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Straight run of ace tales

The trials and tribulations of a professional gambler is a story well told by Roy Brindley, the English poker player who settled in Ireland and has seen yet another edition of his book, Life's a Gamble (Bantam, €8.99), appear this year. Honest and touching, the conclusion most of us would reach on its completion would be: "Professional poker player? Not for me."

The popularity of Texas Hold 'em -- originally called Hold Me Darling, then abbreviated to Hold Me -- was spurred by online gambling and televised poker tournaments before it was brought to Europe in the '80s by the Irish bookmaker, Terry Rogers. By the year of his death in 1999, tournaments were well established here; then came the recession.

For author James McManus, poker is not merely a game, but is at the root of human psychology, particularly in the areas of conflict. In Cowboys Full (Souvenir Press, €16.99) he begins with Barack Obama's 'tell', when he revealed to a journalist in 2007 when asked had he any hidden talents, that he was "a pretty good poker player".

According to McManus, when the greenhorn Obama arrived in Springfield -- a province of "cynical, corrupt backroom operators" to take his seat in the Illinois senate in 1998, he began a regular Wednesday poker game that grew to include Republicans and lobbyists; the only rule was that "you hung up your guns at the door".

Obama, was "not one of those foolish gamblers," said one senator. "When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he'd got a good hand."

But as McManus observes, it also made it easier for him to bluff. And the bottom line was that Obama broke the ice using his love of poker and developed the skills that equipped him for the political arena.

As a history of the game of poker, Cowboys Full wins hands down. It is the most definitive and enjoyable account of the origins and development of the game, showing how the game's logic has extended into all areas of life from politics to business and the impact it has had in literature and music.

"People who have the cards," McManus quotes 'Tricky Dick' Nixon, "are usually the ones who talk the least and the softest; those who are bluffing tend to talk loudly and give themselves away."

A must for poker fans, but also essential for everyone else.