Doyle Brunson — Five Decades of Poker and Still Going Strong!
Allyn Jaffrey Shulman by Allyn Jaffrey Shulman
There will always be a young, up-and-coming poker aficionado who wins a million; there will always be a touching story about a sympathetic character who gets a break and wins more than he ever dreamed possible; there will always be a well-played hand, a great moment in poker, or a story worth retelling; however, there is only one legend of poker. There is only one man who has lived through five decades of poker with resolve, dedication to the game, and an endless passion for the purity of the competition. There is one man alone who deserves the utmost respect as a poker icon. That man is none other than Doyle Brunson, affectionately known as "Texas Dolly."
After 50 years of trials and tribulations in the complex and ever-changing world of poker, Doyle continues to steadfastly demonstrate that gambling can be a respectable profession.
Besides every accolade he so richly deserves, Doyle is one class act. He is a gentleman with an endearing personality, a fabulous sense of humor, striking recall, and surprising humility for a man of his stature. When I asked him how it felt to be a poker icon, he shrugged and modestly responded that he was just a guy who liked to play poker.
Born in Longworth, Texas, on Aug. 10, 1933, Doyle describes himself as a country farm boy who knew everyone in his small town. The entire population was fewer than 100 people, and most were farmers.
As is often the case with youngsters, Doyle wanted a way out of the small town. Since his father worked at a local gymnasium, it was a logical progression that he would go to the gym with his father and work toward an athletic scholarship. Because of his competitive nature, he found himself practicing continually. Doyle has that unyielding, relentless, winning drive; when he chooses to engage in an activity, he must be the best.
By the time Doyle was in high school, he was good enough to make the all-state team in basketball and he won the Texas state championship in the mile run, which earned him a scholarship to college and a ticket out of the small town. He was the second-best miler in the state´s collegiate ranks and was the MVP in his conference.
A young boy´s dreams came true when he was drafted by the NBA´s Lakers, then in Minneapolis. Just when young Doyle was on top of the world, the unthinkable happened. He recalls: “I got injured and busted up my knee. That ended whatever aspirations I had of becoming a professional athlete. It wasn´t easy to accept the fact that my career in sports was over, just like that.”
One Very Small Paycheck
Doyle went on to earn a master´s degree in administrative education; after all, if he couldn´t play sports, he wouldteach sports. By that time, he had already begun traveling to different colleges to play in small poker games, winning often. When he realized how little teachers were paid, he decided against that profession.
He explained to me that he received only one paycheck! “I went to work selling bookkeeping equipment in my assigned territory for the Burroughs Corporation. When I saw my first paycheck, I realized I could rake in more money in one pot than what I made after a whole week of hard work! I knew right away where my ´territory´ was. It was right there in those small poker games in Texas.”
The Good Ol´ Days
In the early days, there were no legal poker rooms, and Doyle drove hundreds of miles to play in a good “outlaw” poker game. He lived through an era in which one had to concern oneself not only with winning, but collecting the money and then being lucky enough to get out of town safely with the money!
In those years, Doyle explains that he had to worry about getting cheated, robbed, attacked, beaten, or even arrested before he got out of Dodge with his bankroll.
He was robbed more times than he can remember, and believe me, the man´s recollection is phenomenal. He recalls sitting in a poker game on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth one bleak day: “All of a sudden, someone busted the door down blasting a shotgun. The gunman shot off the head of the guy sittin´ next to me. I saw the guy´s head falling off and splattering against the wall! It was tough, that´s what it was, tough.” It was not an easy life, nor a safe one.
Watching Each Other´s Back
After becoming comfortable in the small college games, the ever-competitive Doyle moved up to the bigger games, which were held on the north side of Fort Worth. He describes the area as being the toughest place in the world to play poker. “Robbery and murder were ordinary occurrences. That´s where I got my real training. The big money was in the games on what we called the ´Bloodthirsty Highway,´ because everybody there was an outlaw of some sort. There were thieves, robbers, murderers, and pimps, who just happened to be the guys who made the poker games really good.”
After winning money from these odd characters, Doyle moved to a bigger game yet, and explained: “I got to where I was winning pretty regularly. That´s when I first met Sailor Roberts. We started traveling around together, playing in the big games. We met up with Amarillo Slim and the three of us formed a kind of partnership. We worked out of one bankroll and kind of watched each other´s back.” Doyle was quick to add that being partners didn´t mean they colluded, but that they used one bankroll, and everyone knew it.
