There’s only one place to interview Doyle Brunson, and that’s Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio
Blocking his path, I offer an introduction before he casually waves me through to Bobby’s Room – the venue of the Big Game, poker’s richest cash contest. Inside, Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius trade $50,000-a-hand blows playing pot-limit Omaha. It seems the perfect setting for an interview with the most iconic figure in the poker world.
There is a sense of irony too. At the time of our meeting, poker’s most celebrated tournament, the main event, is gently slipping through the gears across the Interstate 15 Highway at the Rio. But Brunson – himself a winner of back-to-back main event crowns in 1976 and ‘77 – has always said that trophies are secondary to money. For him, the game is at its best here at the cash game tables, where survival demands the sharp instincts of a poker genius and the guts and brawn of a road gambler.
‘I’ve always played poker for a living,’ he says, his Texan drawl not quite as deep as you may expect. ‘If you didn’t win, you didn’t eat. The guys who play in tournaments today, yeah, they’re good players. But stick them in this room, in the Big Game, and they wouldn’t survive. Cash game players are better players. It’s a totally different environment.’
Like many who excel in their chosen field, Brunson’s path to greatness was not born from the heart. After a promising basketball career was ended with a horrific leg injury, he discovered poker where he found he could make more money from playing in one day than he could from a whole month’s salary. His sporting prowess came through a passion. But, at first, poker was simply a way where he could make the most financially – all be it with a skill set that has proved defining.
‘It was obvious from an early age that I was better at poker than most,’ comments Brunson. ‘I don’t know why. I could just see things and remember them. People ask me how I remember so many hands; I remember thousands of hands against thousands of players. Early on I would remember how people would act, what they did in certain situations. I’d think back, work on what was the best course of action and act accordingly. It’s like a sixth sense – something I’ve always had.’
MR TOUGH GUY
On the outside, Doyle Brunson’s persona is a difficult one to gauge. He offers all the pleasantries you’d expect from a gentleman of his stature. But there’s also an edge to his character. For years, his gambling appetite took him into poker’s most dangerous waters in a world far removed from today’s Hollywood high-roller. It was an education earned the hard way, playing in games run by organised crime groups across America’s south throughout the late 1950s and ‘60s. Poker was always about winning. But it was never a time for careless minds.
‘I travelled to all the games across the south,’ says Brunson, his look becoming more piercing as if to add effect. ‘It was a dangerous time. There was always trouble and there were always bad people around you. It was never a safe environment to be in. But that was how we earned our money.’
It’s this fearless approach to gambling that has taken Brunson to where he sits today. Under the soft, ageing skin lays one of the toughest nuts in poker; a hard-nosed gambler from the old school. A man who realises the importance of risk-taking; always willing to put his neck on the line and ready to rely on that gut feeling. The single test was, and still is, about making the most money. ‘I take risks when I have to,’ he says. ‘I bet when I shouldn’t bet, but that’s just built into me. I have the urge to gamble and I’m convinced all the top cash game players are compulsive gamblers – because we all have to do it.’
He happily admits that getting married in 1962 helped to ‘settle him down’. But the earning potential poker offered was too great an incentive to ignore. And, when he moved to Vegas on a full-time basis in the 1970s, the dangers on the strip would never temper his hunger for cash games where the action involved anyone from drug dealers to hotel owners.
‘Vegas was a dishonest place when I first arrived here,’ he recalls. ‘Pretty much everything that went on was illegal. But poker was probably the most honest part of gambling. And cash games back when I first arrived were easier than they are now. Trust me, nothing gave me more satisfaction than taking money off a drug dealer. When the boys from the south brought Texas hold’em out here, it was always going to take time for other players to acquire the skills needed. It was a good time, I can tell ya.’
EYE FOR A WINNER
Despite his love of the cash game environment and his determination to be recognised as a master in that field first, Brunson remains proud of his tournament record. Ten WSOP bracelets are testament to his pre-eminence above the succession of luck-boxes the Series has thrown up over the years. And it’s worth noting that he has cashed in all of the last six WSOPs. But, he still clearly places most value on his double main event success some 30 years ago, saying his victories came against a field of the ‘best players in the world’.
‘There were no weak players back then. It was still a truly gambling atmosphere. Tournaments today have brought a new breed of player. Players have promoted themselves well and you can’t knock that. But back when I won, everywhere you looked, there were strong players. Today, you can play the main event and not even come across a good player in days.’
But even in Brunson’s ‘Golden’ era, the greatest of tournament players still carried faults that were brought into sharp focus at the cash game tables. Take Stu Ungar, the man seen through many eyes as the greatest the World Series has seen. ‘I get asked about him a lot,’ says Brunson, rubbing his eyes to suggest his tiredness at dissecting the ‘Kid’s’ game. ‘He was a great winning player, but a terrible losing one. He couldn’t handle the beats. For me, he would have never survived in the real world of poker. He was just too volatile with a terrible temper. It was one of his shortcomings.’
Brunson’s analysis of Ungar’s character reveals a clear message: all the great players can perform when things are going well, when the beats don’t get them down or when their reads are hitting the mark. But it’s away from the good times, when the cards don’t fall and the form just can’t be found. That is the time where the truly great players earn their stripes.
‘When people are struggling, that’s when you see how great a player is – or how bad they are. Poker is poker, and it has always been the same. The object of the game is to win the other guys’ chips – whether it’s in a tournament or in a cash game. How you do it depends on how your opponents play. There is no magical formula. But, the key to being a great player is about how you play when things are not going well.
‘Chip Reese is the best all-round poker player I’ve seen. It’s Chip’s temperament that is the main thing. He brings a huge amount of discipline to the game even when he is losing. Chip has that in-made ability that you just can’t teach. He is a good friend of mine, but he is the last person I want to play poker with because I have so much trouble playing him.’
With over fifty years of poker behind him, it’s fair to say that whatever dangers the game has brought to Brunson’s life, overall, it has been good to him. He has treated poker as an earner of money rather than an earner of fame – although one has complemented the other. But, while the hunger to gamble cannot be ignored, his success is down to more than risk- taking. Brunson remains a student of the game with a now unrivalled passion for it. Even at his age, the craving for action stems from the deepest commitment to success.
‘I believe my passion has played a part in making me who I am. I was always determined. I’m 74 years old and I’m still going. I love the game. Hell, I plan on playing poker for another 20 years.’
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