What Doyle Brunson Means to the Game of Poker

by Michael Stevens
on May 21, 2018

The term “living legend” gets thrown around far too easily these days, but in the case of Doyle Brunson, the shoe surely fits.

Better known as “Texas Dolly” to his legions of fans around the world, the 84-year old Brunson has been at the forefront of high-stakes poker for five decades and counting. Whether in underground cash games as one of the infamous Texas Road Gamblers, at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas, or in the nosebleed stakes mixed game in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio – Brunson has been beating the best for longer than most of his opponents have even been alive.

And if you’ll notice, I’m not talking in the past tense here either. Brunson may not be as spry as he was in his days as a high school basketball star, but in 2018, he’s still a regular in the “Big Game” at Bobby’s Room – where the blinds routinely reach $1,000/$2,000 and higher.

If you’re interested in poker at any level – home games with the neighbors, online tournaments on the weekend, or seriously grinding the tournament circuit – you likely know a bit about Brunson’s legacy. From the lowly 10-2 hand he used to win the WSOP Main Event world championship in 1976 and 1977 – forever after named “The Brunson” – to his incredible contributions to poker strategy literature in “Super / System,” Dolly really has done it all.

But as the poker world inches further from the boom days, and Brunson’s public appearances at the WSOP inevitably end, many players out there might not know what the “The Godfather of Poker” truly means to the game.

To help bridge the generational gap, I’ve put together the following guide to the life and times of Doyle Brunson – a one of a kind icon whose impact on poker remains unparalleled to this day.

The History

Long before the name Brunson became feared among poker players, the native of Fisher County, Texas was a standout athlete.

His prowess on the hardwood led Brunson to go All-State in basketball, and at the 1950 Interscholastic Track Meet, he put up a winning time of 4:43 in the mile. After taking offers from several colleges, Brunson decided to stay in Texas and attend Hardin–Simmons University in Abilene.

He continued to play college hoops, eventually garnering interest from the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers, but while working on his family farm, Brunson suffered a catastrophic knee injury that cut his athletic career short. To this day, Brunson’s mobility is limited thanks to complications from the knee, and during his heyday, he arrived to the table bearing a crutch.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954, Brunson appeared content to settle into professional life. He wound up working as a school principal for a spell, before moving on to become a traveling salesman. After his first day on the job, Brunson’s colleagues invited him to play a session of Seven Card Stud – where he promptly took the table for a month’s worth of pay.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Having realized that he wasn’t suited to a life of punching the clock for a weekly paycheck, Brunson hit the road in search of bigger games. Here’s how he described the journey in an interview posted on DoyleBrunson.com:

“The big money was in the games up on what we called the ‘Bloodthirsty Highway’ where everybody there was some kind of an outlaw. They were thieves, pimps – a real bad element. But they were also the ones that made the poker games really good. Needless to say, I took a few scratches along the way.

Then later, I moved downtown to the bigger games. The big game at the time was a one-dollar ante. Remember, this was the 1950s – so, a dollar was a lot of money back then. You could make a few hundred a night if you knew what you were doing. I got to where I was winning regularly.

That’s also where I first met Sailor Roberts (who later became the 1975 World Poker Champion). Sailor and I started traveling around together. We were playing in bigger games around Texas and that’s when we met up with Amarillo Slim. We formed a partnership – the three of us. It was kind of nice to have someone to travel with. We kind of watched out after each other. There was a lot of danger back then.”

At the time, Brunson and his pals were known as the original Texas Road Gamblers – a group of professional card sharps who worked their way from game to game throughout the Southwest. The games of choice were usually Stud (Five- or Seven-Card) or Lowball, and despite the links to his home state, Brunson hadn’t yet encountered the two-card poker variant which would eventually make him a worldwide celebrity.

To hear him tell the tale, Brunson first encountered Texas Holdem by chance, but when the final hand was dealt, he was a prodigy when it came to two-card poker:

“This bootlegger had a big poker game at Lake Granbury, which is about 50 miles south of Fort Worth.

They were all playing Texas Holdem – which I’d never really played before. I’d always played games like Lowball, War, and Stud.

I don’t know why I got the hang of it so easily, as opposed to most people. Within a week, I was the best player in all the Holdem games. It was just a natural thing for me.”

Shortly after discovering the game he’d go on to describe famously as the “Cadillac of Poker,” Brunson endured the ultimate sweat. Doctors diagnosed him with several malignant tumors, delivering a bleak prognosis of just four months.

But when they cut the 28-year old Brunson open to perform surgery just a few weeks later, the doctors miraculously found no traces of the cancer. In a 2005 interview with the Telegraph, Brunson was typically blunt about the improbable ordeal:

“Spontaneous remission, they call it.

Why and how, I don’t know, but somethin’ miraculous happened.”

As if preordained, Brunson rebounded from his medical malady to put up major wins in his regular cash games. According to him, embracing his faith and focusing on family in the wake of the cancer spell led to direct improvement in poker. After all, why should Brunson have a fear in the world about running a big bluff following everything he had been through?

