JULY 2006 BLUFF
Doyle Brunson was a 37-year-old road gambler when, in 1970, he was summoned to a rendezvous of poker players by his good friend Benny Binion. Benny had invited the best players he knew to his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas and dubbed the occasion – somewhat grandly for what was then a modest affair – “the World Series of Poker.” But why not? The assembled party were the greatest in the world: Johnny Moss, “Puggy” Pearson, “Sailor” Roberts, Crandall Addington, Amarillo Slim, Carl Cannon are all now legends of the game.
Benny figured he might be on to something. He was keen on attracting visitors to his casino and, what’s more, enjoyed the camaraderie of the occasion; so he nurtured it, but held little concept of what it would become.
As the tournament grew, so did Doyle’s dominance. In 1976, now considered the best player in the world, he proved as much by becoming World Champion and picking up a second bracelet in the Deuce to Seven Lowball event. Thirty years later, amid the teeming media throng and the attention of millions worldwide, he won his tenth.
The story of the WSOP is suffused with eccentrics, geniuses, and clowns, and rich in high drama, wealth, pain, and glory – not to mention the best free buffet in town (sadly a thing of the past). Bluff is honored to bring you the man who is as much a part of the World Series as the cards and the chips. Here are Doyle’s recollections and reflections on the event, past and present.
Here is Doyle’s World Series of Poker.
Doyle, tell us about Benny Binion. What kind of man was he?
Benny Binion was probably the wisest man that I ever knew. He wasn’t an educated man – he wasn’t book-smart – but as far as common sense goes, and knowing people, he could relate to a person right away. He was absolutely amazing. Although he was a very good businessman, he turned most of the business over to his son Jack, and he became more of a host, entertaining the high rollers. Benny knew what people wanted and he gave it to ’em. He wasn’t a greedy type of man; he was willing to spend some money to make some money. His contribution to poker is immeasurable, simply because of the way he handled the World Series in the early days. Jack told me that just from the buffet they spread, they lost $800,000 – and that was because he put up the best food that was available anywhere. It was a huge expense, but Benny didn’t even flinch. Everything he did was first class.
What would Benny have made of the poker explosion?
Well, like everyone else, he couldn’t have expected this. He used to say to me, “You know, Doyle, someday we
may have a hundred people in this tournament.” It was entirely different back in those days. It was kinda like a homecoming. The World Series of Poker was like a yearly reunion for all the road gamblers from around the country – and there weren’t that many of us; but the competition was fierce and the players were the best in the world. To my mind, they were so much better than today’s players; you can’t even compare ’em.
What are your recollections of that first-ever event, back in 1970?
That first event was really designed to get people here for the side action; it wasn’t really about the tournament itself.
How much interest did it generate? Did many people come to watch?
Well, that was the thing. Most of the players came for the side games, but when the tourists saw what was going on, they came to watch. That’s what stimulated Benny’s interest; he saw how people were fascinated by what was going on, and that’s why he went ahead and pursued the Series like he did.
That year, the winner was decided by peer vote. Is there any truth in the story that everyone originally voted for himself?
Well, I don’t think everyone did. It’s true that there was a lot of ego in those days about who was the best player. I’ve heard Jack (Binion) tell the story: they had to count the second place votes to determine who the champion was.
And that champion was Johnny Moss. Tell us a bit about Johnny…
Well, Johnny was the premier player back in those days. If I ever had a mentor, it was him. Not that he tried to teach me; I just observed him. I’d played with him for years and years down in Texas. I picked up much of the way I play from him, because I saw how successful he was.
Was he one of the greatest of all time?
Johnny Moss was probably the best No Limit Hold’em player I ever played with.
He won again the next year, too, and then, in 1972, it was Amarillo Slim. What was Slim’s contribution to the game?
Slim was more a promotion guy than any of the rest of us. He promoted himself all the time and he had a certain charm that the public loved. He had all his own corny little sayings that the press picked up on. Once he won the tournament, he really worked hard at it; he went on all the talk shows and did extensive interviews. Slim did a lot for the game of poker – he was the first “poker celebrity.”
The 1973 champion was Walter “Puggy” Pearson, who sadly passed away this year and is much missed by the poker world. What was Puggy like?
Puggy was the most instinctive poker player that I’ve ever seen. He had a third-grade education, so he didn’t know anything about the math of poker, but he had the instincts of an animal in the jungle. He just knew what to do and how to read people. He was the best all-round poker player of that era. Johnny Moss was the best No Limit player, but Puggy was adept at all games. He was a master of Limit poker. We lost a great player there. Puggy declined quite a bit towards the end, and people often don’t remember these older guys for what they were; because they see them at the end of their lives, and they see them playing badly. But you know, even the brightest star’s gotta fade.
