Doyle Brunson Changed Poker, Never Let The Game Pass Him By

doyle brunson

Doyle Brunson was known to say he wanted to live until the age of 102 to match the starting hand — a ten and a deuce — that became known as “the Doyle Brunson” after he used those two cards to win the World Series of Poker Main Event in back-to-back years.

“Texas Dolly” didn’t make it quite that far, but he crammed well over 102 years’ worth of stories, accomplishments, and thrills into his 89 years. Brunson, a figure as beloved and respected as any the game of poker has ever known, died Sunday in Las Vegas.

His other nickname, “The Godfather of Poker,” was no exaggeration.

Brunson was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988 at age 54, a six-time WSOP bracelet winner already considered one of the game’s iconic elder statesmen. He proceeded to win four additional bracelets (his total of 10 is tied for second all-time) and a World Poker Tour title, live 35 more years, and play at an elite level until nearly the very end. He made a WSOP final table as recently as 2018.

Brunson’s play at the table, though, was only a small part of what made him one of the great poker ambassadors. His 1978 book Super/System transformed the game, bringing the strategic thinking of a master to the masses — and forcing Brunson to reinvent his style of play to adjust for having educated all of his potential opponents.

As an old-school Texas road gambler, he and his trademark cowboy hat were as instantly identifiable as any image the game ever knew.

Passing this on:

“It is with a heavy heart we announce the passing of our father, Doyle Brunson. He was a beloved Christian man, husband, father and grandfather. We’ll have more to say over the coming days as we honor his legacy. Please keep Doyle and our family in your…

— Brian Balsbaugh (@Balsbaugh) May 15, 2023

‘I always came back to poker’

Brunson, born Aug. 10, 1933, in Longworth, Texas, was a standout athlete, running the fastest mile time in the state in high school and getting scouted by the Minneapolis Lakers for his basketball prowess. A broken leg derailed his sports dreams, however, so he developed his skill in a competition that was won or lost sitting down.

Much worse health scares than a busted leg followed, from having guns pulled on him while traveling a Texas poker circuit in the ‘50s and ‘60s that in no way resembled the bright lights of a Las Vegas tournament, to a cancer diagnosis in his 20s. The latter helped convince him to walk away from any notion of the traditional day-job path.

“After [surviving cancer], I just decided that life’s too short,” Brunson told All In magazine’s Scott Tharler in 2005. “I was going to do what I wanted to do.”

Brunson developed bonds with the other Texas road gamblers of his era, who took bigger risks every day than simply running an all-in bluff.

“We shared the same dangers,” he told Tharler. “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.”

His tournament career highlights came at the 1976 and 1977 WSOP, when he won the Main Event for what at the time were record prizes of $230,000 and $340,000, respectively, holding those unassuming 10-2s.

One of the first times playing with him I bluffed $40,000 in a hopeless spot because I had T2o and wanted to show him I could beat him with it. As he raked the pot he just looked at me and smiled and said “do you know how many people have given me their $ trying to do that”

— Scott Seiver (@scott_seiver) May 15, 2023

But while tournament success helped make him famous, the cash games are where Brunson made his fortune — and where he preferred to be. He was a high-stakes cash pro for as long as he was physically able to get to whichever casino was home to the biggest game.

“Poker was something I always came back to every time I got into any kind of financial trouble,” he said in the All In interview. “I ventured out into several business ventures, and none of them were very successful. I always came back to poker, simply because that was the way I made my living.”

The tributes pour in

Brunson didn’t just bridge the gap from the pre-poker boom days to the modern era. “Bridge the gap” is too passive a term. He was a central figure, a force in the game for years and years on both sides of Chris Moneymaker’s paradigm-shifting 2003 victory.

His remaining so vibrant for so long allows Brunson’s influence to extend well beyond the end of his life. New generations who never played poker until Brunson was in his 70s or 80s revere him, as evidenced by the outpouring on Twitter when the news broke Sunday night.

The first time I met Doyle was 15 years ago. He was gracious, funny, and kind.

The last time I had the honor of playing #poker with him was last year, and this is how I’ll remember him: sharp as ever and had me in awe of his presence until the end. Legends never die.#RIPDoyle

— Maria Ho (@MariaHo) May 15, 2023


There will never be another Doyle Brunson

Doyle was @RadioAmanda favorite player by a mile

He will be missed by many, the Godfather of Poker#RIPDoyle

— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) May 15, 2023

This is my mom’s all time favorite photo of me

I was ~22 at the time, playing in the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship – too egotistical and overconfident to realize what a privilege and honor it was to play next to this legend

RIP Doyle

— Bonologic (@JustinBonomo) May 15, 2023

The poker world didn’t just lose a legend today… we lost THE legend. So many lives are different because of Doyle Brunson.

He was always super kind and generous in every interaction I had with him. Part of me thought he’d live forever. He’ll be sorely missed. #RIPDoyle

— Dutch Boyd (@DutchBoyd) May 15, 2023

Rest in Peace to an absolute [email protected] #RIPDoyle

— Boston Rob (@BostonRob) May 15, 2023

Poker lost its biggest Legend today: @TexDolly. He inspired 3 generations of poker players w his play, his award winning book “Super System,” and his fabulous style and grit. Doyle always played hard: the man absolutely hated losing!! Doyle ruled the high stakes cash games in Las…

— phil_hellmuth (@phil_hellmuth) May 15, 2023

can’t believe this day has come – you will always be held high in our hearts, the man, the myth, the legend & THE GODFATHER of poker baby! Mr Brunson, you made poker what it is baby! thank you for what you give to all of us baby! RIP Mr Doyle Brunson THE GODFATHER OF POKER

— Scotty Nguyen (@TheScottyNguyen) May 15, 2023

Yes, Doyle Brunson was the Legend of Poker. But to me, he was more of a father. I will miss him dearly. My prayers go out to Louise, Pam and Todd.
I Love You Doyle. Rest in Peace to the Greatest!!

— Jennifer Harman (@REALJenHarman) May 15, 2023

During the Big Game there was rodeo convention next door. The airconditioning was blasting to avoid the flies from coming in the studio.

Someone mentioned it was a bit chilly. Doyle (stuck a bunch): ‘Well I’m warm as f****ing toast.’

Glad I got to play with him. RIP, Doyle.

— Lex Veldhuis (@LexVeldhuis) May 15, 2023

I’m so lucky I had the opportunity to truly understand Doyle’s greatness by sitting across the table from him.

“Legend” feels inadequate.

We don’t have a word for what Doyle Brunson is to poker.

Rest in Peace ♥️

— Phil Galfond (@PhilGalfond) May 15, 2023

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales