The following interview took place in May 2003 at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas.
Interview part 1
INTERVIEWER:Let’s start with a trip down memory lane, Doyle. What was it like growing up in West Texas during the 30s and 40s?
DOYLE BRUNSON:I’m just a country farm boy who grew up in a tiny town of less than 100 people. Everybody there worked as farmers. We didn’t have much money back then, but I never gave any thought to it because we were happy. There were plenty of other people around who had less than we did because it was during the Depression. When I was a teenager, I really became active in sports. Part of it was because my dad managed the local gymnasium — so I got to play and practice every day while the rest of the kids did other things. I knew the only way to leave Longworth and go to college was on an athletic scholarship. So, I concentrated most of my time on sports, which was no problem for me because I loved competing. I had lots of natural ability. When I got to high school in Sweetwater (Texas), I made the All-State team in basketball. I also won the Texas State Championship in the mile run — which got me over one-hundred offers from around the country to go to college. I decided to attend Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene because it was only forty miles from my hometown and many of my closest friends went there.
INTERVIEWER:How did you go from a promising athletic career, including being drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers, to becoming a professional gambler?
Doyle Brunson:As far as poker goes, I really didn’t play poker but a few times in high school. Instead, I played athletics and concentrated on my school work. When I got to college, I was the second best mile-distance runner in the state collegiate ranks and was selected the ‘Most Valuable Player’ in my conference. But that all ended when I got injured and busted up my knee. That ended whatever aspirations I had of becoming a pro athlete. That’s the reason I have to use this crutch today. The injury got progressively worse. Once I accepted the fact my career in sports was over, I started playing poker to support myself. I would go around to the different colleges where I knew people that played poker — the UT — Austin, Texas Tech in Lubbuck, and Texas A&M. I also started to really focus on my studies and earned a Masters Degree in Administrative Education. At the time, I thought I was going to be a teacher/coach. Then later, when I saw that the pay scale for teachers was so poor, I decided not to pursue that profession.
INTERVIEWER:Have you ever worked a "regular" job in your life?
Doyle Brunson:One time. I went to work for the only ‘regular’ job I ever had, right after I graduated from college. I went to work as a salesman for the Burroughs Corporation. I sold bookkeeping equipment. That job lasted only a couple of weeks. When I saw my first paycheck, I figured I just wasn’t cut out for that. I saw that I could make more money in one pot than what was in that entire paycheck selling a week of office supplies. All those small poker games in Texas — that became my territory.
INTERVIEWER:You wrote about some of your earliest poker personal experiences in your book, According to Doyle. You told stories about playing in games on the underground poker circuit in Texas during the 1950s. What were those games like?
Doyle Brunson:I gradually worked my way up from very small games at the colleges to bigger private games. They were held on the north side of Fort Worth. Let me tell you, that area was the toughest place in the world to play poker.Thieves, robbers, and killings were common place up there. That’s where I really got my training, you might say. 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.
INTERVIEWER:What kind of danger?
Doyle Brunson:To start with you had to keep from getting arrested by the police. Then, you had to keep from getting cheated in the games. You also had to worry about collecting the money if you won. Then finally, after all that was said and done — you had to keep from getting hijacked. It was a harrowing experience. People today who play in all the big fancy (legal) cardrooms don’t understand what it was like back in those days to be a poker player with all the problems we had. It was just one thing after another. But, I guess at least you could say it was interesting. Somebody was always trying to get your money, one way or the other.
INTERVIEWER:How many times were you robbed?
Doyle Brunson:So many times I can’t even remember the number. Once, we were playing one of those outlaw games on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth. All of the sudden, the door was busted down and a guy stormed in with a gun and shot a guy sitting right next to me at the table. I remember the guy’s head falling off and splattering against the wall! We all saw that and ran out the door. Then, there was another time when a guy came up to me with a baseball bat and demanded my money.
INTERVIEWER:Did you give the robber the money?