Another old comrade of yours, “Sailor” Roberts, took the title in 1975.
Sailor maybe could have been the best player – if he had applied himself. He was every bit as good as I was; he just didn’t have the desire to play poker like I did. He liked partying around with the girls, and he did a lot of that! So he didn’t play as much as me. I would play 16 hours a day for two or three days at a time. Sailor would just play occasionally, but he was very good.
The next year marked your first WSOP win. What did it mean to you?
It didn’t seem like it was that significant a milestone at the time. I think that everybody thought that I was the best player then, and in truth, I think I was. So it just seemed fitting that I won. The tournament still didn’t have that much prestige back then.
So when did the WSOP start to become a prestigious event?
Well, it was a gradual thing. The tournament has grown every year since its inception. But I think it was probably when the television hit around the mid-eighties – that was when it really took off.
You’ve said before that your parents were very religious people who didn’t approve of your profession. Did that change when you became World Champion? Were they proud of their son?
I don’t think so… My mother was a devout Christian and she didn’t really approve of my lifestyle. She didn’t say much about it because she saw how successful I was at it, but I think if she’d truly had her wishes, I would have done something else for a living.
In 1980, a kid named Stuey Ungar came along. You were heads-up with him in the final. Tell us what you remember about that day…
I remember that at the start of the tournament, Stuey didn’t know how to play at all. During the first day, if he’d got any kind of hand beat, he would have gone broke; but he was fortunate enough in that he didn’t even get his mediocre hands beat. So he advanced, and I’ve never seen anything like it. The tournament lasted for three days, and each day I was at his table. As time went on, you could see significant progress in his game. He was the fastest learner that I’ve ever seen. I think that he watched me as much as I watched Johnny Moss and he emulated the things that I was doing. Suddenly he’d be making plays and I would think: Well, that’s exactly what I would have done. He was totally brilliant. He was a genius; in fact, his IQ must have been
completely off the chart. There’s no telling the talent he would have been, had it not been for his personal
His name has since passed into legend, but what was he like as a person?
Well, he was the most obnoxious person I’ve ever known. He was so competitive that he would just say things and do things that were totally out of line. He’d insult people, lose his temper; throw cards, curse, spit… But away from the poker table and away from gambling, he stood the line. We played golf together, we ran around together. Even playing Gin Rummy, he wasn’t like that; it was just at the poker table. Away from the poker table, he had a great sense of humor. He could pick up on people’s feelings quicker than anyone I ever saw. I guess that’s what made him so good at poker. He was a joy to be around.
Tell us about the final hand of the 1980 Series. You’ve said before that it was the worst play of your career.
I think it was one of the worst. It was pretty obvious that I was going to able to beat Stuey if we just sat there without playing any big pots, and he was smart enough to recognize that. So he was going to force the issue and make me gamble; he wasn’t going to let me grind him down. Anyway, we had about the same number of chips; he had 5-4 and I had A-7. It was an unraised pot, but the blinds and antes were pretty big. The flop came A-7-2. I made too small a bet – that’s one of the fundamentals of poker: you don’t want to go broke on a pot that doesn’t have a lot of money in it. I bet less than the size of the pot to try and just suck him in. He called it and he caught a trey. To his credit, he played perfectly. He led out and made a big bet at me, and I obviously thought I had the best hand. I moved in on him and that was the end of that. He had the straight and I had aces and sevens.
Two years later, Jack Strauss won famously “with a chip and a chair…”
Jack was the most entertaining poker player there ever was. He was an excellent shorthanded player. He wasn’t so good when it was eight- or nine-handed – he was an action kind of guy. At two- or three-handed, he played best. He overlooked a chip that year. He lost a hand, got up, and noticed this $500 chip; he sat back down, and went on to win the tournament. That’s become pretty legendary; it’s a real remarkable thing. Actually, Sailor Roberts pretty much did the same thing. He won the tournament after he was down to about $200. But Strauss was totally entertaining with all the stories of his past. He was the most fun to be around of anybody.
What’s your favorite Jack Strauss story?
There are so many. Jack thought that anything he could do in gambling was legal. In other words, you’re supposed to try to win the money, and you can use any means necessary. We were playing poker out in the country at this bookmaker’s house. Jack was known for being a degenerate horse-bettor, so bookmakers would always want his action. Jack went outside, got some spikes, climbed the pole and shut the power off in the guy’s house for three minutes. So now the guy’s clocks were three minutes behind. You could bet right up to the post time and Jack would have the results of the race. It was already over, but this guy thought it was just starting (laughs). Consequently, he had a lot of winners before the guy woke up to it.
