From Longworth to Las Vegas and 70 Years in
Between: Poker Legend Doyle Brunson Tells His Story
and Shares His Views on Life as a
(Part One of a Two-Part Series)
Poker Interview by Nolan Dalla
[ Reading Part One | Go to Part Two » ]
Doyle Brunson is to poker what Babe Ruth was to baseball -- a larger-than-life giant of a man who not only helped to revolutionize and popularize the game he loved, but set the standard for achievement and excellence by which all other players are measured. Brunson won the World Series of Poker twice, but is perhaps better known for his greater contributions to the game. Twenty-five years ago, he co-wrote what has been called the "Bible" of poker -- "Super/System: How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker." He also pioneered higher virtues as one of the first respected voices in gambling to discuss the importance of honor and trust amongst his peers. Brunson came to personify the notion that gambling could be a respectable profession.
From his humble beginnings, there was little evidence to suggest this farm boy from the dusty plains of West Texas would become one of the world' most successful gamblers. Brunson was born in Longworth, Texas on August 10, 1933. He was so gifted athletically in his early years, that he was drafted by the NBA's (then, Minneapolis) Lakers. A knee injury ended Brunson's dream of becoming a professional athlete, so he had to find a new way to satisfy his competitive instincts.
He would soon find it after graduating from college with a Master's Degree in Education. Brunson hung up his basketball uniform and sat down at a poker table. And the rest, as they say -- is history.
Brunson became a "Rounder", making the rounds from one poker game to the next. It was a colorful, but dangerous way to make a living. Along the way, he met other men who would later become poker legends in their own rite -- including Johnny Moss, Sailor Roberts, and "Amarillo Slim" Preston (with a combined eight world championships between all of them).
In the early 1960s, Brunson married his sweetheart, Louise. Together, they had four children. The family moved to Las Vegas after Brunson found invitations to poker games increasingly difficult to come by, as he repeatedly won the most money from the games back in Texas. Once he was firmly established in Las Vegas, Brunson won the World Series of Poker twice -- in 1976 and 1977. Incredibly, he won both years with the exact same poker hand, a full house -- tens full of deuces -- giving the hold'em hand "10-2" the rightful nickname, "a Doyle Brunson."
When Brunson wrote his book "Super/System," which would become an instant classic, many of his fellow poker pros were outraged that he would give away the secrets to beating the games. While the games surely did become more difficult over the years that followed, a far more significant result was a greater public interest in poker, and more players wanting to play for higher-stakes. "Super/System" sparked a new wave of books on strategy that fueled greater public interest in poker.
Brunson's next contribution to the game was another book, "According to Doyle" -- which was a collection of his best columns written for the old Gambling Times magazine. The book is a series of reflections and philosophical musings about what it takes to be successful in gambling. Again, Brunson was a trailblazer -- introducing notions that gambling was a legitimate profession and that all true gamblers had an obligation to conduct themselves honorably.
In the 1980s, Brunson became just as well known for his antics out on the golf course, as at the poker table. He played golf for astronomical sums of money. He once commented: "The guys out on the pro golf tour don't compete for the amount of money we bet on a single round." Brunson also bet huge sums in the sportsbooks. He frequently bet five-figures or more on a single sporting event. It was (and is) not uncommon for Brunson to have a quarter of a million dollars in wagers "in action" on the day's games.
To date, Brunson has nine gold bracelets at the World Series of Poker. But his real claim to fame may be his success in cash games where he has been "The Man" for nearly five decades. He can still be found on a daily basis playing in the highest-stakes games in the world -- winning and occasionally losing more money in a single pot than the average working person makes in a year's salary. Now, approaching his 70th birthday -- Doyle Brunson shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
The following interview between Doyle Brunson and Nolan Dalla took place in May 2003 at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. This is the first of a two-part series.
NOLAN DALLA: Let's start with a trip down memory lane, Doyle. What was it like growing up in West Texas during the 30s and 40s?
