On May 14th, 2023, the poker world lost its biggest icon. Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson is arguably the most influential poker figure of the past half a century, and the game we know and love wouldn’t be the same today without his influence. While the poker community is saddened by his passing, we should be celebrating the life and accomplishments of this great man. So, let’s take a look into the incredible life of poker legend Doyle Brunson.
Doyle Frank Brunson was born on August 10th, 1933, in Longworth Texas. He met his wife Pam in 1969, marrying her three years later in 1972. Together they had three children, Doyla Brunson who tragically passed away at 18 of a heart valve condition, Todd Brunson, and Pamela Brunson.
Todd followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a poker professional who's well respected in his own right. In fact, Doyle often said that he never encouraged Todd to play poker and wouldn’t offer him advice, forcing him to learn on his own and become his own player. In 2005, Todd won the $2500 Omaha Hi-Lo event while Doyle won the $5,000 No Limit Shorthanded Texas Hold’em event, making them the first father-son duo to win bracelets at the same World Series.
The Early Years
It may surprise you to know that Doyle’s first calling wasn’t poker, but professional sports. He was known as a fantastic athlete, winning the 1950 Texas Interscholastic Track Meet one-mile event with a time of 4:43. It’s that kind of athleticism that garnered interest from many colleges, but he eventually decided to attend Hardin Simmons University in his home state of Texas.
During his time at college, he was scouted by the professional basketball team the Minneapolis Lakers, and he was well on his way to becoming an NBA player. However, an unfortunate knee injury ended his basketball career prematurely, killing any chance of him making it to the NBA. They say God never closes a door without opening another, and Doyle’s injury allowed him to spend more time on his other passion - poker.
Doyle started playing poker before his injury, mostly playing 5-card draws. After his injury, Doyle’s playing time drastically increased, as he used his winnings to cover his medical expenses. After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in administrative education, he went to work as a salesman for Burroughs Corporation with dreams of becoming a school principal. However, after winning more than a month’s salary in a 7-card stud game, Doyle quit the 9-5 life and became a professional poker player.
Doyle’s Poker Career
Spanning many decades with a host of illustrious titles, many poker players dream of having 1/10th the career that Doyle had. He’d seen it all, won it all, and gone from robusto to busto and back again more times than we can count! While many modern players will know him for his Main Event wins and multiple WSOP bracelets, his career started in the underground games of the American South.
Working with his friend and partner Dwayne Hamilton, Doyle started his poker career by playing in games in Fort Worth, Texas, before travelling to other states such as Louisiana and Oklahoma. During the 50s and 60s, poker was illegal in the US, so Doyle was forced to play in underground games run by criminals - a far cry from the comfy, secure casinos we’re used to playing in.
While he’d meet other professionals during his time on the road, such as Amarillo Slim, Sailor Roberts, and Puggy Pearson, the game was mainly filled with violent criminals who weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure if something didn’t go their way. Doyle recounted many stories of violence that he witnessed during his time playing these games, including the time when a player was shot and killed during a game!
Doyle wanted to move on from the dangerous underground games where he made his bankroll and move to the shining city of Las Vegas, Nevada. So, with a group of other professional players, Doyle moved to Vegas. However, things did not go smoothly, and after gambling on almost anything you could think of, he had lost nearly all of his bankroll - over 6-figures!
It was at that time that Doyle decided he would go it alone, and eventually, he made the move to Vegas stick. He had been a mainstay at the WSOP since its inception in 1970 and would go on to win the World Series of Poker Main Event twice in back-to-back years - 1976 and 1977. Doyle also finished runner-up in the Main Event in 1980 and recorded two 3rd-place finishes and one 4th-place finish - making him one of the most successful players in Main Event history.
However, Doyle was much more than a Main Event specialist and had won a total of 10 WSOP bracelets in a variety of disciplines ranging from 2-7 draw, 7-card stud, Razz, and H.O.R.S.E. In fact, he’s joint second for the player with the most WSOP bracelets - tied with Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan on 10, only behind Phil Hellmuth who has 16. Doyle also had one WPT title to his name, winning the Legends of Poker event in 2004.
By the end of his life, Doyle had amassed over $16 million in live tournament winnings, with over $3 million of that coming from his 37 WSOP cashes.
As well as an illustrious tournament career, Doyle was a mainstay in the biggest cash games in the world for the entirety of his career. He would regularly play in the $4000/$8000 mixed games in Bobby’s Room well into his 80s, battling it out with the young wizards of the modern game and coming out on top. It’s truly remarkable that someone of his age could be a winner in arguably the toughest game in the world for as long as he did, but that’s a testament to just how talented Doyle was.
Doyle’s Impact on Poker
If you speak to anyone in the poker world, they’ll tell you just how big of an impact Doyle had on the poker world. After all, you don’t get a nickname like “The Godfather of Poker” for nothing! Doyle had been instrumental in bringing poker out of the dark, underground games he grew up in and into the bright lights of the casino floor. Without Doyle, we could all still be playing illegal games, hoping that we can get through a session unharmed!
Doyle was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988, one year after his good friend Puggy Pearson. Let’s take a look at some of the accomplishments that make him worthy of such recognition.
Doyle played a big part in the creation of the WSOP in 1970 and was part of the group that persuaded casino owner Benny Binnion to run the event. Back then, they were finding it hard to bring players into their cash games, so they believed a big tournament event would bring players to Vegas and create better action in the side games. Doyle, along with Puggy Pearson, Amarillo Slim, and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos convinced Benny Binion to run the event at his Horseshoe Casino, and a piece of poker history was born.
6 years after the inception of the WSOP Main Event, Doyle won his first title. He beat Jesse Alto heads-up, making a full house with 10-2 to win the grand prize of $220,000. A year later, Doyle retained his Main Event crown, beating Gary Berland - again, making a full house with 10-2 to win the title. Ever since then, the hand 10-2 is known around the world as “The Doyle Brunson.”
Poker is a game of incomplete information, and as such, any informational advantage you have over your opponent can give you a competitive edge while playing. It’s for this reason that many poker players are extremely secretive about how they play, as they’re scared that any insight into their strategy will reduce their expected win rate.
This is why it was such a shock that Doyle Brunson released Super System in 1979. The book, originally titled “How I made over $1,000,000 playing poker,” was the bible of poker and was filled with some of the most cutting-edge strategy ideas of the time. It contained chapters from some of the game’s leading professionals, all providing insights into their game of choice.
The book contained so much previously unknown information that a number of players were unhappy with Doyle for releasing the book, fearing that the games would become too tough to beat!
You don’t stay at the top of the poker world for as long as someone like Doyle without knowing how to keep up with the times. Despite being an old-school player, Doyle became heavily involved in online poker and launched his own room - Doyle’s Room - in 2004. While the site was growing in popularity, the events of Black Friday led to Doyle’s Room being shut down in 2011 and was acquired shortly after by America’s Card Room.
How He’ll Be Remembered
Doyle was a player loved by all. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t root for Doyle when he played, such was the love that the poker community had for him. He’ll forever be remembered as the man who shaped poker into the game we love today, and the image of his big cowboy hat and even bigger smile will forever be iconic. RIP Doyle, we’ll miss you.
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