In the same Telegraph interview, Brunson attributed his signature aggression at the table to the newfound appreciation for life he had gained:

“All of that puts everything else into perspective, and it was kinda liberating for my poker.

See, you cannot be afraid to lose your chips. You have to be aggressive the whole time. You gotta be fearless about losing your chips.

And when you’ve been through all I’ve been through, you’re not going to sweat over losing a pot, however big. All I know is, once I got over the cancer, it all kinda clicked into place, and I went on the biggest winning streak of my life.”

After dominating his home state cash games through the 1960s, Brunson wound up visiting Reno, Nevada in 1969 to take part in the Texas Gambler’s Reunion. One year later, the event relocated to Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Las Vegas, where organizer Benny Binion renamed the festivities as the World Series of Poker.

For the next five decades, Brunson would remain a fixture at the WSOP, compiling one of the greatest records of all-time playing in poker’s premier tournament series.

The Numbers

Back in 1970 at the very first WSOP, just one table of top-tier talent came together for a cash game featuring a mix of variants. The pros played a full session, then voted on who had performed the best among the bunch – Johnny Moss in this case.

One year later, the WSOP was transformed into a freezeout tournament played exclusively with Texas Holdem. The winner took all, and with six players ponying up $5,000 apiece to buy in, the 1971 WSOP Main Event paid out $30,000 – with Moss winning once again.

Brunson broke through the following year after the entry fee had been raised to $10,000. He officially recorded a 3rd place finish out of the eight entrants, and the tournament was still ostensibly a winner take all affair. Even so, Brunson’s live tournament record on the Hendon Mob database shows that 3rd-place run paid out $32,500 – good for the first live tournament cash of his storied career.

In fact, Brunson’s payout was more than double that of the eventual World Champion – his former playing partner Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston – who earned just $15,000 for the win.

The story behind the 1972 WSOP Main Event is a wild one, to say the least, but it all originated with Jack Binion and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, the gambling industry impresarios organizing the series.

Binion and Snyder recognized early on that a high-stakes poker game featuring colorful characters like Brunson and crew could be a goldmine for publicity. Thus, they invited local and national media outlets to capture the scene, describing a scene in which one skilled card player would walk away with $80,000 and the World Championship of poker.

Of course, casino owners will always love publicity, but top-tier gamblers back in that era were notoriously reserved when it came to “outing” themselves as pros.

In his 2009 autobiography “The Godfather of Poker,” Brunson explained the 1972 Main Event imbroglio once and for all:

“They didn’t know I was a gambler back in Texas where I lived at the time. I had concocted all these stories that I was an insurance salesman, or I was in the oil business and so forth.

When we stopped and took a break, I pulled Puggy(Pearson) and Slim aside and said, ‘I don’t want to win this thing because I don’t want all the publicity.’

‘I don’t want it either,’ Puggy said. But Slim, who loved attention, said ‘I do.’

That’s when we said, ‘let’s just let Slim win it.’

We came right out and started playing crazy so we could let Slim win.”

Soon enough, Binion noticed the shenanigans taking place, so he asked Brunson to play out the endgame on the level. Brunson stuck to his guns, however, and eventually a “chop” was arranged whereby Puggy Pearson and himself would take 2nd and 3rd place for $32,500 each –  the cash equivalent of their chip stacks at that juncture – while Preston “won” the tournament for $15,000.

Thus, Brunson scored his first career cash at the WSOP by placing 3rd in a winner take all Main Event.

He wouldn’t make the money in WSOP play again over the next three series, but Brunson returned with a vengeance in 1976.

That year, with the series since expanded to include a handful of preliminary events, the legend began. Brunson took top prize in the $5,000 buy-in Deuce to Seven Draw event, earning $80,250 in the process. Then, with a shiny gold bracelet up for grabs for the first time in the Main Event, Brunson outlasted the 22-player field to become World Champion.

He bagged $220,000 for the big win, the largest poker tournament payout ever produced at the time. And as every poker fan knows by now, Brunson wound up winning the final hand holding the innocuous 10-2.

The following year was more of the same for Brunson, as he took down his third gold bracelet in a preliminary event, then repeated as World Champion in the Main Event. He beat out a 3-player field this time around, and as if fate had decided the deck, Brunson tabled 10-2 to claim his opponent’s last chips.

Brunson wound up winning one more bracelet in each of the next two WSOP’s, as you can see below in his WSOP resume:

Doyle Brunson’s 10 Gold Bracelets at the WSOP

Year Event Prize Money
1976 $5,000 Deuce to Seven Draw $80,250
1976 $10,000 No Limit holdem World Championship $ 220,000.00
1977 $1,000 Seven-Card Stud Split $62,500
1977 $10,000 No Limit holdem World Championship $340,000
1978 $5,000 Seven-Card Stud $68,000
1979 $600 Mixed Doubles (With Starla Brodie) $4,500
1991 $2,500 No Limit holdem $208,000
1998 $1,500 Seven-Card Razz $93,000
2003 $2,000 H.O.R.S.E. $84,080
2005 $5,000 No Limit Six-Handed Texas holdem $367,800

By the time Chris Moneymaker’s improbable victory at the 2003 WSOP Main Event sparked the Poker Boom, Brunson was 70 years old. But just as he did with the leg injury, and then the cancer scare, the legend refused to let age stand as a barrier to success.