He explained that back then, there were no computers, calculators, or instructional books filled with statistical analyses of poker hands. “I was the first guy to crunch hands,” he said. He would sit for hours on end, dealing hand after hand, thousands of hands, until he recognized a pattern.
“After a poker session, Amarillo Slim and I would go to a Roadway Inn and get twin beds. We´d lie awake half the night on our separate beds, talking about the mistakes we´d made and how we could have played differently. That made me more advanced than other players at the time.”
10-2: “The Doyle Brunson”
Every poker player knows the oft-told 10-2 story, but nobody tells it like Doyle himself. It was exciting to hear this poker legend gleefully describe each moment in vast detail, as if it were yesterday when he won the championship event of the World Series of Poker in two consecutive years with 10-2 both times. It is a story that deserves to be retold over and over in the memoirs of a poker legend.
But first, Doyle said there was a little-known fact about him. He was also the first person to win a cumulative million dollars in tournaments at the WSOP!
Besides winning nine WSOP bracelets and finishing in the money 23 times, Doyle also distinguishes himself by being a member of the Poker Hall of Fame and an inaugural inductee to the World Poker Tour´s Walk of Fame.
I asked Doyle about the famous 10-2 hand, and he stated, “I had played in every World Series of Poker since it started in 1970. In ´76, I was heads up against Jessie Alto. I had just beaten the guy in a big pot; he was a notorious steamer, so, naturally, when he raised the pot, I called him with the 10spades 2spades. He had an A-J and hit aces and jacks on the flop, with one spade. I had tens. He bet and I called. When a deuce fell on the turn, I moved in on him. I caught another 10 on the river to beat him!
“The next year, I was in the big blind and had 10-2 against Bones Berland. The flop came 10-8-5. I checked, and he checked. He had eights and fives. The fourth card was a deuce. I bet, he moved in on me, and I called. The last card was a 10 again. So, in both hands, I made a full house.”
Doyle added, “A 10-2 almost won a third tournament when Stuey (Ungar) and Perry (Green) were playing the second year that Stuey won it. Perry had more chips than Stuey and they got it all in. The flop was J-9-8 with two clubs. Perry had the 10clubs 2clubs, but Stuey had the Aclubs Jclubs. The fourth card was a 6 and the last one was a blank. If a queen or 7 had come, Perry would have won the tournament with a straight and it would have been the third time a 10-2 had won it.”
Doyle confided, “I played the 10-2 many times after that. Let´s just say, I don´t play it anymore.”
Phil Hellmuth, who won the WSOP championship event at the tender age of 23, said: “Doyle has plowed the road for the rest of us. He is the man with all of the records, recognition, books, and respect. He is the man I´m chasing in my quest to make poker history, and he´s still winning World Series events at age 70! Rock on, Doyle!”
Jesse May was kind enough to send me this great snippet written about Doyle by Bobby Baldwin, president and CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc. It is a quote from the first printing of his 1979 book, Bobby Baldwin´s Winning Poker Secrets, about the first time he played in the WSOP against Doyle in May 1976:
…Before the first day of competition, I had lunch with Doyle Brunson, who, although he had never won this tournament, was considered by most to be the best no-limit player in the world.
“How do you think I´ll do?” I asked him.
“You´ll do OK,” Brunson said softly. Then as if inspired, he said, “How ´bout a friendly wager? Two thousand says I´ll last longer than you will.”
Worst bet I ever made. Doyle won the tournament.
Next year, Doyle greeted me as soon as I set foot in the Horseshoe Club. “Are we on?” he asked.
He smiled broadly and, in his typically gentle manner, said, “Sure, for two thousand. We could make the same bet as last year.”
“No way!” I teased. “You´d have to spot me something.”
“All right. I´ll give you two-to-one.”
Second-worst bet I ever made. Doyle won the championship again!
The next year, I said, “Don´t even ask, Doyle. I´m not betting you this year, so you´ll just have to scrape up two grand somewhere else.”
Worst laydown I ever made. I won the title!
