Big Think Interview With James McManus

A conversation with the author and poker player.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

James McManus: My name is Jim McManus, and I'm the author of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, and previous to that, Positively Fifth Street.

Question: Who is more suited to playing poker, an adept political scientist or a mathematician?

James McManus: That's a good question. Poker is about -- to play poker well you need to be extremely logical. You need to have a potent deductive facility. You need to have a level of math skills that corresponds roughly to fourth or fifth-grade math. You know, you are drawing to a flush, you have a four of diamonds, you know that a nine diamonds remains in the deck. There are forty-five or forty-six unseen cards. Nine divided by forty-five is the kind of mathematical problem that you are solving all day, all evening long at the poker table. So a high-powered mathematician such as Christ Ferguson, the guy who won in 2000, they have advantages. But the ability to suss out when somebody else is bluffing and be able to bluff yourself -- and unless you're playing online you need to be able to camouflage your nervousness, your level of affection for your hand. And you need to be able to pick up by watching your opponents' faces and body language and get a sense of how much they like their hand.

So to answer your question, I think it's probably a politician is going to have a wider, more various skill set than a pure mathematician.

Question: How did you become good at poker so quickly?

James McManus: You know, I never became real good. I think that I'm fair to middling. I played a lot in high school. I worked as a caddy, and there's a lot of poker played in caddy shacks. Some of the professional caddies, much older than high school guys, trying to make twenty dollars, thirty dollars a weekend, schooled us. Didn't play a lot in college because it was kind of a political period. I was in college in the late sixties and early seventies. In my first marriage, I didn't have enough money to play serious poker. But I returned to the game in the nineties in a more serious way. And when Lewis Lapham offered me -- he asked me after I had done a piece for Harper's that he liked, he said, well, what would you like to do next? And I said, I'd love to cover the World Series of Poker, mainly because -- well, one, it was a fantastic gig to be able to have an assignment like that from Harper's, but also I wanted it as an excuse to try to enter the event myself. That's how it worked out.

Question: How long did you spend preparing for the event?

James McManus: By that point there were -- since I don't have years and years of experience playing high-stakes poker, especially no-limit hold 'em in tournaments, which is a very specific kind of poker, I was able to buy six or eight books that helped me catch up to what the pros know. And there were computer programs that simulate to a reasonable -- it's a reasonable facsimile of what no-limit hold 'em is about, minus, you know, the pros sitting there staring at you and trying to pick up tells. And that ability that they have can be neutralized with a baseball cap pulled down low and sunglasses. So that by the time I got out there I was -- I felt that I had caught up much of the way to what the average professional -- his skill level. Since I had been playing poker by that point for forty years, I was not unfamiliar with the game's rhythms and tactics, and that the specifics of no-limit hold 'em tournaments -- I became a book-learnt amateur.

Question: How much did you win?

James McManus: I won two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I took my “Harper's” advance of four thousand dollars, played a satellite, and I won a ten thousand dollar seat in that satellite. And meanwhile I'm covering the murder trial of the host, who had been killed by his -- probably, allegedly killed -- by his stripper girlfriend two years earlier. And that trial's going on a block away from the tournament, so I'm -- in the early mornings I'm down at the courthouse, and then at noon the tournament begins. And it was a very full week of intense Vegas activity.

Question: What role has cheating played in poker history?

James McManus: It is certainly fair to say that poker was the cheating game throughout most of its first century, the 19th century. Most games were square, but the higher the stakes were, the more certain it was, or the more likely it was, that mechanics, card sharks, card sharps -- blacklegs, as they were often called -- were the people that you were competing against. And they were dealing cards over mirrored rings, or they would manage to take a culled deck, which is a deck that is pre-sequenced to give you a terribly good hand such as four kings and me four aces. And we saw a similar -- we saw a culled deck along those lines in Sting, when Robert Shaw thinks he's going to win a huge pot with four nines, but Paul Newman and his cronies have managed to slip in a double culled deck, which gives Robert Shaw his four nines, but gives Paul Newman, as he says, "Four jacks. You owe me fifteen grand, pal."

Question: Are there ways to tell when somebody’s afraid at the table?

