“Cowboys Full” Review

[LL] “James McManus’s Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker came out just a year after Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table, so it makes sense to compare and contrast them.”

[RR] “Sure, why read two books when one will do?” Roderick the Rock suggested.

[LL] “But you know that’s not what I’m going to say. I’m a big fan of poker books, and both of these have a lot going for them. Even where the books’ topics overlap, which is often, the content differs significantly.

Both books cover the history of playing cards, poker (and specifically Texas Hold ‘Em), Wild West poker (and Dead Man’s Hand), riverboat gambling, road gamblers, the growth of Las Vegas (and the Moss-Dandolos match), the World Series of Poker, high stakes poker (including Andy Beal), women in poker, and online poker.

Cowboys Full’s extra material includes poker in Gardena, California, poker playing U.S. Presidents (and other politicians), computer poker programs, and poker literature.

Ghosts at the Table unique offerings include the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona and Wilson’s personal investigation into Hal Fowler.

[RR] “But if you had to choose one of the books?”

[LL] “I wouldn’t.”

[RR] “But if you really had to…”

[LL] “If absolutely forced to pick, I’d go with Ghosts at the Table, which is the more entertaining of the pair and presents more content that doesn’t appear in any other poker book. Mind you, Cowboys Full is equally well written and amazingly researched with a whopping 41 pages of footnotes and 64 references (and that’s just the selected bibiliography).

If I only read Ghosts, I’d still want to read the sections in Cowboys that weren’t covered!”

Title Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker
Author James McManus
Year 2009
Skill Level any
Pros A comprehensive and entertaining history of poker through 2008.
Cons Very long and can drag at times (although you can just flip past the sections that don’t interest you).
Rating 3.5

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“Ghosts at the Table” Review

[LL] “As you know, poker has a long history of colorful stories and tall tales that have grown taller with each retelling. In Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today, Des Wilson debunks some myths about Wild Bill Hickok’s ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ and the multimillion-dollar Nick Dandolos-Johnny Moss match.”

[RR] “Neither happened?” Roderick the Rock asked.

[LL] “No, they both happened, but Dead Man’s Hand may have been made up later, while Dandolos and Moss probably played a much smaller game than folklore has it.

On the other hand, Wilson passes on as truth many other poker stories of the Old West (including the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone), riverboat gamblers, mid-20th century road gamblers, Benny Binion, and Doyle Brunson. He even does some serious detective legwork to figure out what happened to Hal Fowler, who basically disappeared from the poker world after winning the 1979 World Series of Poker.”

[RR] “So, Fowler was the anti-Amarillo Slim and didn’t help popularize the game at all?”

[LL] “It’s a shame, too, since his amateur status should have been a bigger boon to the popularity of the World Series of Poker.”1

[RR] “Well, Moneymaker could only happen once, and online poker was a long way off in 1979.”

[LL] “Wilson gets to online poker later as well as high stakes poker and…”

[RR] “What about high stakes online poker?”

[LL] “That didn’t really exist yet.

… and includes a relatively short section on women in poker, mostly discussing their history at the World Series of Poker. The WSOP gets its own long chapter with stories about his eight favorite Main Event final tables. The final chapter of the book returns to the WSOP but unfortunately ends as the 2007 Main Event final table is set.”

[RR] “Not exactly the best place to end the book!”

[LL] “Yeah, I don’t agree with that decision either, but due to the timing of publication the final table is relegated to an addendum with nothing more than a list of the results.

On the whole, it’s a small flaw in a great book. Because Wilson traveled all over the U.S. to interview people, he has some unique insights, especially regarding Fowler. Although not quite as comprehensive2 as James McManus’s Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker, which was published the following year, Ghosts at the Table is equally worthy of your time.”

Title Ghosts at the Table: Riverboat Gamblers, Texas Rounders, Roadside Hucksters, and the Living Legends Who Made Poker What It Is Today
Author Des Wilson
Year 2008
Skill Level any
Pros Great storytelling and myth-busting from poker’s past up to 2007.
Cons Chapters cover a random assortment of topics of varying importance. Publication should have been delayed a few weeks to finish the story of the 2007 WSOP Main Event.
Rating 4.0

Footnotes:

  1. The number of players in the Main Event did double over the next four years, but by comparison, after Chris Moneymaker won in 2003, the field tripled the next year.
  2. At first glance, Cowboys Full appears to be about 50% bigger, weighing in at a hefty 516 pages to Ghosts at the Table’s 368, but McManus dedicates a significant 88 pages to its footnotes, bibliography, glossary, and index, whereas Wilson uses but 15.
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“Bigger Deal” Review

[LL] “When Anthony Holden’s Big Deal came out in 1990, he had no way to know how inspirational the book would prove to so many poker players (casual hacks and future pros alike)”,1 Leroy the Lion stated.

