Doyle Brunson Changed The Game Of Poker And Never Let It Pass Him By

Texas gambling icon, who died Sunday at 89, was the ultimate ambassador and survivor
doyle brunson

Doyle Brunson was known to say he wanted to live until the age of 102 to match the starting hand — a ten and a deuce — that became known as “the Doyle Brunson” after he used those two cards to win the World Series of Poker Main Event in back-to-back years.

“Texas Dolly” didn’t make it quite that far, but he crammed well over 102 years’ worth of stories, accomplishments, and thrills into his 89 years. Brunson, a figure as beloved and respected as any the game of poker has ever known, died Sunday in Las Vegas.

His other nickname, “The Godfather of Poker,” was no exaggeration.

Brunson was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988 at age 54, a six-time WSOP bracelet winner already considered one of the game’s iconic elder statesmen. He proceeded to win four additional bracelets (his total of 10 is tied for second all-time) and a World Poker Tour title, live 35 more years, and play at an elite level until nearly the very end. He made a WSOP final table as recently as 2018.

Brunson’s play at the table, though, was only a small part of what made him one of the great poker ambassadors. His 1978 book Super/System transformed the game, bringing the strategic thinking of a master to the masses — and forcing Brunson to reinvent his style of play to adjust for having educated all of his potential opponents.

As an old-school Texas road gambler, he and his trademark cowboy hat were as instantly identifiable as any image the game ever knew.

‘I always came back to poker’

Brunson, born Aug. 10, 1933, in Longworth, Texas, was a standout athlete, running the fastest mile time in the state in high school and getting scouted by the Minneapolis Lakers for his basketball prowess. A broken leg derailed his sports dreams, however, so he developed his skill in a competition that was won or lost sitting down.

Much worse health scares than a busted leg followed, from having guns pulled on him while traveling a Texas poker circuit in the ‘50s and ‘60s that in no way resembled the bright lights of a Las Vegas tournament, to a cancer diagnosis in his 20s. The latter helped convince him to walk away from any notion of the traditional day-job path.

“After [surviving cancer], I just decided that life’s too short,” Brunson told All In magazine’s Scott Tharler in 2005. “I was going to do what I wanted to do.”

Brunson developed bonds with the other Texas road gamblers of his era, who took bigger risks every day than simply running an all-in bluff.

“We shared the same dangers,” he told Tharler. “We were in robberies where all of us were robbed at the same time. And, you know, that builds up a certain amount of camaraderie and respect and friendship among the regular players.”

His tournament career highlights came at the 1976 and 1977 WSOP, when he won the Main Event for what at the time were record prizes of $230,000 and $340,000, respectively, holding those unassuming 10-2s.

But while tournament success helped make him famous, the cash games are where Brunson made his fortune — and where he preferred to be. He was a high-stakes cash pro for as long as he was physically able to get to whichever casino was home to the biggest game.

“Poker was something I always came back to every time I got into any kind of financial trouble,” he said in the All In interview. “I ventured out into several business ventures, and none of them were very successful. I always came back to poker, simply because that was the way I made my living.”

The tributes pour in

Brunson didn’t just bridge the gap from the pre-poker boom days to the modern era. “Bridge the gap” is too passive a term. He was a central figure, a force in the game for years and years on both sides of Chris Moneymaker’s paradigm-shifting 2003 victory.

His remaining so vibrant for so long allows Brunson’s influence to extend well beyond the end of his life. New generations who never played poker until Brunson was in his 70s or 80s revere him, as evidenced by the outpouring on Twitter when the news broke Sunday night.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images


Related Posts