Doyle Brunson:Yeah, yeah. Another time, a guy came up from behind me and stuck a knife right here (pointing to his neck). We got robbed in poker games lots of times. One of my favorite stories is when we were playing down in Austin in a big game. There were three or four games set up inside this house. All of a sudden, windows started breaking and guys with ski masks and shotguns came in through the windows and bound us all up. They put us up against the wall and made us drop our pants down to our ankles. Then, they took our money. One guy with a gun said, ‘We really don’t have time to strip search y’all. I want you to give us all your money. We’re going to take three or four of you and search you and if we find you hiding anything we’re going to blow your leg off.’ I can remember one guy saying, ‘Hey good buddy, you missed $400 right here!’ Another one hollered out, ‘Don’t forget this $600 right here, good buddy!’ After that, they put us up against the wall — they always think I’m the biggest guy there, so I get picked on. One guy with a double-barrel shotgun turned me around and said, ‘Alright, who runs this poker game?’ I’m not a snitch so I answered, ‘I don’t know.’ He didn’t like that so he took his shotgun and hit me in the stomach with it. Then, he said, ‘Who runs this poker game?’ Again, I just answered, ‘Sir, I don’t know.’ So next, he took the shotgun and hit me right upside the head, like wham! He said, ‘Who runs this poker game?’ I said again, ‘I don’t know.’ He had one of those old fashioned shotguns where you cock it. So he cocked both barrels and put it right here between my eyes said, ‘I’m going to ask you one last time — who runs this poker game?’ And I said, ‘That guy right over there!’
INTERVIEWER:(Laughing) In another interview we once did together, I asked you about the first time you remember playing Texas hold’em. You said you first saw the game down at Lake Granbury in the late 50s. Can you tell us that story and explain how you mastered the game?
Doyle Brunson:This bootlegger had a big poker game at Lake Granbury, which is about 50 miles south of Fort Worth. They were all playing Texas hold’em — 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 hold’em games. It was just a natural thing for me.
INTERVIEWER:There were no poker books back in those days. Did you play in a game, then go back home and think about what you had done and try to discover ways to improve?
Doyle Brunson:Today, there’s a computer program called Poker Probe. But back in those days, there were no computers — so I did all the strategy work manually. I dealt out a hand here. I put another hand there. I just kept doing it thousands and thousands of times, over and over. It got to where I was a lot more advanced in this game than most people. Everybody today knows what I learned back then because it’s in all the poker books. But nobody knew the right way to play back in those days. After every game, (Amarillo) Slim and I would go to a Roadway Inn and get twin beds. Then we’d lay there awake all night and talk about the poker games and about different situations. You know, a lot of people don’t know that about Slim — what a great student of the game he was. Today, a lot of folks say Slim didn’t know how to play. But let me tell you brother, Slim does know how to play. I also learned from Johnny Moss — who was the best poker player in the world at that time. I got to watching him and studying him. So, if I had a mentor, it was Johnny Moss. Again, here’s another guy — Johnny Moss was a great player back in his day. When he was 50, I thought he was the best player I’d ever seen. And then he reached 70 and 80, and he lost it. Everybody said he wasn’t a good player — and I sure don’t want that to happen to me. And I’m now getting to that age (70).
Interview part 2
DON’T LET THE CANE fool you; Doyle Brunson is an action hero. He’s all about the action. After all, for almost half a century, he’s gambled professionally. And this living legend ain’t done yet!
From his days on the road as one of the early “rounders,” he’s seen and done just about everything. Brunson not only changed the way we know and play the game, but through his strong characterization of integrity, he has redefined how we think of gamblers in general. His journeys eventually led him to the Poker, Seniors of Poker, and Casino Legends Halls of Fame, as well as to the World Poker Tour recognizing him as one of their first three Walk of Fame honorees. Along the way, he’s earned a record-sharing nine gold bracelets from the World Series of Poker—including back-to-back main event championships in ’76 and ’77. And some three decades later, he still frequents the final tables, most recently winning the 2004 Legends of Poker event in August and taking second at the Festa al Lago III tournament in October.
