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Doyle Brunson Reflects On Six Decade Career

Poker Legend, Who Hasn’t ‘Retired’ Quite Yet, Shares Stories On Journey From Cotton Farm To Las Vegas Lights

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Nov 07, 2018


In June, Doyle Brunson took to Twitter to make an announcement.

“Going to the Rio to play in 2-7 lowball tournament,” he Tweeted. Probably the last one I’ll ever play.”

Although Brunson later clarified that he was just talking about retiring from tournaments, his Tweet prompted the poker world to rally behind him as he made the money alongside his son Todd, eventually busting in sixth place at the final table for a $43,963 payday.

Whether or not that $10,000 lowball event stands as the last tournament Brunson ever cashes in, is entirely up to the 85-year-old poker legend.

“I don’t think I’ll ever completely retire,” says Brunson. “I played so long, that I actually get withdrawals when I don’t play.”

The 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner isn’t exaggerating. Throughout his career, he has tried to put poker aside for a bit, focusing on other business opportunities, only to come back to the game, time and time again. Although he feels every bit of his age physically at times, mentally, he says he is operating at 95 percent. Even this summer, despite his “retirement,” he managed to get down to Bobby’s Room just about every day a game was running.

“I’ve done it for 60-some odd years, playing almost every day,” he explained. “It’s something that is ingrained in me, and I’ll probably play as long as I can get to the table. I always quit around 9:30, maybe 10, 11 at the latest, because my wife won’t go to sleep until I get home. I feel like after 57 years [of marriage], I at least owe her the courtesy of coming home so she can get to sleep.”

Those shorter games are a far cry from when he was first starting out, and routinely putting in marathon sessions at the table.

“People say now, ‘Oh gosh, I played 36 hours.’ For me, 36 hours was just getting warmed up. Back when Chip [Reese] and I were playing all the time, we would routinely play two days, sometimes three, and as much as four. I don’t think anybody was taking drugs back in those days, maybe some of the guys during the cocaine craze of the ‘80s, but as far as I know, none of the high-limit players were taking drugs [to stay awake].”

Brunson once spent five days playing in Jacksboro, Texas, in a game that ran so long, one of the players dropped dead at the table.

“I remember it like it was yesterday, just because it was so dramatic, you know. I’d been playing with Virgil for three or four years, and to see a guy reach for a pot and slump over dead, is you know… He beat me the pot that he died on. We were playing ace-to-five lowball. He had 7-4, and I had a 7-5. I moved in on him and he called. I said, ‘seven’ and spread my hand, and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t have no five in mine,’ spreading his 7-4. He reached for the pot, and just… died.”

It wasn’t the last time that Brunson saw someone hit the rail for good. Coincidentally, the second time also came in a hand of lowball.

“This time, a guy had a 6-4, and I made a wheel. This guy was an elderly gentleman. Virgil was in his 50’s, and this guy was in his 80’s, and he just collapsed.”

Brunson, of course, is no stranger to loss himself. He lost his father, older brother, and two other family members in the same year. Later in life, he sadly lost his eldest daughter to a heart condition. He also dealt with gangsters and drug dealers, witnessed murder, and was robbed at gunpoint numerous times.

There was a time when playing poker was a very dangerous profession, and it’s incredible that Brunson managed to deal and gamble with mobsters the likes of Tony Spilotro, and drug kingpins such as Jimmy Chagra without getting killed. The stories are all out there, especially in his autobiography The Godfather of Poker, but speaking with him these days, you get the sense that he doesn’t enjoy glorifying the rougher elements of his past.

“I think enough has been written about all that. I think everybody knows that story, about the early days of poker back in Texas, what we went through. We got robbed, several times. We were constantly getting cheated, if they could possibly do it, so you had to be aware of that. You had to have perfect manners or you wouldn’t be invited back. There was a nucleus of professionals, and we would make plans to meet in a town. There were always local players that wanted to play with us. We’d get there, and we had good reputations. They knew we were good players, but they also knew we didn’t cheat and they liked the challenge. As long as you were honest, and you paid when you lost, then you could play.”

Brunson, of course, didn’t originally aspire to gamble for a living. Growing up on a cotton farm with no indoor plumbing or electricity, it was with basketball that he saw a way out.

“I was 19 years old when I was a junior in college, and I was just learning how to really play,” he said. “I had a lot of talent. I was 6’3’’, a big guard. It doesn’t sound that big today, but that was very big for a guard back then. Plus, I had real long arms and could jump, so it was a problem to guard me. The way I learned was by watching better players and seeing their moves, and I would go practice to emulate them, until I learned to do it. I think I was ahead of my time, I really do. The Lakers came down to my university when I was a junior, which was pretty unusual, and they told my coach that they planned to draft me the next year with their first pick. I was looking forward to that. That was always my dream. I had never even thought of doing anything else besides playing basketball in the NBA.”

For a while, it looked like Brunson would achieve that dream. Not only was he a standout on his team, but his school managed to beat Arizona to win their conference, and make it to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, an accident during his summer job at a gypsum plant saw him shatter his leg with 2,000 pounds of sheet rock, prematurely ending the standout athlete’s basketball career.

Still, sports had afforded Brunson with the opportunity to go to college, and he even got his master’s degree, splitting his concentration between administrative education, and business administration.

“I actually thought that I might go ahead and go into the school system, be a teacher and a coach, and then get into the administration of it after a few years. But the pay scale was so low, that I couldn’t do it. I think the best offer I had was for $4,000 a year. My roommate, who did not have a master’s degree, he went to work for $200 a month.”

