Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Doyle Brunson: Remembering The Life Of A Legend

The Poker World Says Goodbye To The Godfather

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jun 18, 2023


“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
– Hunter S. Thompson

Doyle Brunson was a week shy of his 89th birthday when he shared the above quote on Twitter, undoubtedly reflecting on his own wild and tumultuous ride through life, complete with his fair share of lows, as well as the highest of highs.

The Godfather of Poker, the most legendary card player in history, would pass away less than a year later.

“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s true. RIP Doyle,” his son Todd confirmed. “It is with a heavy heart we announce the passing of our father, Doyle Brunson,” the Brunson family added in a statement. “He was a beloved Christian man, husband, father, and grandfather. May he rest in peace.”

Finding The Game

Doyle Frank Brunson was born on Aug. 10, 1933 in Longworth, Texas. He grew up on a cotton farm with no indoor plumbing or electricity. He was a standout athlete in high school, running a 4:43 mile while on the track and field team, while also being the star of his basketball team. The highly-recruited Brunson decided on nearby Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, where he led his team to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen as a conference champion.

“I was 6’3’’, which was a big guard,” Brunson told Card Player during a podcast in 2018. “It doesn’t sound that big today, but it was very big for a guard, plus I had real long arms and I could jump. So, for other guards to try and guard me was a problem. I think I was ahead of my time. The [Minneapolis] Lakers came down to my university when I was a junior and told my coach 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 thought about doing anything else other than playing in the NBA.”

A devastating work injury ended his professional sports career before it could even begin, however. During a summer job at a gypsum plant, his leg was shattered by 2,000 pounds of falling sheet rock. Fortunately, he had options after graduating with dual degrees and his master’s. He initially turned his attention to teaching, and then sales, but realized he could make a lot more money, as well as his own hours, by playing poker.

“I think I was the first educated poker player. Most of the guys I played on the road with didn’t even graduate high school. They did it for a way off the farm. But for me, it was also something I could compete at, which is what really drew me to the game [after losing basketball.]”

The Texas Road Gambler

Brunson’s nearly seven-decade poker career started far from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, and well before finding a safe game was as easy as flipping open your laptop. Instead, he was forced to find action himself, hitting the road throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with the likes of “Amarillo” Slim and “Sailor” Roberts, playing in dangerous, illegal games often set up by members of organized crime.

“We got robbed several times. We were constantly getting cheated, if they could possibly do it. And we had to have perfect manners, or we couldn’t get invited back. 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 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. I’d been playing with Virgil for three or four days, and to see a guy reach for a pot and slump over dead… 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.”

A Poker Pioneer

That wasn’t even the last time Brunson would witness someone die at the poker table, and even after finding his way to Las Vegas, there was still plenty of danger to avoid living the life of a professional poker player. Brunson’s time on the felt acts as a highlight reel of poker history that includes some of the more pivotal moments of the game’s past.

He credits his start to a crazy call with just jack high against none other than Johnny Moss. He would later win the first seven-figure pot in Las Vegas history, going runner-runner to make quad sevens against Crandell Addington’s flopped top set in a big game at the Aladdin. He played in games with mobsters the likes of Tony Spilotro, as well as drug kingpins such as Jimmy Chagra.

And when the game was good, Brunson would beat it into the ground. As he liked to say, “A man with money is no match against a man on a mission.”

While he will be remembered for his sharp mind and the longevity of his career, his most underrated skill was perhaps his endurance, able to play his best game even after spending days 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.”

There were dozens of seven-figure prop bets, especially on the golf course. At one point, he even won his friend “Sailor” Roberts’ dog in a bet. Thousands of hours were spent in the high-limit rooms, none more notable than Bobby’s Room, which would become as familiar as his home office. Then there were the tens of millions that were on the line for The Corporation against billionaire banker Andy Beal.

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 plans to raise the Titanic and find Noah’s Ark.

His widely-regarded book Super System, originally titled How I Won Over $1,000,000 Dollars Playing Poker, cost him in the mid six-figures when he rejected a publisher’s offer and decided to do it all himself. The original poker bible sold for $100 a copy.

“I asked them what percent of the sales I would get, and they said six. So I said, well, I’ll publish it myself. So, I set up a publishing company, hired staff, bought printing presses and all kinds of stuff.”

There were other lucrative deals he didn’t take, as well. He turned down an offer to buy into the World Poker Tour on the ground floor. The biggest regret, however, was 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.