Every player today owes him a debt of gratitude because he profoundly shaped the way we learned poker. His first Super System book (1978’s How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker) became an instant classic, sparked a poker revolution, and has been the world’s top-selling gambling book ever since. Twenty-seven years later, the sequel (Doyle Brunson’s Super System II), with an updated line-up of games and an all-star cast of contemporary contributors, is poised to take over that title. Weeks before its official February release, it had already cracked Amazon’s top 50. That alone would mark a significant enough literary achievement, but this prolific septuagenarian has three more books due out this year! His autobiography (DoyleBRUNSON:My Story) was due for an April release, and he’ll follow shortly after with a book on Internet poker and another on his best and worst all-time hands.
Be assured, no other individual has contributed as much as he has to the sport. Through it all, Brunson has also faced a lot of adversity in his life. Somehow, though, this world-class competitor always seems to come through okay. And at 72, “Texas Dolly” still appears to be at the top of his game.
We recently managed to spend some time with the wily master gambler between tournaments in Atlantic City and Tunica, Mississippi. Here’s what he had to say about the good ol’ days, the better new days, and the rollercoaster ride in between.
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INTERVIEWER:How were you as a student?
BRUNSON:I was an athlete. I was an all-state basketball player in high school, I was the long-distance (running) state champ in high school, and then I went to college and I was the most valuable player (in basketball) in the Border conference back in those days, which was a major conference. And I was going to be drafted by the Lakers when I graduated, before I broke my leg. Then, for the first time in my life, I started studying as a graduate student. I had to make all A’s and B’s to get my master’s degree, so I did that. But I was never really interested in scholastics until that happened.
INTERVIEWER:What do you remember most about your parents?
BRUNSON:My dad was very calm and even-tempered. I never heard him raise his voice in all the years when we were kids. He never disciplined us. My mom did that. She was just the opposite of that. She would get mad, fly off the handle, and give you a spanking or something. But dad never did. Just very even-tempered and never got upset about anything.
INTERVIEWER:What did your parents think of you being a poker player for a living?
BRUNSON:In truth, my dad never really knew it. I kind of hid the fact. He died when I was 25. I got out of college with a master’s degree when I was 21 and I worked for a year. Then after that, I told him that I was just doing different things. I never really told him I was playing poker for a living. I don’t think he would’ve objected, because he was a poker player himself. He played poker around the small town that we grew up in, and he sent my brother through college on his poker winnings. He just did it locally, but he must’ve won, because we were out in the country living on a dirt farm and he sent three kids through school.
INTERVIEWER:Did he encourage you to play poker at all?
BRUNSON:No, we never talked about it till right before he died. I talked to him a little bit about it. We played poker at my house one time. He had no idea that I was going to be a professional poker player.
INTERVIEWER:When did you decide to go pro?
BRUNSON:After I had the cancer operation where I wasn’t expected to live. When I came out of the hospital, I decided I was going to play poker, do what I wanted to do the rest of my life. That’s when I made the turning point to be a professional player. I was 28. I had just got married. I was considering going back into “the real world” and getting “the real job.” After that (surviving cancer) happened, I just decided that life’s too short. I was going to do what I wanted to do.
INTERVIEWER:It must’ve been pretty crazy balancing gambling with raising a family. How’d you manage that?
BRUNSON:I just did it. Obviously I had to put my work first a lot of times, so I regret that I didn’t spend as much time with my family as I wanted to—or as I should have.
INTERVIEWER:What were some of the early lessons you learned playing poker on the road?
BRUNSON:Well, you had to be a survivor. You had to be able to go from town to town without anything bad happening. You know, you were always in danger of being arrested … cheated … robbed … not being able to collect your money after you won it, a lot of times. And then just the normal hazards of traveling.
