Author James McManus believes poker explains a lot about who we are as a culture. America is where the game was popularized, and in his new book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, 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.
"The ways we’ve done battle and business have reflected and are reflected by poker logic," McManus tells Guy Raz. "The entrepreneurial spirit of a fledgling democracy made it fairly natural that poker would become the game. Its language is money."
Poker — rougher and more democratic than the baccarat and and blackjack played in European casinos — became a sensation in America during the Civil War. McManus writes in Cowboys Full that Ulysses S. Grant was known to play, but he says that some key Confederate leaders — also known poker players — put the game’s tactics to better use on the battlefield.
"[Generals Robert E.] Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest were more talented bluffers," McManus says. "[They were] better at misrepresenting the strength of their position [and] their troop strength. And by those means, they nearly defeated the North."
It’s no shock that powerful men in intense situations might turn to poker as a form of release or as a method of sharpening their intellect. In McManus’ view, "Poker logic is about leveraging uncertainty and managing risk as effectively as possible, using psychology, logic, and mathematics in order to make effective bets — either at the table or in the marketplace."