — rougher and more democratic than the baccarat and and blackjack played in European casinos — became a sensation in America during the Civil War. McManus writes in Cowboys Full that Ulysses S. Grant was known to play, but he says that some key Confederate leaders — also known poker players — put the game's tactics to better use on the battlefield.

"[Generals Robert E.] Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest were more talented bluffers," McManus says. "[They were] better at misrepresenting the strength of their position [and] their troop strength. And by those means, they nearly defeated the North."

It's no shock that powerful men in intense situations might turn to poker as a form of release or as a method of sharpening their intellect. In McManus' view, "Poker logic is about leveraging uncertainty and managing risk as effectively as possible, using psychology, logic, and mathematics in order to make effective bets — either at the table or in the marketplace."

President Obama has a reputation as a cautious player who leaves the table a winner, and he's not alone in White House history. Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon: poker players all, according to McManus. Eisenhower and Nixon had reputations as effective high-stakes players; Nixon even financed his first successful congressional campaign with poker winnings.

In Cowboys Full, McManus quotes Nixon's college literature professor, Albert Upton, as saying, "A man who couldn't hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn't fit to be president of the United States."

Or the richest man in the world. Of Bill Gates' college years, McManus says, "He felt he learned more playing poker with his dorm-mates than he did in some of the most fascinating classes he took at Harvard."

Apparently, the lessons served him well.

"[Gates] developed a poker strategizing acumen that he found extremely applicable to forming a business and developing a business plan. And then just as important, he won a sufficient sum to help him bankroll the early stages of Microsoft," McManus says.

Early on, poker was associated with rough characters and rampant cheating that led to violence — picture overturned tables and shootouts in Wild West saloons. But as the stakes got higher and the game became institutionalized, poker made a gradual transition from a enterprise of scoundrels to a polite gentleman's pastime.

"Casinos, who were hosting the games, had enormous incentive to keep the game square and bring in more customers," says McManus. "Just as in the 21st century the online sites have a huge incentive not to slaughter their platinum goose."

If the idea that a poker table could function as a classroom in the subjects of money, power and war rubs some Americans the wrong way, McManus reads the game's lessons as a necessary ingredient in the development of the American ideology: "What's made America great is the combination of Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneurial cowboy's desire to get rich quick by setting out for the territories and taking big risks."

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