INTERVIEWER:How did you drum up games in new towns?
BRUNSON:There was what we call The Texas Circuit. They had games in almost every town around Texas. Some of them were smaller, some of them were bigger, but we knew where all the bigger ones were. And there was a nucleus of professional gamblers: Johnny Moss, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim, Bob Hooks, James Roy, Pat Renfro, Aubrey Day. We were kind of the nucleus of the game. We would kind of predetermine where we were gonna play. And we would go there, and there were always the local businessmen and the hometown champions that were always there to challenge us. There’d be two or three games there in Houston at one time and we would stay there possibly for the whole week or several days. Odessa, Texas, was a popular place. That’s how we did it. There were poker games all over, and we just predetermined where we were going in advance.
INTERVIEWER:Other than poker, what were some other gambles?
BRUNSON:I played golf (betting) very high. I bet on sports very high, and there’ve been other card games. I played bridge for a lot of money. I played gin rummy and so forth. But the bulk of my money was from poker.
INTERVIEWER:You guys bet on pretty much anything!
BRUNSON:We did. Especially when we were traveling the circuit around Texas. You were almost obligated to give people a lot of action and make a lot of games with them and, you know, make people enjoy themselves. That’s what it was all about. The local people that played with us, they wanted to have fun. They liked to win, but that wasn’t their main livelihood. So they wanted to enjoy themselves, and we obliged them by giving them a lot of action.
INTERVIEWER:What was the biggest cash pot you ever won?
BRUNSON:Probably three-quarters of a million.
INTERVIEWER:Where was that?
BRUNSON:It was in Kentucky. It was an illegal poker game. There was a guy who was a drug dealer who had a lot of money. We got involved in a pot and I beat him in this gigantic pot. He had two aces and I made a Set. We put all the money in.
INTERVIEWER:You guys must’ve been building up a reputation.
BRUNSON:Yeah, and they got to know us as a bunch of square shooters. They knew that we gave a lot of action and gambles—and we lost a lot of times. When you play close games, you’re going to lose a portion of the time. So we had good reputations.
INTERVIEWER:Did you ever catch someone cheating you?
BRUNSON:Oh, many times. It was almost acceptable back in those days. People could do almost anything that they could get away with. So it wasn’t an uncommon thing to catch somebody cheating—or trying to cheat.
INTERVIEWER:In a game where cheating is, or has been, suspected and lying—bluffing—is part of the game, how do honor and trust fit in amongst gamblers?
BRUNSON:Obviously, there are some people you trust, and some people you don’t trust. You always just had to be on the lookout for the dishonest people. It’s kind of a standard thing that, while people didn’t get mad when they caught them cheating, they just made them quit. But the nucleus of the group was honest. We tried to keep it as clean as we could without having any real trouble.
INTERVIEWER:I’ve heard that you believe very strongly in the power of a handshake, versus a paper contract. Why is that?
BRUNSON:That’s just the way we were brought up: If you broke your word, you didn’t have anything. So all the top gamblers, they make it a point to be sure that their word’s good and they do what they say they’re going to do. And they do it. It’s just a matter of ethics. That’s the way it is.
INTERVIEWER:Even in business?
BRUNSON:No, not in business. I never really got involved with any business guys that were nearly as ethical as the gamblers.
INTERVIEWER:It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie amongst the players, even though you were playing against each other.
BRUNSON:Well, we knew that we were necessary for each other. We kind of weeded the bad ones out. So the group that was left was a pretty close-knit group. We weren’t really socially involved. But we were all friendly, I guess you could say. We shared the same dangers. 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.
INTERVIEWER:Do you still talk with Puggy (Pearson) or Amarillo Slim (Preston) or any of them?
BRUNSON:I see Puggy and I don’t see Slim that much. They’re both a few years older than I am, and they’ve both kind of retired and live a lot more sedentary lives than I do. I’m still going at it strong as ever—maybe stronger.
