Cartoons have imparted more than just lessons like avoiding products from the ACME corporation or discovering that a mix of sugar, spice, and chemical X yields levitating, fingerless, PowerPuff daughters. Thanks to School House Rock cartoons, millions of people are familiar with the Preamble to the United States Constitution and the process through which a bill becomes law. Most kids got their first exposure to classical music from Bugs Bunny shorts. Additionally, renowned poker author Jim McManus has utilized cartoons to educate audiences about the history and nuances of poker in under six minutes. His animated educational short called The History of Poker: Bluffing, betting, and busting is featured on the YouTube channel, TED-Ed.
Who is Jim McManus?
If you’re a seasoned poker player, not only would you be well aware of Mr. McManus, but there’s a chance you might even have his face tattooed somewhere on your body. For those unfamiliar with the name, as mentioned earlier, he is a professional poker player and author. However, when I say “author,” he didn’t just write a book that was a derivative cash grab meant to take advantage of the sport’s popularity. Jim’s most famous books, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker and Positively Fifth Street, should be considered required reading for anyone interested in the sport itself. These are not strategy books—although readers may glean some excellent strategy tips from them—but rather historical and first-person narratives of the game of poker and playing at the World Series of Poker.
Jim McManus has channeled his knowledge and wit into a YouTube offering that is both highly entertaining and engaging. So, what prompted him to transition of his wisdom from the written word to the animated medium? Well, apparently, there were some fans at TED-Ed who believed his work would be a brilliant addition to their channel.
According to McManus, “Having read ‘Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker’, some folks at TED-Ed invited me to write the script for a brief history of poker, in part because their brief history of chess was so popular and well regarded. (It has 9.9 million views in four years.) The target audience for the poker lesson is kids in grades 5-12, who comprise the next generation of players, or whoever wants to know about the game’s provenance and evolution.”
Evidently, the TED-Ed team understands their audience well. As of the writing of this article, The History of Poker: Bluffing, betting, and busting has garnered over 337K views, which is quite impressive for its first three weeks.
The Bluffing Game
Similar to all of Mr. McManus’s written works, this wasn’t merely a straightforward historical narrative; it also emphasized what is arguably the most crucial aspect of the game of poker: bluffing. He reminded us that the game itself is frequently dubbed the bluffing game.
As a seasoned live poker player, mastering the art of bluffing was imperative for him to navigate the poker ecosystem successfully, avoiding the risk of losing the type of money that would have him living in the alley behind a Waffle House. When questioned about the qualities that define an effective bluffer and whether this is a skill one can cultivate (as opposed to someone merely being a skilled liar and incorporating that into their poker strategy), he had the following insights on the matter.
“Players can definitely learn to bluff more effectively by reading poker books and articles, streaming videos of high-stakes players in action, getting coached online and/or in person, comparing notes with strong players, and by trial-and-error at the table,” McManus states, “But we all know that some players just have more natural talent as bluffers—more confidence, card sense, aggression, inscrutability, pattern recognition, and innate understanding of game theory. Not too many people are aware that John von Neumann, the great Hungarian American physicist and mathematician, invented game theory by expressing what a poker bluff is in mathematical terms, and that poker logic is now central to business, legal, and military strategy. Von Neumann also helped invent the digital computer, on which so much poker is currently studied and played.”
The Importance of Game Theory in Poker
In the video, McManus discusses Game Theory and its relevance to the realm of poker. Game Theory originated from a paper written by a mid-twentieth-century genius proficient in mathematics, physics, computer science, engineering, and various other fields. His insights on game theory have influenced strategies in diverse areas, from football to nuclear warfare. It’s unsurprising that bluffing played a significant role in his theories.
Poker players seeking to outmaneuver their opponents frequently delve into von Neumann’s insights on game theory to enhance their gameplay. This was a subtle yet crucial detail that McManus skillfully wove into The History of Poker: Bluffing, betting, and busting. Despite its brevity, Jim McManus adeptly incorporated enough substance into the cartoon to provide novice poker players with a sturdy foundation not only regarding the game’s history but also the paramount skill to hone and strategy to explore. It’s surprisingly comprehensive for an animated piece aimed at younger audiences.
*Jim McManus headshot credit: Jayne Furman