Prior to our interview, I read a story about the press mistakenly reporting on “Texas Dolly” instead of “Texas Doyle,” which was his real nickname. I asked Doyle about it. “Yes, yes, it´s true,” he said. “Jimmy ´the Greek´ Snyder is responsible for my nickname, in a roundabout way. He used to call me ´Texas Doyle.´ One year when we were both at the World Series, he called me ´Texas Doyle´; some reporters thought he said ´Texas Dolly,´ and that´s how they reported it. I just shook my head and laughed. As you can see, the name stuck.”
Most poker players agree that Doyle´s book Super/System, first published in 1979, is the poker bible. This book is the first legitimate handbook of how to play poker.
Doyle wrote the part of the book dealing with no-limit hold´em and asked some young compatriots to write other sections, including Bobby Baldwin (limit hold´em), David Sklansky (high-low stud), Mike Caro (draw poker), Chip Reese (seven-card stud), and Joey Hawthorne (lowball). Doyle explained that they all wrote for free, and that writing those sections was their first step in becoming famous in their own right.
Sklansky had a slightly different take on it: “Doyle was the first of the old-school, seat-of-the-pants, instinctive players to recognize that most future stars would be coming from a more analytical academic type of environment. Players who would use technical tools and mathematical reasoning were likely to predominate most forms of poker except perhaps no-limit. Doyle realized that even though he was not really one of them at the time. One need only look at the unproven youngsters he chose to co-author his epic book. His foresight is pretty amazing, as none of those youngsters exactly faded off into the sunset.”
Doyle´s next book, According to Doyle, is a series of reflections about what it takes to be a successful gambler. The book has soul and is borne out of Doyle´s own sweat. It was out of print for about a decade, and has been reprinted and renamed Poker Wisdom of a Champion. Both of Doyle´s books can be purchased at CardPlayer.com.
Finally, Doyle has come out with Super/System 2, available only at his new website, DoylesRoom.com. It is sure to be a classic. One of the co-authors, Daniel Negreanu, had this to say about Doyle: “In no other sport/game have we seen anything similar to what Doyle Brunson is still accomplishing at his age. Over 70 years old and yet he is still a competitive force in the toughest cash games in the world. He is the undisputed legend of our game.”
With a twinkle in his eye, Doyle recalled some exciting moments from the past. When we first met, I thought the topic would be only poker, but much to my delight, we spoke of many different subjects, beginning with golf. Doyle said, “Golf is a different kind of win. Nothing is as exhilarating as golf, because of the physical challenge.”
I had heard that in his heyday, Doyle was a fabulous golfer and made huge golf bets. He said that he sometimes played for half a million dollars, explaining, “The guys on the pro golf tour don´t compete for the amount of money we bet on a single round.”
I had read a story about a golf match that was famous amongst poker players. I never really understood the story, as I know nothing more than the meaning of a “birdie.” As the story goes, Doyle hadn´t played golf in many years because of his knee injury, which caused him increasing problems as the years went on. However, being a betting gentleman, there were some wagers he simply could not resist. Howard Lederer bet him half a million on a golf game. It went like this: Doyle and his golf partner Mike Sexton were permitted to tee off from the “red tees.” I apologized when I asked Doyle what that meant. With a devilish, endearing, and mischievous grin, he answered: “The ladies tees; we teed off from the red (ladies) tees, which are much closer to the hole, while Howard (Lederer) and Huck (Seed) teed off from the blue tees, further back. I´m a much better golfer than all of them. They didn´t have a chance!”
As it turned out, Doyle and Mike won the match, but only by one stroke. If you could have seen that playful look on Doyle´s face when he told the story, you instantly would have found his personality irresistible. It must have been one heck of a bluff to get his opponents to allow this big man to tee off from the girlie tees!
Linda Johnson told me that golf match was her favorite story about Doyle, and that I should hear Mike Sexton´s rendition of it. When I contacted Mike, he promised to write an entire column about the match. He told me, “Doyle Brunson is a living legend in the poker world, golf world, sports-betting world, and any other type of gambling world. He not only has played in the biggest games virtually his entire life, he wrote what most people, including me, consider ´the Bible´ on poker. High-stakes gamblers love to be around him, because he is a true ´action man.´”
One Class Act
Whether winning or losing, Doyle is the consummate gentleman. Bellagio Tournament Director Jack McClelland said, “In the 20 years I have known and played with Doyle, he has never given the dealers a hard time. Even when it was inconvenient, Doyle signed autographs and encouraged newcomers. Doyle has that easy smile but is a fierce competitor with the heart of a lion.”