INTERVIEWER:Do you still find yourself getting nervous at tournaments?
BRUNSON:No, I don’t have much nervousness and I don’t have much fear of anything. I’ve been through everything I’ve been through. I feel very fortunate to still be here.
INTERVIEWER:Do you think poker can sustain this unprecedented level of popularity?
BRUNSON:I think it’s going to become more popular. At some point, naturally, it’ll peak. But I don’t think it’ll come down even from this level again. I think it’s just gonna get more and more popular.
INTERVIEWER:What do you think is missing from poker today?
BRUNSON:I don’t think anything’s missing. I think poker has swept the nation. The nation’s finally found out what a great game poker is, and it’s probably the hottest subject out there right now. It’s all over the media. It’s all over the Internet. It’s all over the television programs. I think probably you attribute that to the hole card cameras that show what the players have got while they’re playing.
INTERVIEWER:So technology is why it’s recently caught on so much?
BRUNSON:I think that’s what triggered it. People can go, play for free, play for five and 10 cents, or play for a lot of money on the Internet.
INTERVIEWER:Do you actually play online?
BRUNSON:Yeah, I play when I’ve got time. I don’t got much time. But when I’m sitting at my desk I go to doylesroom.com and play all the time.
INTERVIEWER:Poker’s become a real accessible game.
BRUNSON:Right, and there’s no distinguishing characteristics. A kid 13 years old can play, a guy that’s 75 or 80 years old can play. And you can compete against any level that you want. They can come and play against me. Anybody in the world can. There’s no other sport that you can do that, come play with the very top players and have a chance! Because of the luck factor that’s involved, anybody can win in the short-term.
INTERVIEWER:Is there anything you can do about that luck factor?
BRUNSON:You’ve got to be lucky … All these top pros are all capable of winning. And I’d say 30 or 40 percent of the amateur field is capable of winning. So I equate it to being a lottery. You gotta hit the lottery. We’ve got a few more tickets than most of the players, but you’ve still got to hit it.
INTERVIEWER:Speaking of luck and different styles, Gus Hansen’s seems almost like an amateur’s—but different.
BRUNSON:Gus is an enigma. He is quite a bit different—and he’s a very smart kid, or he couldn’t survive the way he plays.
INTERVIEWER:At least on the World Poker Tour, he seems to be dominating those events.
BRUNSON:The last one I played in with him was the Poker Superstars. He broke every player himself. There were eight of us at the table. He broke all seven of us himself. Five out of the seven hands, when all the money went in the pot, he had the worst hand—and he won them all!
INTERVIEWER:Winning all those hands like that can’t just be luck, can it?
BRUNSON:It’s mostly luck, believe me. I mean, he has very good reading skills. But I don’t care how good you are. When you’ve got an ace-jack and the other guy’s got an ace-king and an ace hits the board and you put all your money in the pot, and you’re going to tell me that there’s some kind of wisdom to how he played this hand because he caught a jack?
INTERVIEWER:Maybe it’s a psychological tactic, playing lots of hands that can lead to bad beats to frustrate the other players?
BRUNSON:Yes, of course it is! But listen, all the top pros love to play with Gus. That’s all I can tell you. He’s a nice guy and he’s going to be a good poker player for many, many years. But he’s still got a ways to go. His style fits these tournaments pretty well, obviously. So does Stu Ungar’s. He reminds me of him. I recommended that you play like that in the old days. Because you win a lot of the small pots, and then when you played a big pot and you got the worst of it, you’ve already got it paid for, because of the small pots that you won. And so, consequently, it looks like you’re lucky.
INTERVIEWER:How would you break down what makes you strongest, in terms of reading people and the mathematical aspect?
BRUNSON:I think it’s probably knowing people. Math is important, but people realistically don’t need to be that good at math in order to be a good poker player. They need to be able to handle people. There’s no substitute for experience. And there’s no better teacher than losing in a poker game.