Tournament Success

Although tournaments were non-existent when he was playing road games, and few and far between when he first got to Vegas, Brunson still did his part to usher in the era. He was present at the tournament in Reno that sparked the idea for the WSOP, and of course was there as one of Benny Binion’s seven invited gamblers a year later when it all got started in 1970.

The tournaments may have just been an excuse to draw more cash game players, but Brunson still put together quite the résumé. His first and second bracelets came in 1976 and included the $10,000 main event. His 10-2 came from behind 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.

The hand is now known, of course, as the Doyle Brunson. (When he won his last bracelet in 2005, however, he was holding 10-3!)

In total, Brunson won 10 WSOP titles, tied with Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey for second place all-time behind Phil Hellmuth and his 16 bracelets.

Although his $6.2 million in career tournament earnings only puts him in the range of 250th or so all time, Brunson vaults up the leaderboard when you factor in inflation. Consider that the $10,000 WSOP main event buy-in was worth $75,000 in today’s money back in 1970.

Brunson’s $340,000 for winning the main event in 1977 would be worth $1.7 million today, and even his biggest ever cash, the $1.2 million he banked for taking down the 2004 WPT Legends of Poker main event would be nearly double its value.

Competing Until The End

Despite his age, Brunson remained active in the poker world right up until his death.
“I don’t think I’ll ever completely retire,” said Brunson a few years back. “I played so long, that I actually get withdrawals when I don’t play. [I’ll keep playing] as long as I can get to the table.”

Although he admitted that he no longer had the stamina for tournaments and didn’t want to leave his wife for long, he was still regularly competing in cash games, including PokerGO’s High Stakes Poker show. In the summer of 2022, he was signed as a brand ambassador for the World Poker Tour.

In recent years, there have been a handful of film and documentary projects announced about Brunson’s life, and in March, he was in attendance at the official unveiling of the Horseshoe on the Las Vegas Strip, which is the new home of the WSOP.

Throughout it all, Brunson maintained his status as a family man. His wife Louise, a pharmacist he wooed in his 20’s, was the perfect companion to a high-stakes gambler. Although there was the two-week stretch after Doyle lost $1.4 million in Paris where the two were not on speaking terms, she ultimately endured the wild seven-figure swings, Doyle’s numerous battles with cancer, and even her own fair share of danger to help him reach the top.

“A few guys had families, but as a rule, it’s hard to live with a poker player,” said Brunson. “The irregular hours, the lifestyle… it’s tough. I just happened to find the right woman for me, I guess. 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. Pamela, an animal activist who turned out to be quite the poker player herself. And Todd, who was a crucial part of the Corporation team that took on Andy Beal, has a bracelet of his own, and joined his father in the Poker Hall of Fame.

“It’s been a great life,” Brunson told Card Player. “When I busted my leg, I turned to poker as a way of being still able to compete, and it’s been great. You can’t find many things in which a guy that is [in his eighties] can still compete against guys in their 30s. It has meant a lot to me. My competitive nature drove me to keep contending, and poker was the vehicle that allowed me to do that. I’m just thankful for it.” ♠

Brunson’s Most Notable Tournament Scores

Year Event Finish Payout
1972 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 3rd $32,500
1976 $5,000 WSOP Deuce to Seven Lowball 1st $80,250
1976 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 1st $220,000
1977 $1,000 WSOP Stud Hi-Lo 1st $62,500
1977 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 1st $340,000
1978 $5,000 WSOP Stud 1st $68,000
1979 $600 WSOP Mixed Doubles (Starla Brodie) 1st $4,500
1980 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 2nd $146,000
1982 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 4th $52,000
1983 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 3rd $108,000
1991 $2,500 WSOP No-Limit Hold’em 1st $208,000
1994 $2,500 Queens Poker Classic 1st $128,000
1998 $1,500 WSOP Razz 1st $93,000
2003 $25,000 WPT World Championship 4th $159,987
2003 $2,000 H.O.R.S.E. 1st $84,080
2004 $10,000 WPT Legends Of Poker 1st $1,198,260
2005 $5,000 WSOP Six-Max No-Limit Hold’em 1st $367,800
2005 $15,000 WPT Five Diamond 3rd $563,485
2006 $50,000 WSOP Poker Players Championship 8th $274,560
2007 $10,000 WSOP Pot-Limit Omaha 6th $123,967

*Photos courtesy of PokerGO and World Poker Tour.