It’s been a few weels since the passing of the Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson, who was in all likelihood the greatest legend poker has produced. Doyle’s passing at age 89 was a stunner to the poker world, though he had survived numerous serious health issues in earlier years and his death wasn’t sudden or unexpected, as you’ll understand later on.
Poker agent Brian Balsbaugh announced Brunson’s death on social media and Doyle’s son Todd quickly confirmed it, though they didn’t offer additional details our of a desire for privacy by the family. Todd later had to post a notice telling people who wanted to be informed about when and where services and remembrances would be held, to back off, as if their desires outweighed the family’s wishes.
For the most part, however, those that knew Doyle have been civil and respectful. While it’s entirely possible that Doyle succumbed to some form of cancer after already beating serious forms of the disease on four previous occasions, it ultimately doesn’t matter. He lived a long full live, he accomplished and experienced a lot more than most of us ever will, and in the end, time comes for all of us. Requiescat in pace.
In the days and weeks since Brunson’s passing, so many of the people that knew him well have shared stories from their past. I’d like to have had something like that to share as well, but I knew him enough to say hi or take a photo, and not much more than that. The last time I saw him at the WSOP, he gave me a big smile and a fist bump, but he was busy playing in an event and I didn’t want to take much of his time.
Truth was, Doyle wasn’t at the WSOP that often in his later years and when he was, he was the center of attention, often being bothered. Despite being “media”, I’ve always shied away from situations where I didn’t really have a purpose or a sense for being there.
So I don’t have any great Doyle stories, just a couple of small memories. One time, back around 2009 or so, he damn near picked me off with the motorized cart he used to ride around the Rio Convention Center to get to and from the tables. Doyle had to use the cart to get around; he couldn’t walk for long distances for most of his life, after the devastating workplace injury that ended his dreams of a pro basketball career.
In the hallways of the Rio, one had to be a little bit aware of the folks on carts, like Doyle or TJ Cloutier or, a little later, Mike Matusow. This one time, I wasn’t. Near the Rotunda area outside the Miranda room, and headed up the slightly sloped hallway toward the Rio casino proper, I was in a pretty solid flow of people walking up that hallway.
Suddenly, a man in front of me stopped and pivoted to his right. Thinking not much of it, I swerved to the left to get around him. And just as I did, Doyle’s cart came whooshing by, which I never heard approaching. Doyle swerved to miss me, too — and miss me he did, buy a few inches — but yeah, it was close. Those little carts are speedy enough.
Then there was the era when everybody and their cousins were involved with an online poker room in some way. Doyle, of course, was one of the primary owner’s of Doyle’s Room, an early prominent skin on the then-US-facing Tribeca Network. In 2006, which was, incidentally, the first year I attended and worked at the WSOP, there was a wedding ceremony of sorts, between Doyle and “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson, who had signed up to be the face of another Tribeca site called Pamela Poker.
So they had this mock wedding ceremony thing with Doyle and Pamela, and well, at times Doyle sat there with this strange bemused look on his face, as if he couldn’t quite believe all the nonsense himself. 2006 was the absolute height of the promotional silliness regarding online poker sites invading the WSOP, including the notorious red-satin Bodog boudier and the mock red-satin pillow fights. You really had to see some of this stuff to believe it.
Anyhow, the Pamela Poker thing didn’t go well, and it of course ran smack-dab into the passage of the UIGEA in late 2006. Pamela up and left the thing just a few months later, ending their “marriage”. In parting, she declared that a lot of online poker was shady but she still loved Brunson.
Doyle had a chance to get really, really rich from the Doyle’s Room operation, but he turned down an offer for some ridiculous amount, like $325 million, to sell out his interest in the room. Just a few weeks later the UIGEA hit and the reality that the foundation underneath international online-poker sites was rickety was revealed for all to see.
Doyle didn’t miss many bets, but as he told others, he thought he’d get even more money for his Doyle’s Room stake if he wauted. He was wrong, and the room was doomed to a nomadic existence on several networks before its plug was finally pulled.