James McManus: There are -- the first thing that the average poker player does it puts on sunglasses. The bigger the game, the more likely you are to show fear if you're about to lose five or five thousand or five hundred thousand dollars. You can augment the sunglasses with a baseball hat; you can pull up a hood. The other thing to consider is that the -- everybody has a different level of calm about them. We have different levels -- some people are born with cooler, stonier poker faces than others. And the people who don’t have that attribute need to assist their poker face with sunglasses and hats. The other thing is that many of us have a different relationship to money. A twenty-five or a twenty-two-year-old guy without a mortgage, without even a girlfriend or a wife, has a different relationship to the fifty thousand dollars that he's just won in a poker game last night than the average, say, married person with a mortgage, who goes out to Las Vegas to play a game. So that your fear when you're playing out a pot, given that two people might have the same hand -- for example, a pair of jacks -- the way that you would face a bet or raise against you depends hugely on your psychological relationship with fifty or five thousand dollars.

Question: How can you tell when somebody is bluffing at the table?

James McManus: Very hard to -- for me these days because the -- since I'm playing online ninety percent of the time -- you cannot -- all you have is your ability to read their previous betting patterns. Can't look at eyes or faces or trembling fingers. In live games you would pay very close attention to the way that they're breathing, the way that their eyes might look, their level of aggression, physical aggression, as they push chips into the pot. But of course the very best players are perfectly capable of doing double reverses on those things. If they've seen you watching them betting and bluffing when they bet aggressively, they can do the exact opposite pattern the next time they play a hand against you. The ability to read when people are bluffing and the ability to make bluffs is a smaller fraction of poker prowess than the average person understands. It's mostly about reading betting patterns and understanding the relationship between the amount of money that you can bet and what's in the pot. Controlling the pot odds is a factor that influences who wins poker hands much more often than somebody's trembling carotid artery or a twitch in the eyelash.

Question: Why is Lotto legal while poker generally is not?

James McManus: Oh, it's amazingly hypocritical to allow lotteries, bingo, suckers' games in which the more poverty-stricken folks will pour money into that they can't easily afford, or can't afford at all, and they have almost no chance of winning. And the winning -- the payouts are such a tiny fraction of what they should be given the odds against you when you buy a single lottery ticket. Meanwhile, a skill game such as poker is outlawed in, you know, a long, long list of jurisdictions. But that list is getting smaller. Meanwhile, the game has gone online, and the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act, which was sneakily attached to the Safe Ports Act in 2006 by Bill Frist and gleefully signed into law by President Bush, is now in the process of being overturned, repealed and replaced by a bill that's been brought to the floor of the House by Barney Frank, which says that we're going to tax and regulate the online sites, generate billions of dollars of tax income for the country, and make the sites more and more -- put them under tighter and tighter scrutiny so that everybody gets an even fairer shake.

Question: So, is online poker illegal now?

James McManus: Very few people argue that you or I sitting at our computer are breaking the law. Where it becomes -- where the UIGEA tries to insert its tentacles is when you make a bank transaction. If you are trying to take money off the site or put money onto the site via PayPal or some similar intermediary between regular folks and banks, you -- that operation can be seized, and the people who -- let me start again. The banks and the intermediaries such as PayPal are the place that the government puts the most energy in prosecution. Individual players playing online in the United States -- to my knowledge no one has been prosecuted for doing that. They can make it more difficult to get your winnings into your pocket at home. But as far as I know, nobody has been shorted by the online sites, and certainly the site that I usually play on, Full Tilt Poker, pays its customers in a very timely way one hundred percent of the time.

Question: What historic poker game would you most want to watch?

James McManus: There was a game in the White House during the '30s played by Franklin Roosevelt, his secretary Missy LeHand, who was also his lover, some of his senior generals and diplomatic advisors, and there was also a woman named Lorena Hickok playing who was Eleanor Roosevelt's live-in lover. So that conglomeration of powerful men and women in a White House scenario that certainly would have raised Kenneth Starr's eyebrows, while the world is in the -- you know, we're in the thick of the Depression, World War II -- we're gearing up to fight the greatest war in history -- I think it would have been fascinating to have been a part of those games. Roosevelt, of course, couldn’t -- he didn't have much of an active physical life. Poker as not only his favorite game, but it was kind of his mind sport. And because it was difficult for him to travel around even within the White House, the radio microphone from which he made his fireside chats was a few paces away from the table that they played poker on. And he didn't use worry beads, and he didn't have a rosary; what he had were poker chips that he clicked together in his hand to relax as he was giving the fireside chats. And Tom and Betsy Madden, my grandparents who taught me how to play, could hear that --and along with millions of other Americans -- could hear that as they sat around, you know, listening breathlessly to Roosevelt's next pronouncement about what's going on in the economy or in Europe.

Question: What role has poker played in President Obama's life?

