What do Pleistocene hunters have to do with poker anyway? Absolutely nothing, Mr. McManus.

I wanted a light read for a few days, so I picked up James McManus’ Cowboys Full expecting a history of poker.  But little did I know that first I would have to submit to a painfully twisted Darwinian fairy tale in which the writer attempts to show how his version of standard modern behavior in complex society began in prehistoric days and/or our genetic code. 

Let’s let McManus speak for himself:

Our urge to compete and take chances developed along the following lines.  Pleistocene hunters risked life and limb for the best opportunities to slaughter ferocious but protein-rich animals.  The closer they got with a chipped-stone spearhead to a scared, angry buffalo, the more likely they were to be trampled or gored, but the better chance they had of actually killing the beast.  Courage and aggressiveness counted.  Hanging back from the fray may have helped a risk-averse male survive the day’s hunt, but it wouldn’t have served him well otherwise.  Hunters who took down fresh meat were lionized within the tribe.  They received larger portions of protein and more opportunities to mate with nubile females.  Meanwhile, the females were competing among themselves-painting their faces, displaying their breasts and genitalia-for the chance to mate with the best food providers.  Once copulation took place, protection became even more vital to the families who might become pregnant, so the sexual bounty was even more lavish for the hunters-turned-warriors who killed the most enemy tribesmen.  By this means and others, a taste for bold risk taking was efficiently bred into our species.  Perhaps the most obvious example today occurs when the prettiest cheerleader dates the star of the varsity team.

When constructing these Darwinian fantasies or fairy tales, in virtually every case the behavior that the writer wants to validate is part of the package of traditional Victorian values.  In the past few months I’ve pointed a number of examples of Darwinian fairy tales, all of which uphold traditional ideas about men and women; for example, see the blogs for November 17 and September 1.

In the McManus book, he is trying to connect good hunters getting the best women in the caveman days with varsity stars getting the prettiest cheerleaders today. 

But it’s all made up out of the very thinnest of air; maybe it’s made of phlogiston, that imaginary stuff in the air that Lavoisier proved did not exist.  It does not even exist in popular mythology much:  The classic movie plot is for the cheerleader to start with the star and then mature to the point that she ends up with the dancer, singer, political activist or hood.  And as I remember reality, the prettiest cheerleader usually dated a college man. 

My point is that McManus is trying to impose a personal observation on us as social reality and uses a fairy tale he either mistakenly or cynically calls scientific to do so.  The fact that this excursion into Darwinian fairy-telling was extraneous to the rest of the book, which is supposed to be about poker, makes it all the more irritating.   Let’s hope he takes it out of the paperback edition.

Every time I critique a Darwinian fairy tale, I make sure I write that I believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, I just don’t buy into these elaborate explanations based on little or no evidence.

37 thoughts on “What do Pleistocene hunters have to do with poker anyway? Absolutely nothing, Mr. McManus.

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  17. It’s disappointing that a person with Jim McManus’s vaunted credentials would resort to an ad hominen attack and an avalanche of blurbs. One would think that a paragraph of meaningful response would have taken less time. This is not the response of a Someone wtih a capital “S.”

  18. Mr. McManus seems very petty for calling Mr. Jampole a “Nobody from Nowhere.” Their respective Wikipedia biographies suggest that they are equally distinguished or that Mr. Jampole has a slight upper hand. Perhaps Mr. McManus should take the time out of his busy poker-playing schedule to actually respond to Mr. Jampole’s criticism of his sloppy writing!

  19. Re the first comment, I don’t see that Jim’s sending a list of positive book reviews says anything about the point you were attempting to make in your post. In fact, my first impression is that he is not someone I would particuarly care to meet.

  20. Dear Nobody from Nowhere: happy holidays. Someone from Somewhere

    A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
    A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of 2009
    One of the Best Books of the Year. Amazon.com
    One of the Best Books of 2009. San Francisco Chronicle

    “Poker now has what must surely be its definitive history in this excellent, comprehensive account of the game.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    “Entertaining, informative and genial. . . . McManus writes with verve [and] authority. [A] copious, lively account of poker’s past and present.” Robert Pinsky, New York Times Book Review

    “If there were a World Series of Poker Writing, then James McManus just won the main event. It’s not only that McManus delivers the definitive history of the game with Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, it’s that he’s so entertaining doing it that even non-pokeristas will get swept along for the ride. [He] manages to transform poker into a character in a historical novel—a character we follow from its ancestry in Asia, Europe and the Middle East to New Orleans in the early 1800s, then up the Mississippi on riverboats to every corner of the inchoate country. . . . Just as Doyle Brunson’s Super System and Dan Harrington’s Harrington on Hold’em are the books on playing poker, Cowboys Full is now the book about the game.” Rathe Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer

    “Mr. McManus writes about our American love of poker like James A. Michener describing the Plains Indians’ discovery of the buffalo: ‘Wait a second . . . I can eat it, wear it, make it into a drum . . . there’s nothing I can’t do with this sonofabitch.’ I would throw in ‘A joy for poker players and non-players alike,’ but, of the second group, who cares what they read—and I don’t think there are enough of them to affect Mr. McManus’s royalties.” David Mamet

    “A history of the game with all its unsavory and distinguished practitioners. [It] explains a lot about who we are as a culture. America is where the game was popularized, and in his new book 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. [He] reads the game’s lessons as a necessary ingredient in the development of the American ideology.” Guy Raz, All Things Considered

    “The book is sensational. McManus is a writer of immense talent, deft with language and with an ear that seems to catch all the right conversations. And he has a cast of characters that would be the envy of the most imaginative novelist.” Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

    “Cowboys Full is a deal-me-in delight. Starting with a sweeping survey of the history of the game and its role in American culture, McManus ends with a smart, insiders’ analysis of how poker has been—and should be—played. . . . Stuffed with anecdotes. . . . Beyond its importance as a model and metaphor for American culture, society, and politics, Cowboys Full demonstrates, poker is fascinating in its own right.” Glenn C. Altschuler, Boston Globe

    “Passion is enlivening, and authors who have it draw us in. We want it because without it we would be angels, and no one, really, wants that. James McManus is passionate about poker, not a game for angels but one once associated with sin and played in murky rooms by rough men. [His] Cowboys Full is 516 pages of all things poker: history, trivia, strategy, analysis. It’s a compendium, an omnium-gatherum, an anecdotal encyclopedia of poker. [He] shows its influence on every American war, the building of the great cities, the settlement of the West, politics and [how it] teaches us like no other game can how to survive in life, maybe even win more than we lose.” Tom Dodge, Dallas Morning News

    “A poet and novelist, McManus revels in the language of the game . . . whose long, colorful history in the U.S. comes to life through [his] research and narrative wit. 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. . . . With its detailed history and 87 pages of notes, glossary and index, Cowboys Full manages to be authoritative and entertaining. The book closes with a look at the global explosion of Internet poker, the electronic fraud that quickly emerged with it and the U.S. legislative efforts to ban or rein in Web gambling—efforts that McManus convincingly portrays as uncommonly wrongheaded even by Washington standards.” Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg News

    “In Cowboys Full, a comprehensive account of humanity’s fascination with games of chance, [McManus] succeeds by using a born storyteller’s gifts to trace the qualities needed to win at poker. . . . Excels in showing how the daring and resourcefulness that sent settlers westward into a wilderness fraught with danger and opportunity also brought an affinity for this new game. . . . The definitive study of poker history [and] the most entertaining collection of poker tales ever published.” Gabriel Schechter, Washington Times

    “A captivating history of the game from a writer who happens to be one of its best players.” John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle

    “The story of poker is that of risk-loving America and, recently, the rest of the world. Here is that crazy ride in unparalleled detail, driven by wit, wisdom, true love, and sizzling style. As analyst, historian, devotee, and no mean player, James McManus is poker’s most eloquent advocate.” Anthony Holden

    “Cowboys Full is McManus’s brilliant homage to the game that inspired his 2003 bestseller, Positively Fifth Street, and weaves through a colorful history of sharps, grinders, and braying donkeys. From the lawless saloons of the Old West to Oval Offices of the modern era, poker has been a part of our cultural DNA for nearly two centuries by offering a shot at the American Dream with each deal. . . . Presents a compelling case that the essence of America is best understood through a few hands of its favorite card game.” Dave Callanan, Amazon.com

    “In his colossal new history of the game, Cowboys Full, journalist James McManus casts the old-fashioned game in a whole new light with insightful, mesmerizing tales about its origins, the bizarre cast of historical figures, underworld creatures and celebrity players who have played it, and its lasting influence on politics, warfare and other national spectacles. . . . The mechanics of cheating rate a comprehensive analysis, while several chapters are devoted to the luck of the draw, the inscrutability of randomness, and guidelines for bluffing applied as easily to nuclear diplomacy as to a cutthroat round between pros. . . . The book ends, as all good histories do, with a look at the future, including a roundup of current thought on poker ethics and the globalization of the game that McManus believes is inevitable.” Clayton Moore, Denver Post

    “[McManus] tosses another blue chip into the swelling pot of poker literature. [He] tracks the maturation process of poker through a troublesome adolescence in which cheating ‘card sharps’ proliferated during the era of riverboat gamblers into a more socially — though not universally — respected pastime. He documents the rise of Texas Hold’em as today’s poker game of choice, the development of the World Series of Poker as the game’s first mega-tournament and poker’s Internet evolution into a game played online by competitors on every continent. . . . McManus has a writer’s eye for anecdotes and details that bring the material to life. The book covers a lot of ground, but thanks to McManus’ particular blend of skills, it does so with insight, clarity and credibility.” Jack Broom, Seattle Times