Rather than resign himself to a lifetime of punching a clock for pennies, Brunson pursued a life of gambling, and the rest is poker history. His more-than-six-decade career is a highlight reel that includes some of the more pivotal moments of the game’s past.

Brunson got his legendary story started with a crazy call with just jack high against Johnny Moss. After making his way to Las Vegas from the back road of Texas, he won the first seven-figure pot in the city’s history, going runner-runner to make quad sevens against Crandell Addington’s flopped top set in a big game at the Aladdin.

He was present at the tournament in Reno that sparked the idea for the WSOP. His first and second bracelets came in 1976 and included the $10,000 main event. His 10-2 was enough to beat Jesse Alto for the top prize. The very next year he did it all again, winning another preliminary event before taking down the main event. Incredibly, it was 10-2 again, this time besting Gary “Bones” Berland. In total, Brunson has 10 WSOP titles, tied with Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey for second place all-time behind Phil Hellmuth and his 15 bracelets. In 2004, he even managed a seven-figure score when he won the WPT Legends of Poker main event.

Ironically, despite his incredible amount of experience, Brunson can only recall two times that he made a royal flush in his career.

“Both were against Bobby [Baldwin]. One time, I was playing at the Golden Nugget. He had raised the pot, and I had the As Ks. The flop was Js 10s X, with two spades, and Bobby had turned four jacks. Being the player that he was, he led off… and I moved in on him. He called me, we were laughing, and BAM, came the Qs.”

“Then we were playing at the Bicycle Club a few years later, limit, $3,000-$6,000,” he continued. “I made a royal flush, this time against his aces full. To his credit, he threw that hand away before we got through raising each other. After the river, we raised back and forth four or five times. Anyway, I made the last raise, and he said, ‘well, I guess you got the royal flush…’ and threw his hand away.”

There were dozens of seven-figure prop bets, especially on the golf course. The millions on the line against high-stakes banker Andy Beal. At one point, he even won his friend Bryan “Sailor” Roberts’ dog in a bet. Even when he wasn’t risking it all at the poker table or on the links, he was gambling with outlandish investments that included such ideas as a 900-number for sports bettors, orange groves, racehorses, camera equipment, emerald mines, a Christian TV station, and even an infamous plan to raise the Titanic and find Noah’s Ark.

Then, there were the deals he didn’t take. He turned down an offer to buy into the World Poker Tour on the ground floor. The biggest regret, however, was probably the $230 million offer he sat on for his online poker site, until the 2006 UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) killed the site’s value.

“It obviously bothers me,” he admits. “I had like 50 percent of it, which would have been a pretty good number. I regret not doing it, but in retrospect it was the right decision, because it was going to be worth a lot more. But they snuck that bill in…”

Through it all, Brunson has maintained his status as a family man. His wife Louise, a pharmacist he wooed in his 20’s, was just tough and patient enough to deal with the stress of being married to a high-stakes gambler. Although there was a two-week period of time after Doyle lost $1.4 million in Paris where the two were separated, she has ultimately endured the wild seven-figure swings and even her own fair share of danger.

“A few guys had families, but as a rule, it’s hard to live with a poker player. The irregular hours, the lifestyle…. it’s tough. I just happened to find the right woman for me, I guess, because 57 years is a long time. She is the direct opposite of me, she’s never made a bad investment and I’ve never made a good one.”

Except in her, by all accounts. Louise and Doyle raised three children: Doyla, who unfortunately passed away at age 18. Pam, who turned out to be quite the poker player herself. And Todd, who was a crucial part of the Corporation team that took on Beal, has a bracelet of his own, and joined his father in the Poker Hall of Fame.

Todd being a talented poker player was a surprise to Doyle, who never exposed his son to the game during his youth. But in fact, the apple does not fall far from the tree. It wasn’t until Doyle had been playing poker for a few years that he discovered that his own father had essentially put three kids through college by secretly playing poker on the side. Perhaps poker runs in the Brunson family DNA?

Maybe it’s that same DNA that keeps Brunson at the poker tables at 85, an age when many are succumbing to Father Time.

“I’m fortunate that I haven’t lost a lot of mental acuity,” he explained. “I’m not as good as I was. I analyze my game pretty well when I come home at night. I think back over the hands, and I can see some mistakes that I wouldn’t have made 10, 20 years ago. But they’re minimal, so I think that I’m still pretty close to what I was. Not completely, but close.”

And while he continues to fight time with a deck of cards, Brunson suggests that it might be his body that gets him to his goal of 102 years old, which would honor the 10-2 that he won two main event titles with.

“Chip and I had gone to Europe with our families, and as big eaters, we’d eaten all the gourmet foods over there, rich French cooking and all that stuff. So, we got back and had to lose all that weight. We went to the Pritikin Center in Miami to spend a couple weeks. We got down there and they examined us. Drew the blood, all that. The next day, they came to my room and said they needed to draw some more blood. The next day they called me back, and said, ‘The reason we did this is because your cholesterol is less than 100. We have people down here that eat nothing but raw vegetables and fruits trying to get their cholesterol down to where yours is. We were just interested in what you eat.’ I told them I eat everything, and they said, ‘As badly as you’ve treated it, your body must be programmed to live 125 years.’”

If anybody can become the first centenarian professional poker player, the honor might as well go to the greatest one who ever lived. ♠