Frank Floor Talk: Mr. Poker — Doyle Brunson (1933-2023)

May 24, 2023 8:00 AM
Photo: Las Vegas Review-Journal photo by L.E. Baskow@Left_Eye_Images)
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
May 24, 2023 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

He is tied for second place among the greatest poker players with 10 “World Series of Poker” (WSOP) bracelets. But none of those ahead of him on the list were in the very first contest, nor did they come close to achieving the legendary status of Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson.  At age 89, he folded his final hand on Sunday, May 14, 2023.

Story continues below

In addition to the “Texas” moniker, he was also the self-proclaimed “Godfather of Poker,” a title he lent to his 2012 autobiography written with Mike Cochran.

For those whose poker awareness didn’t begin until the golden age of TV tournaments or the Chris Moneymaker internet frenzy, you may find it hard to believe that the leather-faced senior figure under the cowboy hat at almost every final table was actually quite an athlete in his youth.

In high school, he won the Texas Class 2A state championship in the mile run and made the All-Tournament team in the 2A state basketball contest. He attended Harden-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas where his team reached the NCAA Tournament in 1953 when he was a junior. He was second in scoring on the team that year, averaging 12.5 points per game. That led to his induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2009. He was considered a pro prospect for the NBA’s then-Minneapolis Lakers before breaking his leg the summer before his senior season. That was also a true “break” for his gaming career, that spanned nearly 70 years.

Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in business, education and (an informal Ph.D. in) “high stakes poker.” He began working as a rep for the Burroughs Corporation, selling business machines and playing poker while on his sales route. In a recent Las Vegas Review Journal obit, he was quoted saying, “I cleared a month’s salary in less than three hours. I didn’t need one of the Burroughs machines to tell me those numbers didn’t add up. So, I quit.”

While he and other poker players are now considered celebrities, when Brunson began, the sport was confined to billiard halls and smoky backrooms. There’s a famous line in the musical “The Music Man” that goes, “You got trouble, folks. Right here in River City, trouble with a capital ‘T.’ And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”

In those early days the “P” could also stand for “poker.” Most professional players were considered “undesirables” by polite society, sometimes for good reason.  Brunson said, “My first year as a pro, I was playing in a pool hall on the stockyards when a man came in and shot a player. His brains seemed to splatter all over the wall. We all ran out the backdoor to keep from talking to cops. We had to go through a cold, cold creek [to escape].”

At the beginning of his career, Brunson would not have liked the recognition he enjoyed in his last few decades. The idea was to keep a low profile so there would always be a pool of less skilled “seals” that “sharks” like him could feast on to build their bankroll.

He became one of just four men to have won the Main Event in the WSOP twice. However, he could have joined Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar as the only players to win three Main Event titles. In 1972, it looked like he was a lock to win the then-huge $80,000 bonus with just three players remaining (the others were friends Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston and Walter “Puggy” Pearson). But when Horseshoe casino owner Jack Binion wanted to film the final with a TV crew, Brunson and Pearson said they did not want to win the event. They thought the publicity would ruin their ability to remain low profile in future high limit games. Reportedly, the players agreed to split the pot and let “Amarillo Slim” claim the title. Just before the cameras entered the room, Brunson got “sick” and left the table. He later said, “I didn’t care about winning a tournament, and I didn’t want the publicity.”

That all changed in 1978 when he wrote “How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker.” The following year it was re-published with the new, and now-famous, title “Super System: A Course in Power Poker.”

While it is certainly not the best book ever written on poker, it was one of the first and is still considered a “must read” for any novice player. It is doubtful if any top pro has not read Brunson’s work. It is still a classic and contains such pearls of wisdom as “So this advice amounts to telling you to do as I say, and not as I do. I believe a person should try to learn from watching another man’s mistakes. It’s so much cheaper than learning from his own.”

But his classic book also shows its age in several ways. It always needed a good copy editor to catch the typos and improve the language. And it also covers many poker variants that are seldom played today. Notably, it reflects the times which have certainly changed.

Brunson says on page 10, “Nor do I like to see women at a Poker table. That’s not superstition, either. I was brought up to respect women, and I just don’t feel comfortable in high stakes warfare against women. I’ve never met a woman who was a really top player.”

Actress Jennifer “Fantastic” Tilley, a WSOP bracelet holder, is a huge fan of Brunson

Of course, that was written before he met pros like Vanessa Selbst, Kristen Foxen and Jennifer Harman. On Twitter, actress and top player Jennifer Tilley tweeted a photo on his passing captioned with, “RIP Doyle Brunson. I had the pleasure of playing with him many times. He had a wicked sense of humor and always put a smile on my face. Even when he bluffed me out of a hand, he did it in such a genial way, I felt like it had somehow been an honor for him to take my chips.”

Doyle also wrote two other books, including “Poker Wisdom of a Champion” in 2003. And he added “Super System 2” with contributions from multiple pros in 2005.

Brunson moved from Texas to Las Vegas in 1973 and won his first two WSOP bracelets in 1976, including the Main Event. He won that again in 1977. As mentioned, he earned 10 titles in the WSOP, the last coming in 2005 with the win in the $5,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em six-handed contest. (Famous players Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan are tied with Brunson, with Phil Hellmuth holding the record of 13).

He announced his retirement from WSOP tournament play in 2018 when he made the final table and a sixth-place finish (at age 84). However, he came back to compete in his last WSOP tournament in 2021.

Forgotten by many, that first event that Brunson attended was held in Reno, NV at the former Holiday Hotel-Casino (now the Renaissance Hotel & Spa). The tournament, organized by casino owner Tom Moore, was called the “Texas Gamblers Convention.” In addition to Brunson, several other legendary gaming pioneers were on hand: Benny and Jack Binion, Bill Boyd, “Amarillo Slim,” Brian “Sailor” Roberts, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Rudy “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone, “Puggy” Pearson and Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody Harrelson)

The Binions, who were Texas friends of Moore, enjoyed playing so much that they bought the rights to the event from him and moved the tournament to Las Vegas. They changed the name to the now-famous “World Series of Poker.” Johnny Moss, who was also playing in Reno in ‘79, won that first WSOP event held at Binion’s Horseshoe casino which was then downtown on the iconic Fremont Street. It remained there until 2005 when it moved to the Rio Hotel & Casino off strip. It is now held at the convention areas of both Paris Las Vegas and the new Horseshoe (formerly the MGM Grand and Bally’s Las Vegas)

Perhaps the true impact of Doyle Brunson’s career was marked by the fact that his passing was reported as breaking news on every national media outlet from ABC to NBC from Sports Illustrated to ESPN and from USA Today to the New York Times.

BetMGM tweeted, “The poker world mourns the loss of Doyle Brunson, a true legend. From Texas road gambler to being a staple on televised poker – no one has lived the game quite like him.”

Ditto and Amen.