We talk to Doyle Brunson the man who epitomises the look, the hook, and the book of poker
Poker’s not exactly lacking in superstar players. Guys like Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott, Phil Ivey, Chip Reese, Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein all reside at the top of the chip-strewn heap. But there’s one pro who stands above them all. Over the years he’s been playing longer, higher and better than anyone else in the game. He’s old enough to be your grandfather, but if you treat him like an old has-been, you’re doing so at your peril. Stare into his eyes, check out his fleshy face, look at his fingers (through which hundreds of millions of dollars in poker chips have passed), and you’re taking in Texas Hold’em personified. This man is Doyle Brunson, poker’s most enduring superstar, and right now he’s sitting five feet away from me.
We’re inside Brunson’s large and elegant house, situated in one of Las Vegas’s swankiest gated communities. Out back is an elaborate swimming pool, augmented by a man-made waterfall and jacuzzi. In front, his late-model Cadillac occupies the circular driveway. It’s all a testament to what happens when a beautiful mind decides to target the game of poker.
Brunson sits behind a desk in his home office, surrounded by pictures of himself and his poker pals. Over the years he’s won 10 World Series of Poker bracelets, snagged many millions in cash game profits, revolutionised poker with the publication of the poker bible Super/System, and witnessed the transformation of Texas Hold’em from a backroom enterprise to a mainstream pastime that people follow like a sport. Through it all, he’s been recognised as one of the deadliest, canniest players in the game. But if not for a fortuitous accident, there’s a good chance that 72- year-old Doyle Brunson never would have rose to the peak of professional poker.
Back in 1954 Brunson was a highly regarded college basketball star, playing for Hardin-Simmons University, a Baptist school in Abilene, Texas. During his junior year he was scouted by the Minneapolis Lakers and was voted most valuable player in the southwestern conference. Brunson, who had played poker only a few times in his life at that point, figures that he would have gone early in the draft, enjoyed a successful basketball career and finished out his life as a high school teacher. But fate intervened: while working a summer job, at a gypsum plant near his boyhood home in the tiny town of Longworth, Texas, Brunson was unloading a large shipment of sheet rock. It was stacked precariously high and shifted unpredictably. Suddenly the building material toppled over, came down hard, and Brunson’s right leg broke in two places. He found himself pinned under 2,000lb of building material. Young Brunson’s basketball career was immediately shattered.
Suddenly unable to participate in sports, he turned to poker. First it was for the competition; later, after he realised how good he was, it seemed like the most sensible way in which to pay his tuition. By the time he graduated from college, Doyle Brunson had become a fierce card shark, preying on games held in dorm rooms, fraternity houses, and student unions throughout West Texas. He briefly flirted with a straight job, selling office supplies, but poker quickly won out as his preferred vocation.
‘The gambling world was completely different from the world I grew up in,’ says Brunson, who began playing Stud, Lowball, and Draw poker in the rough-andtumble bars, pool-halls, and barebone hotels of Fort Worth, Texas. ‘It was an exciting way of life, but I saw people get killed and I saw women who were not acceptable [to church-going Texans]. But I had a passion for poker and that element was around it.’
Brunson made an effort to keep his nose clean and to stay out of trouble – ‘It was known that I was there for the gambling and nothing else’ – but after a couple of years he got into a physical altercation with a local police officer during a raid. Instantly, Brunson became a marked man, and, over the course of the following week, he was arrested five times on gambling charges. Clearly, his days in Fort Worth were numbered.
Taking to the road, Brunson fell in with a pair of professional gamblers: Sailor Roberts and Thomas Austin ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston. Brunson and the other two combined their bankrolls, partnered up, and barnstormed through America’s southwest, beating games at firehouses, pool parlours, and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls.
‘Sailor and I were two of the best poker players in Texas, while Slim was more of a proposition gambler,’ says Brunson. ‘He was very selective about his games and wouldn’t play unless there were some really bad players. But Slim knew all the good games and he was an excellent people person. Plus, by spending time with Sailor and I, he got better and better at poker. After games Slim and I talked for hours about hands and people. That helped me too. Slim was very observant. He was kind of the catalyst and he got people to gamble.’
Long before the days of personal computers, Brunson and Slim spent long nights replaying hands hundreds of times, trying to find the optimal moves for certain situations. They learned the mathematics of poker at a time when their opponents believed it was purely a game of feel and intuition. While life on the road was tough – Brunson says he was robbed five times and, in one incident, beaten senseless while holding tight to $15,000 that he had just collected from a bookie – it was also profitable. By 1964, the trio of gamblers had put together a bankroll of about $160,000 (huge money in those days). They ventured up to the Dunes Casino in Las Vegas, where the Big Game of that day required a $100 ante and forced bets of $500 and $1,000. High-flying opponents included Puggy Pearson, Sarge Ferris and casino boss Syd Wyman. ‘We were underfunded and hit a bad streak of luck,’ remembers Brunson, pointing out that he and his partners were not cheated. ‘Puggy ran unbelievably lucky in those days, and we busted out.’
The partnership dissolved soon after the Vegas debacle, but Brunson recognised that players there were not incredibly skilled. He spent the next couple of years raising a fresh stake, returned to the Dunes, and fared a lot better in the big cash games. Playing in a mathematically sound, but very aggressive style, Brunson was able to appear lucky and drew loads of action. ‘I bluffed a lot and picked up many small pots,’ he explains. ‘Then, when I did play a big pot, I had it paid for by all the small pots I had won.’