James McManus: Obama fits into the largest group of presidential poker players; that is, people who play for very low stakes to relax with friends, to meet some -- as part of their political cronyism. He arrives in 1997 in the Springfield state -- the Illinois Senate in Springfield, not knowing too many Illinois politicians. You know, he's this tall, thin University of Chicago law professor; he's a writer, kind of an egghead. And part of his effort to get along with downstate soybean farmers and Chicago ward bosses was to start a poker game in the basement of his fellow freshman Senator, Terry Link. And they invited Republicans, and they invited fellow Democrats and lobbyists, and it was just -- it was called "the committee meeting," and it was a chance, once a week, for six or seven hours to get to know the people that he had to do business with for the rest of the week in Springfield.

Question: Did any presidents have a gambling problem?

James McManus: Grant was a fairly notorious gambler in both the stock market and as a poker player. And it's -- I don't know what exactly the connections are between the two, but he did end -- the reason that we have his great memoirs, which were published by Mark Twain, is because Grant was dead broke as a result of gambling either at the poker table and in the stock market. He and his son had a brokerage house. And the -- what was another? The two best poker players among the Presidents are Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, the guys who shared the ticket, the Republican ticket, in 1952. And Eisenhower had won enough in his early days as a cadet -- remember, he's a dirt-poor kid from Kansas -- and he falls for a young socialite, wealthy socialite, from Denver by the name of Mamie Dowd. The only way that Eisenhower can afford to date, to court, Mamie Dowd is through his poker winnings. He uses it to buy his dress uniform. He eventually pays for her engagement ring with money that he made playing with his fellow cadets.

Nixon famously wins eight thousand dollars in the Pacific in the 1940s, combined with the two thousand dollars that Pat Nixon had saved up, the ten thousand dollars becoming enough to run a successful congressional campaign in 1946. And of course, the rest is his checkered political history.

Question: Which president spent the most time playing poker?

James McManus: I would say that it was Eisenhower. Eisenhower learned as a very young boy, and he played -- there are many passages in my book in which he discusses how he didn't want to go out to the cadet dances; he'd rather stay back in the dorms and poker. And that was the means by which he -- that gave him the wherewithal to go out and date the woman, court the woman, that he had fallen for, buy the engagement ring. And he played so well as he moved up in the army that he eventually had to quit because he was taking too much money from his fellow soldiers, many of whom were his subordinates once he became a general.

Question: Why do you think poker appeals to so many presidents?

James McManus: I don't think it's just Presidents. I think that many of the movers and shakers in the world have an innately aggressive -- they like to seize the initiative. During the previous presidential campaign we got a wonderful quote from John McCain II, the admiral who was the candidates father. And he had told his children when they were young that the world is run not by systems analysts but by poker players. In other words, you want to avoid a fussy myopia, and you want to have an aggressive strategic vision. The irony of that is that McCain fell for craps, which is a mindless dice game in which the player never has an advantage against the house. And Obama, famously, was a poker player, in which mathematical skills, psychological acumen and the ability to wait patiently for a hand usually pays big dividends.

Question: What does the popularity of poker say about the American character?

James McManus: Well, I think that a lot of -- let me phrase this. Risk taking -- people who are drawn to risk -- entrepreneurial cowboys -- have very little patience with the puritanical mindset, which is not to take risks, work hard every day, save small amounts incrementally, and build up your fortune in that manner. Whereas -- and the puritans have very little patience for risk-taking cowboys who are willing to gamble most or all of their future, for example, on heading out across a two thousand-mile stretch of continent that hasn't been explored yet. What both sides need to appreciate is that the American experience is a combination of the entrepreneurial cowboy and the puritan work ethic, and that the two strains have made us who we are as a country, and that in poker you need to make risks; you need to put money in the pot in a speculative way in order to have any hope of doubling your money in that particular hand. And yet you also have to have -- you also have to deploy what might be called puritan money management skills, conservatism, patience, waiting for a good hand, so that an effective poker player typically involves -- start again. Playing poker effectively typically involves both entrepreneurial risk-taking and a puritan conservatism with -- and bankroll management skills.

Question: Why has poker attracting so many Americans?

James McManus: Well, Americans have an immigrant-specific genotype, which is to say that only two percent of the populations that fed into this country, excepting the Native Americans and the slaves, came over here. And that two percent of the immigrant population is much more likely to take risks. They tend to be smarter, quicker decision makers, and more intelligent, and more interested in taking large risks in order to dramatically improve their lives. When you combine that with the fact that this is the first free-market capitalist society, with the fact that money is the language of poker -- it's the only means by which you can keep score; it's the way that you leverage your hand against what are often better hands, and you -- as Walter Matthau put it, "Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism which have made our country so great." I think it's a wonderfully succinct expression of the relationship between the American spirit and the poker mentality.

 Recorded on: November 18, 2009