The poker world lost a legend May 14 when Doyle Brunson cashed in his chips a final time. Known as the Godfather of Poker, Brunson was a larger-than-life character who built his legend playing illegal poker games across Texas before solidifying his hard-as-nails image on felt tables in Las Vegas and beyond. He was 89.
Brunson literally wrote the book on poker, several in fact. His “Super System” is the bible of poker aficionados. His hard exterior, complete with pistols he regularly wore on his hips, masked a gentle spirit. Though, Brunson’s last tweet urged people to take on life with full guns blazing.
“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, wow, what a ride!’”
Brunson faced countless brushes with death over the years
Brunson made his name playing live poker across the world. Nevada poker players, however, can play from the comfort of their homes at WSOP.com Nevada, operated by Caesars Interactive Entertainment. Players can take on other players in Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey for real money 24 hours a day every day.
Brunson’s family released a statement soon after his death on Sunday.
“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 prayers. May he rest in peace.”
He leaves behind his wife, Louise, and his two children, Pam and Todd.
Brunson was almost a mythical figure in the world of poker even though he was a fixture at poker tournaments, many of them televised. The fact Brunson survived until 89 is a feat of its own. He brushed up against death countless times from a young age playing in illegal poker games in Texas all the way through multiple bouts with cancer as he got older.
An unfortunate accident launched a legendary poker career
In high school, Brunson was focused on athletics. In 1950, he set his school record for a mile run, but he earned a scholarship to college playing basketball. After breaking his leg in two spots while working a summer job, however, Brunson was forced to find an competitive interest outside athletics.
He soon discovered that he was pretty good at poker. During those days, it wasn’t a respected occupation, Brunson told the Las Vegas Review Journal.
“When I started, you were a second-class citizen. If you were a poker player, they equated you with being a drug dealer or some kind of mobster. To see it evolve like this to where people do respect the poker players now as a profession, that’s quite a transition. I’m thankful I was a part of it, and all my buddies – most of them are gone now – we played a big part in building all this. It’s gratifying to see it.”
Besides its bad reputation, playing poker could be downright dangerous in those days, Brunson wrote on Twitter.
“I’ve been robbed at gunpoint six times. We were playing in a farmhouse outside of Austin. We had two games going when windows started breaking all across the house and seven armed robbers came in. They lined everybody up against the wall with our pants down. Hijackers always pick on the biggest guy. That was me. The ringleader asked me who ran the game. I said I didn’t know and he hit me in the stomach with his shotgun. He asked me again and got the same answer. He put the shotgun right between my eyes and asked again. I told him, ‘that guy, over there, in the green shirt.’”
As he kept playing, though, poker worked its way out of dingy, dark backrooms into bright casinos across Nevada. By the early 1970s, Las Vegas became the epicenter of all things gambling. Brunson practically lived at poker tables in Vegas for the next five decades.
Brunson won WSOP Main Events in 1976-77
In 1970, when Brunson was 37, he was one of the seven players to participate in what became the very first World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Brunson played against such legendary characters as Amarillo Slim, Carl Cannon, Crandell Addington, Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson and Sailor Roberts. Moss was voted the winner of the tournament at Binion’s Horseshoe.
That was the beginning of the popularization of poker in Las Vegas. Players traveled to Las Vegas from across the world to take on Brunson and others to see if they had what it took to gamble professionally. And from the sound of things, Brunson and company rarely shied away from a challenge.
Brunson won probably hundreds of poker games over his long career and made millions of dollars. He won back-to-back WSOP Main Events in 1976 and 1977 which, to this day, makes him one of just three players to accomplish the feat.
Brunson also became an acclaimed writer. He wrote a handful of popular books on poker, including his top-seller, “Super System: A Course in Power Poker.”
Poker world talks about Brunson’s lasting legacy
With Brunson’s passing, the poker world came out to pay respect to the man they call the Godfather of Poker.
Scotty Nguyen, who has won the World Series of Poker five times, tweeted from his personal account.
“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! R.I.P. Mr. Doyle Brunson THE GODFATHER OF POKER.”
Phil Hellmuth, who sat across the poker table from Brunson countless times, took to Twitter to send his respects.
“Poker lost its biggest Legend today: (Doyle Brunson). He inspired 3 generations of poker players (with) 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 Vegas for 50 years!! Doyle was married to the love of his life, Louise, for 62 years. Goodbye – and rest in peace – to the most beloved poker player in history.”
Daniel Negreanu joked on Twitter that Brunson was his wife’s favorite poker player.
“Legend. There will never be another Doyle Brunson. Doyle was (Amanda Negreanu)’s favorite player by a mile. He will be missed by many, the Godfather of Poker.”
Jennifer Harman, a winner of two WSOP bracelets, called Brunson a father figure in her life.
“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!!”
WSOP officials also tweeted a statement.
“Rest in Peace to the Biggest Legend of Them All. Thank you for being the consummate player and gentleman. No one will ever fill your seat.”
Brunson summed up his life better than anyone else could
Brunson told Card Player in 2018 that he had no regrets in his life.
“It’s been a great life. I was consumed with being an athlete when I was young and was going to make basketball my career. When I busted my leg, that was the end of that. I turned to poker as a way of being still able to compete, and it’s been great. You can’t find many things in which a guy that is 84 can still compete against guys in their 30s. It has meant a lot to me. My competitive nature drove me to keep contending, and poker was the vehicle that allowed me to do that. I’m just thankful for it. I’ve had a lot of blessings in my life, survived a lot of hard times. But I’m still here.”
Brunson told the Review Journal how he should be remembered.
“There’s been a lot of great players through the years, and it’s always been debatable who’s the best player and all. But I think my legacy will be that I probably played at the high levels longer than anybody else.”