Though Brunson, who was married and a father by then, earned huge sums of cash by playing cards, he lied to friends and neighbours about his source of income. He and his family were still residing in Texas at the time, and folks back home would have frowned on the idea of someone earning a living (regardless of how handsome) through poker. Brunson told everyone that he sold insurance. This presented a problem in 1972, when he was in the running to win the World Series of Poker. Only 10 people had entered the event (which was in its third year, attracting the game’s shrewdest players), and it was being held as a way to generate interest in Las Vegas’s cash games. Nobody, at the time, thought poker tournaments were anything more than a novelty. But when Brunson found himself among the three remaining players and noticed a bunch of reporters chronicling what was going on, he felt a need to rethink the situation.
It was down to Brunson, Puggy, and Amarillo Slim. Brunson and Puggy had most of the money, while Slim had only $1,500 or so left. ‘I saw those reporters and I told the guys “I don’t want to win this, I don’t want publicity,”’ remembers Brunson. ‘Puggy said he didn’t care about winning it either, and Slim said he wanted to win it. So we told Slim, “Let’s just count our money, we’ll all get paid off and let you win.” Slim agreed, but he put on such a show that it was obvious what was going on. Jack Binion pulled us aside and told us we would ruin the tournament if we made it look fixed. I told Jack that I didn’t want the publicity. So we agreed I’d get my money and say I was sick and couldn’t continue playing. Puggy played Slim, Slim won, and he became the great ambassador for the game.’
Once Slim began appearing on TV shows, crowing about being the greatest poker player in the world, Brunson told his wife about the circumstances under which his buddy had aced the World Series. ‘My wife told me that she and the kids [including their son Todd, now a world class player in his own right] wouldn’t have minded me getting all the attention,’ says Brunson. ‘So I won it in 1976 and 1977. By then I was living in Las Vegas and being known as a professional poker player wasn’t a negative there.’
Those World Series wins fell smack dab in the middle of a remarkable streak. Between 1973 and 1980, Brunson says, he never lost a session of poker in which the smallest chip being played was $25 or higher. It was a sweet run, but it came to an end for a couple of good, logical reasons. First off, in 1977 Brunson self published Super/System (originally titled How I Made $1,000,000 Playing Poker) and many of his opponents developed a deep understanding of his strategies. More critically, though, no-limit poker – the form in which Brunson had developed his greatest expertise – began to dry up. Suddenly he was forced to play limit poker, which he didn’t immediately grasp.
‘The truth is that most no-limit players never adapt to playing limit,’ says Brunson, explaining that the games are far more different than casual players would ever believe. ‘In no-limit you’re programmed to throw your hand away when you’ve got the worst hand. In limit, because of pot odds, a lot of times you have to go in, knowing that you have the worst hand. No-limit players have trouble adapting to that. I spent four or five years making that shift in my thinking and becoming a really good limit player. I finally got competent at all the games. But those were rough years for me.’
The numbers game
By the early 1990s, Brunson’s game was up to speed and he discovered another cash cow: baseball betting. For years, he acknowledges, sports betting had been a serious leak – ‘Because I was a good athlete, I viewed myself as some kind of a sports expert, and I lost a lot of money betting on games’ – but that changed when he and Chip Reese were introduced to a young computer wizard with an Ivy League education.
‘He was a knowledgeable baseball bettor with a degree in computer science,’ Brunson recalls. ‘He developed a program with all kinds of details and statistics factored in. He ran simulations of the games and came up with numbers that were so much better than the bookmakers. We dominated baseball for years. Then the bookmakers caught up with us.’
These days Brunson bets on the Masters golf tournament, NCAA finals (he got slaughtered this year), and the NFL playoffs. He admits that he’s doing his sports betting by feel and not working with much of a system. But if he’s blowing money on sports, he’s more than compensating with poker. Between 2004 and 2005, Brunson has won more than $2m in tournaments alone. ‘It’s gratifying to win the World Series bracelets,’ he says. ‘And I plan on winning one this year. I’d almost bet that I will.’ He also had a piece of the recent, profitable showdown with Andy Beal, helped to launch a signature poker site (DoylesRoom.com), and continues playing in the notoriously pricey Big Game, where stakes can go as high as $4,000-$8,000.
And while Brunson has long been a major presence at the highest tables, he says he’s beginning to reconsider the logic of mega-money games. ‘I think we play way too high,’ says Brunson. ‘It’s ridiculous that we shut out so many people [by playing so high]. I think we should play $1000- $2000 or small no-limit games where you can win $100,000 in a night. What’s wrong with that? The guys [in the Big Game] are jaded and we’re all compulsive gamblers at this point in our lives with this crazy action. I could drop down and play smaller nolimit games. The other guys say they’d be bored. But I’d be okay.’ In fact, according to Brunson, it’s not only the high stakes games that have gotten out of hand, but some of the mania surrounding poker as well. Though he’s clearly grateful for his fans and their acclaim, he points out that he never desired to be the kind of guy who gets recognised by strangers and asked for autographs. ‘I’m as famous as I want to get,’ says Brunson, who has backburnered his long awaited autobiography in an effort to keep his private life private. ‘If I was 40 years old it would be nice. But now I’m 72. What do I need this for? People talk to me about going on the talk-show circuit and making movies [about my life]. I don’t care about that. All I want to do is play poker. I’m not a celebrity. I’m not a guy looking for attention. I’m the real deal: a guy who just wants to play poker.’
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