DOYLE BRUNSON: I'm just a country farm boy who grew up in a tiny town of less than 100 people. Everybody there worked as farmers. We didn't have much money back then, but I never gave any thought to it because we were happy. There were plenty of other people around who had less than we did because it was during the Depression. When I was a teenager, I really became active in sports. Part of it was because my dad managed the local gymnasium -- so I got to play and practice every day while the rest of the kids did other things. I knew the only way to leave Longworth and go to college was on an athletic scholarship. So, I concentrated most of my time on sports, which was no problem for me because I loved competing. I had lots of natural ability. When I got to high school in Sweetwater (Texas), I made the All-State team in basketball. I also won the Texas State Championship in the mile run -- which got me over one-hundred offers from around the country to go to college. I decided to attend Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene because it was only forty miles from my hometown and many of my closest friends went there.
DALLA: How did you go from a promising athletic career, including being drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers, to becoming a professional gambler?
BRUNSON: As far as poker goes, I really didn't play poker but a few times in high school. Instead, I played athletics and concentrated on my school work. When I got to college, I was the second best mile-distance runner in the state collegiate ranks and was selected the 'Most Valuable Player' in my conference. But that all ended when I got injured and busted up my knee. That ended whatever aspirations I had of becoming a pro athlete. That's the reason I have to use this crutch today. The injury got progressively worse. Once I accepted the fact my career in sports was over, I started playing poker to support myself. I would go around to the different colleges where I knew people that played poker -- the UT -- Austin, Texas Tech in Lubbuck, and Texas A&M. I also started to really focus on my studies and earned a Masters Degree in Administrative Education. At the time, I thought I was going to be a teacher/coach. Then later, when I saw that the pay scale for teachers was so poor, I decided not to pursue that profession.
DALLA: Have you ever worked a "regular" job in your life?
BRUNSON: One time. I went to work for the only 'regular' job I ever had, right after I graduated from college. I went to work as a salesman for the Burroughs Corporation. I sold bookkeeping equipment. That job lasted only a couple of weeks. When I saw my first paycheck, I figured I just wasn't cut out for that. I saw that I could make more money in one pot than what was in that entire paycheck selling a week of office supplies. All those small poker games in Texas -- that became my territory.
DALLA: You wrote about some of your earliest poker personal experiences in your book, According to Doyle. You told stories about playing in games on the underground poker circuit in Texas during the 1950s. What were those games like?
BRUNSON: I gradually worked my way up from very small games at the colleges to bigger private games. They were held on the north side of Fort Worth. Let me tell you, that area was the toughest place in the world to play poker. Thieves, robbers, and killings were common place up there. That's where I really got my training, you might say. The big money was in the games up on what we called the 'Bloodthirsty Highway' where everybody there was some kind of an outlaw. They were thieves, pimps -- a real bad element. But they were also the ones that made the poker games really good. Needless to say, I took a few scratches along the way. Then later, I moved downtown to the bigger games. The big game at the time was a one-dollar ante. Remember, this was the 1950s -- so, a dollar was a lot of money back then. You could make a few hundred a night if you knew what you were doing. I got to where I was winning regularly. That's also where I first met Sailor Roberts (who later became the 1975 World Poker Champion). Sailor and I started traveling around together. We were playing in bigger games around Texas and that's when we met up with Amarillo Slim. We formed a partnership -- the three of us. It was kind of nice to have someone to travel with. We kind of watched out after each other. There was a lot of danger back then.
DALLA: What kind of danger?
BRUNSON: To start with you had to keep from getting arrested by the police. Then, you had to keep from getting cheated in the games. You also had to worry about collecting the money if you won. Then finally, after all that was said and done -- you had to keep from getting hijacked. It was a harrowing experience. People today who play in all the big fancy (legal) cardrooms don't understand what it was like back in those days to be a poker player with all the problems we had. It was just one thing after another. But, I guess at least you could say it was interesting. Somebody was always trying to get your money, one way or the other.
