Where the Cowboy and the Puritan Meet
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: 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
James McManus explains why the legacy of poker speaks to the fundamental duality in the American experience.
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