[RR] “I’m surprised. If I didn’t already play poker, it would have scared me away from ever taking up the game. I guess I’m just not cut out to be a degenerate gambler.”

[LL] “Holden had even less inkling that poker itself would explode after decades in the smoky shadows into an immense industry with round-the-clock, round-the-dial television coverage, multimillion dollar tournaments around the world, and a new breed of online poker players who never need to leave their house to play. Bigger Deal takes a look at the new world order as the author, one of the strongest poker-playing writers, travels around Europe and the U.S. to play in tournaments and cash games starting and ending with the World Series of Poker.”2

[RR] “And I’m not big on travel either.”

[LL] “That may have caught up with Holden, too, albeit because of his writing. His marriage to ‘the Moll’ shortly after the previous book ended in divorce a decade later. She shows up at one of the poker festivals as they are still friends, but he has no problem with knocking her out of one tournament. His sons are now old enough to play poker legally, and he buys one of them into a poker tournament as a birthday gift.

Besides Las Vegas, Holden plays poker — now mostly No-Limit instead of Limit Hold ‘Em — in Connecticut (Foxwoods and Yale), Manhattan, the Caribbean, Monte Carlo, and London and Walsall in England. He’s a good enough player to still net after expenses enough to earn his buyin into the 2006 WSOP Main Event. He’s still better at cash games than tournaments, but he has occasional successes in the latter format.

Along the way, Holden covers the forerunner of the World Series of Poker,3 celebrity poker, poker camps, and online poker. He profiles Dave ‘the Devilfish’ Ulliott, Andy ‘the Monk’ Black, Doyle Brunson, Henry Orenstein,4 and Howard Lederer.

[RR] “That’s a lot of ground to cover.”

[LL] “Indeed it is, but with the tremendous growth of the poker world since Big Deal, the sequel appeared as just one of a slew of poker books published in 2007. As such, it didn’t garner nearly as much attention as its predecessor, and objectively it isn’t nearly as important. But, it’s almost as entertaining and equally non-educational.”

Title Bigger Deal
Author Anthony Holden
Year 2007
Skill Level Any
Pros Shows how the poker landscape changed dramatically in 17 years.
Cons Too many details about unimportant small tournaments and cash games the author plays in.
Rating 2.5

Footnotes:

  1. Among the people who took up poker after reading Big Deal: Nick Leeson (the rogue Barings Bank trader had some time to kill in jail), Bill Gates, and Randolph Fields (one of the founders of Virgin Atlantic Airlines). A 1995 Holden biography, The St Albans Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Graham Young, may have inspired something a bit more sinister, a Japanese girl and chemistry student murdered her mother with thallium.
  2. The book starts with the 2005 WSOP Main Event and ends with the 2006 WSOP Main Event, but the 2007 is covered briefly in the Epilogue.
  3. The Texas Gamblers Reunion was organized by Tom Moore at his Holiday Hotel in Reno in 1969. When he decided not to repeat the event, he freely gave the idea to Benny Binion.
  4. Barry Hearn, started using hole cams on his Poker Millions television show without realizing that Orenstein had a patent on them. Hearn intended to fight Orenstein in court until he read the Polish concentration camp survivor’s memoirs and thought {page 197}, “My God, I’ll pay him whatever he wants.”
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“Bicycle Blackjack and Poker” Review

[LL] “Despite a 2007 copyright date and no indication that the book is based on any older material,” Leroy the Lion conjectured, “Bicycle Blackjack and Poker appears to have been written in the 1970s with very minor updates since then. No general poker book written after Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event championship could possibly dedicate just eight short sentences to Texas Hold ‘Em, the most popular poker variation in the world.

Blackjack gets just sixteen pages, so this is primarily a poker book. But by page count Five-Card Draw gets the most coverage followed by Five-Card Stud and then Seven-Card Stud. That should give you an estimate for the approximate date that the text was written.1

In the end, Bicycle Blackjack and Poker is a short rules reference that’s no better than what you could find on most poker web sites or these Wikipedia articles. Its biggest selling point is probably its cute front and back covers, which resemble a playing card box that’s been squashed a little flatter, taller, and wider.”

Title Bicycle Blackjack and Poker
Author U.S. Playing Card Company
Year 2007
Skill Level Beginner
Pros Very basic primer on how to play blackjack and poker.
Cons Appears to have been written over three decades earlier with very minor changes.
Rating 1.5

Footnotes:

  1. Five-Card Draw was already on its way out when the World Series of Poker began and was only contested from 1978 to 1982. Five-Card Stud had an even shorter, earlier run from 1971 to 1974.
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