Doyle and I were scheduled to meet for our interview smack-dab in the middle of the 2004 WSOP. He admitted he had been on his longest losing streak ever, six weeks. Yet, at the scheduled time, he left a very juicy game to meet me for an interview.
Doyle was once quoted as saying that after five days of losing, one should take a break. I asked him about that, and, smiling ruefully, he answered: “Yeah — but these World Series side games are soooo good.” He explained that he discussed the situation with his friend Chip Reese, who agreed that there was no flaw in his game, even though he had had gastric bypass surgery only about five months ago.
Doyle and Jan Fisher had the same surgery, one week apart. Even though Doyle´s first month after his surgery was a rough one, Jan said that when she visited him, he was a trooper, as usual.
His Sweetheart, Louise
In the early ´60s, Doyle married his sweetheart, Louise, and together they had four children. They also now have a grandson and two great-grandsons. I asked Doyle how Louise reacted when he was on such a long losing streak. He beamed proudly when he told me that Louise never asked how he did in a poker game, and he usually told her that he just broke even. Imagine that! The legend of poker comes home and casually tells his wife that he broke even again; yet, he lives in luxury and wants for nothing materially.
Doyle bragged that his wife is “a wonderful homemaker who does not know an ace from a king.” She has never once called and bugged him at a poker game. He did admit he wished he could change one thing: “I regret being gone from my family for so long. I had to travel and work all the time, and I missed out on some things.” Now, he has a nice dinner almost every night with Louise, where they simply enjoy one another´s company.
Doyle told me that through the years, he and Louise lived through incredible experiences. One night, Doyle was followed home and robbed. He had been robbed many times before, but this was different, because it was in his home. He faked a heart attack, and eventually the robbers left. Lying on the floor, scared out of their wits, they asked one another: “Did you ever think that after 37 years of marriage, it would come to this?” Then, they looked at one another, shook their heads, and burst out laughing.
No one tells a story like Doyle, who had me in stitches when he told me about an out-of-towner who came to play in one of the big games. It was long ago, when only a few pros paid attention to “tells” — that is, something someone does in a poker game to give away his hand. The game had been going on for quite a while when Doyle noticed that the man whistled from time to time. Soon, he realized that every time the man was bluffing, he started whistling. After a few times, Doyle looked around the table, and there was a subtle twinkle in the eyes of the few pros at the table every time they heard the man whistling Dixie. Of course, it was not long before the out-of-towner went broke.
Still Going Strong After 50 Years
Doyle admits that if he had a mentor, it was Johnny Moss, who was the best poker player in the world in the early days. Doyle recalls: “When he was 50, Johnny was the best player I´d ever seen. By the time he reached 70, he´d lost it. I sure don´t want that to happen to me, now that I´m getting up there.” No chance.
Someone was teasing Doyle, saying that he had lost 10 percent of his game. Doyle thought about it for a bit, and then in that measured, Southern drawl, he answered slowly: “Well, yeah, but fortunately I was 30 percent ahead of everybody else to start with!”
At one point in the interview, Doyle told me that there are more important things than money and fame. All of that is nice, but it´s not what´s really important. I had read that he and Louise lost their precious 18-year-old daughter, Doyla Lynn Brunson, in 1980 when she was a freshman at UNLV. I couldn´t bring myself to ask him about it, because the result of that unspeakable loss was self-evident. He was a changed man, deeper, more self-reflective. He was kind, generous, and insightful, reflecting a lifetime of experiences — some of which he wished he never had. All of the fame, fortune, and accolades in the world could not salve the terrible pain of losing a child.
Interview With a Legend
It has been my great honor to give you a peek into the life of the greatest poker legend the world has ever known. As we were concluding our interview, I asked Doyle whom he respects in the poker world, and he answered: “Anyone who sits down at a poker table, dangles his feet underneath, and pulls out his money. I feel a sort of camaraderie and sense of family with anyone who sits down to play.”
When I asked him if he had any parting words, he thought for a moment and, in his humble way, said: “During my lifetime, I have tried to promote poker even when I didn´t feel like it. I would like to be known and remembered as someone who contributed all I could to poker for 50 years.”
No one will dispute that Doyle Brunson is recognized as a poker legend. Not only is he the king of poker, whose record cannot be rivaled, he is also a man who has brought honor and dignity to the poker world for five decades.diamonds