    “An erudite, well-researched and fully referenced history of the French parlor game that morphed into an American obsession in the mid-19th century. Ranging from the revolver-toting days of Wild Bill Hickok to smoky 20th-century Vegas backrooms to the modern age of online gaming, McManus’ work gains broader texture in its linking of play-for-pay card games to various aspects of American society, not least of which are politics and leadership. Hence we learn, among many other things, that President Obama availed himself of poker night while a state senator in Illinois—and acquitted himself well. President Nixon was also notably good playing cards during his World War II service. McManus’ thesis connects gambling to the American character, and given the domestic millions won and lost daily in its various forms, who could say otherwise?” Martin Brady, BookPage

    “The most exhaustive and definitive account of the history of poker. . . . McManus is an excellent stylist and storyteller, so the book is unfailingly entertaining. . . . Read Cowboys Full to understand how this golden age came about—and to grasp that poker does have a meaning beyond the felt.” Tim Peters, Card Player

    “Before the burst of a million online geniuses, James McManus was already writing the best material on poker, and Cowboys Full proves that nothing’s changed. A must-read!” Antonio Esfandiari

    “A book that describes, as well as any work ever written on the subject, how the game has evolved from being a cheating game to a legitimate enterprise over the course of the last 200 years. [McManus is] a first-rate storyteller. His study of the way poker-inflected game theory has influenced the thinking of some of our greatest military minds, especially those who guided us through the Cold War, is particularly fascinating. . . . Aficionados will have a much better understanding of poker’s past thanks to Cowboys Full. McManus’s book promises to be the definitive work on the subject for years to come.” Storms Reback, All-In

    “A comprehensive history. . . . McManus ties poker tightly to American life—the presidents who used their regular game to unwind, network, or test a man’s mettle range from Honest Abe to Barack Obama—and clearly relishes retelling tales of legendary contests. . . . He also discusses how televised tournaments and Internet gaming continue to change the face of poker [and] spins a lot of meticulous research into a fast-paced, entertaining history.” Kathie Bergquist, Chicago Reader

    “There are many who feel that James McManus’ first book on poker, Positively Fifth Street, is the best book ever written on the subject [and] many will suggest that he has now crafted the TWO best non-strategy poker books. [He] focuses on the unique character of Americans that inevitably led to a game like poker becoming so popular. He takes us to bloody battles in the Civil War, and demonstrates the bluffing skills of some of the legendary Union and Confederate generals. . . . The reader feels as if he is inside the action, getting a birds-eye perspective on the attitudes and motivations of all the major players. . . . Poker is fortunate to have found such a thorough and expressive voice in a historian of its legacy. . . . A book to be relished and savored, like a fine seven-course meal. . . . Although this book will not help you win a single additional hand the next time you sit down to play, it will likely do more for your self-image as a poker player than any other book you have read. Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker is a must-have book for anyone who has an interest in our game.” PokerWorks

    “McManus has done a tremendous job. [He] is uniquely qualified to tell this tale. . . . A lot of research clearly went into the book, but it reads effortlessly, as if the author is spinning versions of oft-told yarns from memory. It weaves in and out of luxury mansions, backrooms of saloons, kitchen tables in middle-class suburbs and modern tournaments without missing a beat. . . . It is a story of high mathematics and low-down dirty deeds, of proud men humbled and humble men grown rich, of a simple game you can learn in an hour, but not master in a lifetime.” Aaron Brown, Poker Pro

    “Carefully compiles poker’s colorful history into 52 chapters—one for each card in the deck—providing both a handy reference for anyone interested in poker’s past as well as an engaging page-turner chock full of dramatic twists and turns. [A]n important reference work to future historians of the game. It’s also a damned good read. Anyone with an interest in poker should find the book compelling.” Martin Harris, Betfair
    “Cowboys Full covers the historical and cultural development of poker in the United States with all of the sweep, drama, and comedy of an epic novel. [A] history that follows all the under-the-table trickery, subterfuge, and presidential card games of the nation’s popular imagination, subjects that before had been captured mostly in literature or song. . . . Dazzling.” Joe Meno, Chicago

    “The epic story of how poker has grown from disreputable roots to become America’s—and the world’s—game. . . . A comprehensively structured history [with] suspenseful chapters on contemporary poker play. . . . A satisfying, useful overview.” Kirkus Review

    “A witty and insightful book masterfully blending history, politics and strategy to produce an excellent definitive historical guide to the ‘national card game.’” Online Poker News

    “Go all-in on this one. . . . Cowboys Full is loaded with colorful stories and even more colorful characters.” Steve Napoli, Paste Magazine

    “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about poker, and a horde of things you never imagined. He is a clever and entertaining writer.” Doug Maloney, Marin Independent Journal

    “Takes the reader on a journey through poker history, and helps him appreciate how we have arrived at where we are. . . . Fascinating reading.” LaunchPoker

    “Offers a colorful history of the game—and comes up aces.” Hemispheres

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