DALLA: How many times were you robbed?
BRUNSON: So many times I can't even remember the number. Once, we were playing one of those outlaw games on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth. All of the sudden, the door was busted down and a guy stormed in with a gun and shot a guy sitting right next to me at the table. I remember the guy's head falling off and splattering against the wall! We all saw that and ran out the door. Then, there was another time when a guy came up to me with a baseball bat and demanded my money.
DALLA: Did you give the robber the money?
BRUNSON: Yeah, yeah. Another time, a guy came up from behind me and stuck a knife right here (pointing to his neck). We got robbed in poker games lots of times. One of my favorite stories is when we were playing down in Austin in a big game. There were three or four games set up inside this house. All of a sudden, windows started breaking and guys with ski masks and shotguns came in through the windows and bound us all up. They put us up against the wall and made us drop our pants down to our ankles. Then, they took our money. One guy with a gun said, 'We really don't have time to strip search y'all. I want you to give us all your money. We're going to take three or four of you and search you and if we find you hiding anything we're going to blow your leg off.' I can remember one guy saying, 'Hey good buddy, you missed $400 right here!' Another one hollered out, 'Don't forget this $600 right here, good buddy!' After that, they put us up against the wall --- they always think I'm the biggest guy there, so I get picked on. One guy with a double-barrel shotgun turned me around and said, 'Alright, who runs this poker game?' I'm not a snitch so I answered, 'I don't know.' He didn't like that so he took his shotgun and hit me in the stomach with it. Then, he said, 'Who runs this poker game?' Again, I just answered, 'Sir, I don't know.' So next, he took the shotgun and hit me right upside the head, like wham! He said, 'Who runs this poker game?' I said again, 'I don't know.' He had one of those old fashioned shotguns where you cock it. So he cocked both barrels and put it right here between my eyes said, 'I'm going to ask you one last time -- who runs this poker game?' And I said, 'That guy right over there!'
DALLA: (Laughing) In another interview we once did together, I asked you about the first time you remember playing Texas hold'em. You said you first saw the game down at Lake Granbury in the late 50s. Can you tell us that story and explain how you mastered the game?
BRUNSON: This bootlegger had a big poker game at Lake Granbury, which is about 50 miles south of Fort Worth. They were all playing Texas hold'em -- which I'd never really played before. I'd always played games like Lowball, War, and Stud. I don't know why I got the hang of it so easily, as opposed to most people. Within a week, I was the best player in all the hold'em games. It was just a natural thing for me.
DALLA: There were no poker books back in those days. Did you play in a game, then go back home and think about what you had done and try to discover ways to improve?
BRUNSON: Today, there's a computer program called Poker Probe. But back in those days, there were no computers -- so I did all the strategy work manually. I dealt out a hand here. I put another hand there. I just kept doing it thousands and thousands of times, over and over. It got to where I was a lot more advanced in this game than most people. Everybody today knows what I learned back then because it's in all the poker books. But nobody knew the right way to play back in those days. After every game, (Amarillo) Slim and I would go to a Roadway Inn and get twin beds. Then we'd lay there awake all night and talk about the poker games and about different situations. You know, a lot of people don't know that about Slim -- what a great student of the game he was. Today, a lot of folks say Slim didn't know how to play. But let me tell you brother, Slim does know how to play. I also learned from Johnny Moss -- who was the best poker player in the world at that time. I got to watching him and studying him. So, if I had a mentor, it was Johnny Moss. Again, here's another guy -- Johnny Moss was a great player back in his day. When he was 50, I thought he was the best player I'd ever seen. And then he reached 70 and 80, and he lost it. Everybody said he wasn't a good player -- and I sure don't want that to happen to me. And I'm now getting to that age (70).
Note: Coming up in Part Two, Doyle Brunson talks about his later years, his views on spirituality, and what it takes to be a great poker player.
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