INTERVIEWER:You’ve done a lot and don’t seem to be slowing down. What goals do you have that you still want to fulfill?
BRUNSON:I’d like to win another bracelet or two in the World Series of Poker. I would just like to be able to play at the highest levels for as long as I can. Other than that, just play my cards the best I can. That’s my goal.
INTERVIEWER:I read that there’s a movie about your life that’s been written.
BRUNSON:Yeah, there have been some scripts, but nothing concrete just yet.
INTERVIEWER:Do you have anybody in mind that you’d want to play you if you could choose?
BRUNSON:If Robert Duvall was younger, I would like for him to do it. He’s from the south and everything. He’s always been my favorite actor, ever since Lonesome Dove. But it’s immaterial to me. I don’t care if they make a movie or not, to tell you the truth.
INTERVIEWER:I know that your son Todd plays. Do you have any grandkids you’re teaching poker?
BRUNSON:No, I don’t. Todd is a professional poker player. I think he’s possibly the best young player out there.
INTERVIEWER:Where does he play?
BRUNSON:He lives here in Las Vegas and plays in the big cash games here. And he plays in a lot of the tournaments. I think he’s got 10 tournament wins, without playing the tournament circuit. And he beats the big games regularly. I think he’s the consummate professional poker player.
INTERVIEWER:Other than Todd, who are some of the current superstars you respect the most?
BRUNSON:I respect anybody that puts their feet under the table and antes up! Chip Reese, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Chau Giang, they’re kind of the heart and soul of big-limit poker right now.
INTERVIEWER:What’s your advice for up-and-comers about money management?
BRUNSON:None of us back in the old days managed very well. We just sat down and we played, because you had to drive a long ways to get to the game. So we played till the game broke up, usually. You never quit when you were ahead, unless you’d been playing for a couple of days. It was just something that people didn’t do. When they were winning, they kept playing until the guy that was losing quit, or else they just gave out, after usually 36 hours. We didn’t manage like these young guys do today, because they’ve got games they can go to and play anytime they want to. So they can quit when the games are not good. They can do what they want. But that’s the beauty of being a gambler: You do what you want to do.
INTERVIEWER:You have a place up in Montana. What drew you up there?
BRUNSON:Chip Reese is a very good friend of mine. He had a place up there, and I went up to visit him and I saw what a beautiful place it was and how nice the people are and everything. The solitude … I like that. There are not many people in the state. It’s kind of reminiscent of West Texas, where I grew up. And it’s on the lake. I can swim and boat and fish. All kinds of hunting up there, the deer, the elk, bear. And I just like it up there. That’s probably where I’ll retire.
INTERVIEWER:Sounds like a good place to get inner peace. When you’re not up there, do you do yoga or meditation or anything?
BRUNSON:(Laughing) No, I’m too busy for that. I just get up, and there are so many deals on the table right now that people want me to do. I spend a big part of my day just going through those. My days are just full. It seems like going to tournaments is a full-time job. And I don’t have much time for the regular cash games like I used to have.
INTERVIEWER:Has poker always been a sort of therapy for you to return to?
BRUNSON:Poker was something I always came back to every time I got into any kind of financial trouble. I ventured out into several business ventures, and none of them were successful. I always came back to poker, simply because that was the way I made my living. I always made my money just playing poker. It wasn’t a therapy, just a job that I enjoyed. Still do.
INTERVIEWER:If you could create your perfect life right now, what would that be?
BRUNSON:I’d play poker in the cash games and nothing else. That’s the perfect life. All this other stuff just gets in the way.
INTERVIEWER:Finally, what do you think is your greatest legacy?
BRUNSON:I think the fact that I’ve played longer at the high levels than anybody else ever did. I mean, I’ve been playing at the high levels—the biggest games I could find—ever since I was 23 years old. So that’s been 50 years almost. I don’t think anybody ever played that long at this high of a level, so I think this’ll be my legacy.