What does the World Series mean to you today?
It’s a milestone in the evolution of poker. It’s just edifying to walk in there and see thousands of people, all ready to start the World Series. It almost brought tears to my eyes last year – this sea of poker tables and people. I can only imagine what guys like Johnny Moss, Paul Harvey, Doc Ramsey, Pat Renfro, Benny Binion – all the old-timers – would say if they could see this. I think the event itself has lost a little prestige, though, in that anybody can win it – some winners in the last few years have come off the internet and not been accomplished poker players. But that just shows what a wonderful game poker is – in a short period of time anybody can beat anybody.
What do you make of the whole crazy media circus that surrounds the event now?
I think it’s just that America’s found out what I’ve known for many, many years – that poker’s the greatest game there is. It’s become fashionable. When I go into an airport, I just can’t believe the people that come up to me. I always ask them where they’re from, and they’re from everywhere. It’s just unbelievable.
How important was it to win your tenth bracelet last year?
It was a challenge because Johnny Chan had just won his tenth and I’ve always responded well to challenges. It’s like when I won the Bicycle Club tournament in 2004. I was on the verge of my first losing year in fifty years, and I remember saying on television that this was the first time in years that I felt I had something to prove. And that was how it was when Johnny won his tenth. I’d never put a lot of importance on bracelets. I didn’t even play in very many events over the years – for years and years I’d only play in the big event and the Deuce to Seven Lowball. But nowadays, bracelets are a big thing and I was very pleased to win my tenth. You always wonder, “Is this going to be my last one?” I mean, the fields are getting so big and the players are pretty good – it’s hard to win one of these things now. But I plan on winning another one or two this year.
How many events will you play?
I don’t know; it depends on how they structure them. When they make it so you have to play eighteen hours a day, it’s pretty hard on a 73-year-old body. I could do it, but I probably won’t push myself to play in that many events. I’ll probably play in 25% of them.
How fit are you feeling?
Oh, I feel great. I feel like a thirty-year-old.
That’s great to hear, Doyle. Will you be playing the H.O.R.S.E tournament?
Oh, yes. I think that should be the championship event. You’ll only see the top pros at that final table. There’s no way that an amateur can get lucky enough to come through in that event the way they do in the Hold’em events. It’s going to be a great tournament and it’s the one I’m looking forward to more than the championship event, simply because I think I have a much better chance of winning it. You have to be realistic; you’re probably not going to beat eight thousand people. I almost dread the Main Event, because the day you’re knocked out of it, you feel terrible. There’s no in-between. I’ve been second, I’ve been third, fourth, and fifth – all the way down the line – and there’s nothing you’re satisfied with but first.
Can a big name pro ever win the World Series again?
I doubt it. I’ll sit down at the table and some of these kids will say, “Well, I know you got me beat, but I just want to break the legend. So they put all their money in there and, sooner or later, one of ’em’s gonna get you. I imagine I play more allin pots than anybody in these tournaments, simply because everybody wants to beat me. It’s really difficult to win one of these things. It’s like the bounty tournament down at DoylesRoom.com, which I play in every week, and you just can’t make a move (laughs).
This is the first year the Horseshoe won’t be part of the event. Does that make you sad?
It does. But you can’t stand in the way of progress. It’s an inescapable fact that we have to leave the Horseshoe behind. It just can’t accommodate the numbers that we’re looking at now. I think they should start the tournament at separate properties this year. That way, you wouldn’t have to limit the number of players per day. You could accommodate 12,000 players in two days. But unfortunately, I’m not the one who decides all that.
Do you miss the family atmosphere of the tournament, when everyone knew each other by name?
Yes, I do. That was the beauty of it. Like I said, it was like a reunion. You’d see guys from Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Texas… guys you didn’t see on a regular basis. There were a lot of people I’d known from the road, but after I moved to Vegas in 1973, I didn’t travel any more. It was great to see all those guys every year. I definitely miss that.
What do you foresee for the future of the WSOP?
How big can this thing become?
I think it’ll just keep getting bigger and bigger if they don’t stifle it in some way by limiting the fields or raising the entry fee. It’s thirtysix- years-old, and every year it’s grown; so I think it’ll continue in the same way.
What’s your abiding memory of all your years at the Series?
The most precious memory was when Todd won his bracelet. That was really a proud moment. It meant more to me, him winning, than any time I won. That’s how proud I was.