He nabbed bracelet #9 in a $2,000 H.O.R.S.E. event at the 2003 WSOP. By 2004, with the World Poker Tour (WPT) reaching peak popularity among pros and fans alike, Brunson hopped in the $5,150 buy-in WPT Main Event at the appropriately named Legends of Poker stop.

Facing off against 666 other players – a far cry from the double-digit fields of his WSOP glory days – Brunson showed the poker world his skills were far from diminished. Defeating online grinders who can play more hands in a month than he ever did in a lifetime, Brunson outlasted them all to win $1,198,260 – the largest tournament score of his illustrious career, and more than double the next closest cash.

He wasn’t done yet though, and in 2005, Brunson returned to the winner’s circle with a historic performance.

Earlier in the series, Brunson’s son Todd claimed a gold bracelet of his own, providing his father with both pride and motivation. When fellow World Champion and high-stakes superstar Johnny Chan won his 10th bracelet – breaking a tie at nine shared by Brunson and Ivey – old Texas Dolly felt the competitive juices flowing once again.

He entered the $5,000 buy-in No Limit Holdem Six-Handed event – a stacked tournament featuring 301 of the world’s top players – on a mission to match Todd and Chan. And that he did.

With cameras from ESPN recording every hand, Brunson put on a show for the ages en route to capturing a 10th bracelet of his own.

The win was a fitting feather in Brunson’s WSOP career, as the 72-year old showed once and for all that his greatness was not a product of any particular era. In winning 10 gold bracelets at the WSOP – stretching from 1976 to 2005 – Brunson cemented his status as one of the greatest poker players to ever live.

Overall, across all of his recorded live tournament results, Brunson notched 86 cashes for $6.13 million in earnings. Of those, an astonishing 18 cashes came in outright victories – good for a win percentage of more than 20 percent. Throw in another 10 runner-up results, and Brunson found his way to heads-up play 32.5 percent of the time he made the money in a tournament.

His final cash at the WSOP came, appropriately enough, in the 2013 Main Event. Brunson survived through Day 4 of the gauntlet, finishing in 409th place from a massive field of 6,352 entrants – and the poker world rightfully celebrated the accomplishment with a collective standing ovation.

And consider this: all of the numbers above are limited to tournament play.

Brunson was and still is, notorious for putting in marathon 16-hour sessions in the Big Game – a revolving cash game hosted by the Bellagio which features the best players in the world.

With pots regularly reaching into the six- and even seven-figures, the Big Game sees millions of dollars move around the table every night. Brunson has undoubtedly won (and lost) his fair share of that multimillion dollar action, so tournaments alone shouldn’t be used to evaluate his performance.

No, for a man like Doyle grinding out a living in a game like poker, staying power is the real test.

And the Godfather of Poker has been in the game for five decades now, a record nobody is likely to best any time soon.

The Teaching

For elite poker players, knowledge truly is power.

Mastering a game’s intricacies, anticipating your opponent’s next move, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead are essential skills that few players possess.

For this reason, winning poker players back in Brunson’s day were loath to disclose their strategy insights. When informational warfare separates winners from losers and winning means putting food on the table, top players had no incentive whatsoever to share their secrets.

That all changed in 1978 with the publication of “Doyle Brunson’s Super / System: A Course in Power Poker.” Written by the man himself, along with a host of fellow top pros like Chip Reese and Bobby Baldwin, “Super / System” soon became the Bible for aspiring poker players everywhere.

Writing in a homespun tone, Brunson taught novices how to size up opponents, analyze board texture, narrow hand ranges, and manage their bankroll effectively – all crucial skills that are now commonplace in the poker instruction industry.

But at the time, this knowledge was closely guarded and enjoyed by a select few. By breaking open his own mental vault, and letting the world in on what it takes to play poker like the very best in the world, Brunson brought the game to the masses.

He wound up publishing a sequel, Super / System 2, in 2009, inviting the current crop of top players like Phil Hellmuth to contribute chapters. By updating his original for the current generation, Brunson ensured that his insights into “power poker” would remain relevant for years to come.

Conclusion

They simply don’t make them like Doyle Brunson any longer, and that’s a shame.

The man almost singlehandedly turned a small, single-table tournament like the WSOP into a grand spectacle by winning in consecutive years. His 10 gold bracelets put him head and shoulders above all but one player (Hellmuth at 14) to ever compete at the WSOP.

And even at 84 years young, he’s still sitting in the Big Game to this day, trading pots with the top poker players on the planet.

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