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Doyle Brunson, pistol-carrying poker legend who won millions, dies at 89

Mr. Brunson’s career began in smoky backrooms in the 1950s. He later won 10 World Series of Poker tournaments, including two Main Event titles.

Mr. Brunson in 2013. He was one of the game's most influential players. (John Locher/AP)
6 min

Doyle Brunson, a pistol-packing poker legend nicknamed “Texas Dolly” who dominated high-stakes games for 70 years, first in smoky backrooms where gunfire occasionally erupted and then later (and legally) on cable television at the World Series of Poker, died on May 14 at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 89.

His agent, Brian Balsbaugh, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

The arc of Mr. Brunson’s career parallels poker’s history in America, from illicitly out of sight to mainstream entertainment.

Ranked by Bluff magazine as the most influential player in history, Mr. Brunson won 10 World Series of Poker tournaments, including Main Event titles in 1976 and 1977. He was the first player to win $1 million in tournament play and finished his career with $6.2 million in live earnings — though that’s just what he made in public view.

Until recently, Mr. Brunson also played in private games with staggering stakes, sometimes winning (or losing) millions of dollars a month. His wife more than occasionally found him exasperating.

“But this is what I do,” he told Texas Monthly last year. “It’s what I’ve always done. And if I drop dead at the table in the middle of a monster pot, hell, I’ll die a happy man.”

In the early 1950s, he played in the backrooms of bars and other adult establishments in a seedy neighborhood along Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth.

“Exchange Avenue was maybe the most dangerous street in America,” he explained to Texas Monthly. “There was nothing out there but thieves and pimps and killers. It was amazing.”

Mr. Brunson always packed a pistol. (Asked if he had ever used it, he answered, “No comment.”) One night, someone interrupted a game, put a loaded gun to a player’s head and fired. Mr. Brunson took off with his chips and hid in a creek.

On another night, this time in Austin, armed bandits busted in, took the cash off the table and lined the gamblers up against a wall, ordering them to drop their pants. The bandits threatened that if players were hiding money, their legs would be blown off.

Suddenly, the players began throwing $100 bills on the floor.

Mr. Brunson was philosophical about the mayhem.

“You have to have absolutely no regard for money,” he told the New York Times. “You have to look at it as action and the money as units. What you’re trying to do is win as many units as possible.”

Mr. Brunson eventually joined up with other players, traveling throughout Texas to play in private games with doctors, lawyers and other professionals where there was ever more money at stake — and certainly less violence.

In the early 1960s, he moved to Las Vegas, where poker was thriving. He played in the first World Series of Poker event in 1970.

A few years later, World Series events began to be televised. ESPN began broadcasting events in the 1980s, and interest grew steadily. Mr. Brunson became one of the game’s most familiar faces, a cowboy hat always fit tight on his head. He was fabulously wealthy, reportedly investing millions to raise the Titanic and find Noah’s ark.

Mr. Brunson also wrote several books on poker, including “Doyle Brunson’s Super System,” in which he described his methods. The book, and a later follow-up, became the sport’s bible, appearing in the opening scenes of the gambling movie “Rounders” (1998) starring Matt Damon.

“More than any other game,” he wrote, “poker depends on your understanding your opponent. You’ve got to know what makes him tick. More importantly, you’ve got to know what makes him tick at the moment you’re involved in a pot with him. What’s his mood … his feeling? What’s his apparent psychological frame of mind right now?”

The neck is the best place to look for a tell.

“On a lot of people, the pulse in the neck is visible,” he wrote. “If so, a man can’t hide it, since nobody can control their heartbeat in [stressful] situations. When you see a man’s neck just throbbing away, you know he’s excited, and usually he’s excited because he is bluffing.”

Doyle Frank Brunson was born on Aug. 10, 1933, in Longworth, Tex., a rural farming town consisting of a few houses, a general store and no indoor plumbing. His father worked at a gin manufacturer and secretly, Doyle later found out, played poker to finance his children’s college educations. His mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Brunson excelled at sports, primarily basketball and track. At Hardin-Simmons University, a Baptist-affiliated school in Abilene, Tex., he starred on the basketball team and played poker with friends on Saturday nights.

After graduating in 1954, he stayed at Hardin-Simmons and received a master’s degree in education. He got a job selling business equipment. On his first day at work, he stumbled on a poker game.

“It was a Seven-Stud game where I cleared a month’s salary in something less than three hours,” he wrote in “Super System.” “‘My God,’ I thought, ‘what am I doing trying to sell machines nobody wants to buy from me when I can sit down at a poker table and make ten times the money in one-sixth the time?’”

He quit and headed for Exchange Avenue.

In 1962, he married Louise Carter, a pharmacist, at a funeral home where his brother-in-law worked. “The chapel was lovely,” Mr. Brunson told Texas Monthly.

Survivors include his wife; their children Todd and Pamela Brunson; a stepdaughter, Cheryl Carter; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Brunson was a master at figuring out tells.

“Once I had a tell on Puggy Pearson,” he wrote in “Super System.” “Every time he put his chips in the rack and bet them, he was bluffing. He must have been doing that six months before somebody else discovered it and told him.”

But he was equally adept at bluffing.

“All top professionals have a defense against people using tells against them,” Mr. Brunson wrote. “Sometimes when I’m bluffing I say some particular thing, like ‘gee whiz,’ so that people will connect that with [a] bluff. But the next time I say ‘gee whiz,’ I won’t be bluffing.”