The headlines tell the simple facts, but they cannot tell even the smallest fraction of the complete Doyle Brunson story. Doyle Brunson was known as the Godfather of Poker. He published a super book on poker called Super System and a revised edition called Super System II. He won ten WSOP belts. And still the story of who Doyle Brunson was and became requires a deeper dive into his persona, one that is likely never to be seen again.
Everygame Poker extends our condolences to the extended Brunson family. The poker world has certainly lost a giant.
A Metal Spoon Birth
Doyle Brunson was born in Fisher County, Texas in the summer of 1933. Some reports say that he was born in the town of Longworth. In order to fully understand Doyle Brunson, we need to understand where he grew up. Longworth, Texas is an unincorporated area with a population of some 643 people as of the 2020 census. It is situated in Fisher County with a land area about one fifth the size of New Jersey and a population of 3706.
The biggest city in Fisher County is Rotan and the county seat is in Roby. The county is in northwest Texas to the south of the Texas panhandle. In 1933, Fisher County was in the throes of the great depression. It is located in the area made famous by Robert Caro in his biography of Lyndon Johnson as “West of 30” which means west of the line that can expect 30 inches of rain per year.
Drought in Fisher County is common, deep, and impermeable. It's not a place for the faint of heart - it's the kind of place that develops a person's inner strength as we see in Doyle Brunson.
A Star Athlete until Disaster Strikes
Doyle Brunson was a great high school athlete. He earned a college scholarship to Hardin-Simmons, a small Texas college, and was so well-thought of that National Basketball Association scouts came to watch him play. Then he suffered a devastating knee injury and could not play basketball at a professional level.
The 1950’s versus Now
These days, an athlete who had suffered a knee injury would have surgery and would likely have a professional career. In the early 1950’s medicine was not yet advanced enough to reclaim Doyle Brunson’s athletic career.
A Professional Man
Doyle Brunson earned a bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s Degree in Education Administration. The market for men with such lofty degrees in West Texas was so "great" that Doyle Brunson became a successful salesman.
But he had medical expenses and took to playing his favorite poker game, five-card draw, to make enough money to pay these expenses. One day, he sat in on a seven-card stud game and won in just a few short hours a full month’s salary and commission as a salesman.
So, he left sales and tried to make a living as a professional poker player.
Playing Illegally and Dangerously
The elderly Doyle Brunson that most poker players are familiar with from YouTube and televised WSOP tournaments was still far from being the real Doyle Brunson. The poker games he frequented in his twenties were illegal. They were run by organized crime figures.
Brunson spoke about just how dangerous these games were. He was beaten up and robbed many times but as this was how he made a living he bit the bullet and went on.
Introduction to Texas Hold’em
Texas Hold’em was invented in the early 1900’s in Robstown, Texas. It stayed in West Texas for decades. History has lost the day that Doyle Brunson first played Texas Hold’em.
Three poker players including Amarillo Slim, Crandell Addington, and Doyle Brunson were the main movers and shakers who brought Texas Hold’em to Las Vegas in the 1960’s.
It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that Texas Hold’em got better exposure as the World Series of Poker Tournament had its first “event” with six players who CHOSE Johnny Moss as the winner.
In later years, Doyle Brunson said that Johnny Moss was his mentor in poker.
Doyle Brunson and the Definition of Gravitas
Sometimes history moves with incredible slowness. Sometimes it moves with lightning speed. When Doyle Brunson et al brought Texas Hold’em to Las Vegas in the 1960’s, Brunson was only in his thirties just a few years removed from being a salesman.
By 1978, the name Doyle Brunson was well known enough for him to publish a book on poker called Super System. The book was received as sort of a Bible of poker but not by all. One top pro at the time called it a work of fiction.
Still, Doyle Brunson, with his trademark Texas cowboy hat and Texas drawl became a father figure within the world of poker. He earned everyone’s respect and admiration as a combatant and a friend. Although he won 10 WSOP belts, as he got older, it became harder for him to reach the final table at the WSOP.
He had become so legendary that when he was eliminated from the tournament, as it happened year after year, the news was announced to everyone at the tournament and all players and spectators rose to give him a standing ovation!
Hall of Fame
Doyle Brunson was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988. He has said that he thinks that the tournament has become such a grind with so many days of poker that no one over 40 will ever win it in its present form.
Doyle Brunson came from a time and place when men were not consumed with themselves. He was humble by nature and nurture. As a devout Christian he tried to live the humble life. For many years, his wife quietly helped dig water wells in parched India through a Christian outreach organization.
He had a few thoughts on what made him a top poker player.
- Love of the game. Michael Jordan spoke about his love of basketball as a driving force and many athletes and musicians have said that love of their pursuit is a major driving force in their lives.
- Luck. Doyle Brunson was never one to say that he was the best because he was the best. He worked hard at it but there was always an element of luck. As a devout Christian man, the Grace of God might have played a part in this self-assessment.
- Self-control, demeanor, and composure. Everyone suffers a bad beat from time to time. If he was anything, Doyle Brunson was a man who would simply pick himself up after a bad beat and carry on.
- Play the person. Doyle Brunson was truly an old-timer who played by studying people rather than by what the poker math book tells them to do.
- Stay flexible. Doyle Brunson tells how he changed his opinion about women in poker as the women got better. He could no longer claim that women didn’t belong at the poker table. He also credited his daughter with helping him along that path.
There are two quotes attributed to Doyle Brunson that are appropriate at this sad moment:
“A man doesn’t stop playing because he grows old; he grows old because he stops playing.”
“A man with money is no match for a man on a mission.”
The Poker World is Grieving the Loss of an Icon
Accolades have come in quickly. Many poker giants have expressed their respect for Doyle Brunson among them Daniel Negreanu. Phil Helmuth, and many others. The main theme of all the remarks is that Doyle Brunson was a beloved representative of poker, an agent for furthering the reach of the game, and a close and dear friend.
Clearly, Doyle Brunson was a special person.
The Family Announces Doyle Brunson’s Death
We will finish by quoting the official announcement made by Doyle Brunson’s family:
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of our father, Doyle Brunson. He was a beloved Christian man, husband, father, and grandfather. Please keep Doyle and our family in your prayers. May he rest in peace.”