James McManus is an author and professional poker player. His most recent book is “Cowboys Full” an account of poker’s role in American history. His bestselling memoir, “Positively Fifth Street” was based on his coverage of a Las Vegas trial and his participation in the 2000 World Series of Poker. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, and The New Yorker. A teacher at The Art Institute of Chicago, he lives in Kenilworth, Illinois.
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.