Followng Doyle’s passing, there have been a few truly funny tales that have emerged. One of those came from Ben Lamb, who like so many other hundreds of golf-loving poker pros, got to spend some time on the links with Brunson. Now, this may come as a shock to you, but when poker players take to the course, they gamble a lot, and the PGA rulebook generally doesn’t get brought out.
Cigar Aficianado ran a wonderful piece quite a few years ago about the nexus between golf and the high-stakes poker world and golf, with lots of craziness and lots of poker names you’ll recognize. There was another piece from CA which I haven’t been able to locate that focused on a high-stakes match between Russ Hamilton and a poker publisher, in which Hamilton won the equivalent of a “nice house”, all while playing with 17 or 18 clubs in his bag (the official limit is 14) and some altered and illegal clubs among them.
That story mentioned Hamilton’s use of a doctored wedge with sharpened grooves that he could use to spin and stop the ball on the greens from otherwise impossible lies. Another common theme among poker pros playing golf was the use of grease (usually petroleum jelly or somesuch), which they’d wipe into the grooves to create a smooth, frictionless face. Hit a ball with a greased iron and the ball flies straight, or at least hooks or slices a lot less than it would otherwise.
A club with sharpened grooves? Yep, Doyle had one of those, and that’s where Ben Lamb’s tale came up in the days following Doyle’s passing. Here’s what Lamb shared:
“Doyle had a 64 degree wedge that he had reworked the grooves to be… less than legal… something everyone used back in the day. He called his ‘Old Groovy’. Heard legends of this wedge spinning backwards out or down hill lies in the rough.
“Would destroy a ball in one pitch shot. About ten years ago he was telling me about it and I asked him he played golf anymore. He said not really. I then asked him if I could have it. Told him I would give ‘Old Groovy’ a good home. He said sure.
“Knowing how forgetful poker players can be. I threw him 3 black chips. He said ‘No, it’s yours for free’. I said ‘This is for the wedge. Every time I see you and you haven’t given me the wedge you have to give me 1 black chip back.’ He laughed and said ‘I’ll bring it tomorrow.’
“We were playing again the next day so assumed I would get it then. He forgot it. We all laughed and I needled him as I collected my first black chip. He forgot it about 15 more times after this. I really wasn’t wanting the black chips I wanted ‘Old Groovy’.
“During the next couple of years it was prob about 4k total I collected. I would be at dinner at Bellagio and just swing by the poker room to see if he was there to collect another black chip. He would get so tilted. It was great.
“One day he brought in 3 to 4 other clubs. Including his prized putter. He had lost ‘Old Groovy’. Couldn’t find it. I finally let him buy out of the deal. I would def give all those black chips back for that wedge.”
That’s just a wonderful tale, worth preserving, and far more insightful into the nature of high-stakes gamblers than most non-degens would ever realize.
Another thing about Brunson is that his wit and humor were sharp and legendary, and even in death, it helped others laugh. Scott Seiver shared his own little Doyle tale, and his friend Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris gave it an A+ twist. And Doyle, as far as I know, would’ve loved the dig:
“One thing I’ll always remember is the biggest compliment in my mind that he ever paid me, the time when he said that of everyone in my generation he thought only me and @JasonMercier would’ve been able to make it as a Texas road gambler and survive/thrive. I still think about it,” Seiver posted.
Then Voulgaris got him:
“You’re like the 20th person I’ve heard tell the same story. Part of being a good Texas Road Gambler is knowing how to handle your marks.”
Even in passing, however, Brunson kept the last laugh for himself. A few days after his passing, his son Todd posted a couple of posthumous Tweets from Doyle on Doyle’s @TexasDolly account. The first was somber, the second one not so much:
“Just cashed in my chips but before I walk out that door one last time, I just wanted to tell you all how much I loved this poker world. I didn’t want to go yet, was actually planning to play some events this summer….
“But when I saw the mark up @MikeMatusow was charging for the 10k O/8 event… my heart just gave out! Be kind to one another. I’ll save you all a seat in Dolly’s game in Heaven.”
That’s a fitting way to head out, indeed. Thanks for the memories, Doyle.
Image source: Haley Hintze