Sunday’s activities at the 2023 World Series of Poker included an event not originally on the series’ slate, as hundreds of friends and family of the “Godfather of Poker”, Doyle Brunson, came to the Horseshoe’s Jubilee Theater to take part in a “Celebration of Life” in Brunson’s honor.
Brunson passed away in mid-May, and while the family already held a private ceremony, the Celebration of Life in Brunson’s honor was quickly pulled together under the direction of his long-time agent, Poker Royalty’s Brian Balsbaugh.
The ceremony literally drew in poker royalty, with top pros and industry giants on hand to take part in the hour-long tribute. The celebration covered the entirety of Brunson’s life, with the natural focus being Brunson’s unmatchable contributions to the game. Brunson was poker’s first 10-time WSOP bracelet winner, added a WPT title, anchored the highest-stakes cash games in Las Vegas for decades, wrote several books, and was a prominent part of poker in many ways.
An upcoming documentary on Brunson’s life, produced by poker-pro-turned-filmmaker Justin “BoostedJ” Smith, remains in the works. Clips from the documentary were also featured at today’s celebration in Brunson’s honor.
Poker veterans take turns sharing anecdotes from Brunson’s life
Balsbaugh’s welcoming comments to the celebration’s attendees included some of his own memories of working with the game’s most iconic player. “I believe he wants to be remembered as the person who set the standard that all future poker players should be measured against, “Balsbaugh told the attendees. “We’re incredibly excited to have you here today.” Balsbaugh also extended a special thank-you to Jack Binion, one of the many luminaries in attendance.
Balsbaugh then turned the mic over to several prominent pros and industry figures shared some of their own favorite memories of their times with Brunson, whether at the tables, on the golf course, or in other activities they shared with Tex Dolly. Dewey Tomko, Mori Eskandani, Gabe Kaplan, Lyle Berman, Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Doyle’s son, Todd Brunson, all spoke for a few minutes, interspersed with two brief tribute videos produced by the World Poker Tour and Balsbaugh’s Poker Royalty agency.
First to speak in Brunson’s honor was his longtime poker and golf friend Dewey Tomko. Tomko, like Brunson, comes from a deeply religious background, and he shared the tale of how Brunson got permission from Jack Binion to run Bible-study groups for poker players. Tomko said, “He would spend “$5,000 to $10,000 a day bringing these famous preachers in, [put] them in a nice hotel  to have Bible studies. Well, we started off with about 10 or 20. It grew to 200 or 300 over the years. One of the things I remember about the six o’clock-to-seven o’clock study every day, we would get up from the table to go to the Bible study, come back at seven o’clock. People [would] scream and ask, ‘Where [are you going]?. All the losers are still sitting there waiting for us.’ This lasted for a pretty long time, a couple of years.”
Tomko also detailed how Doyle and his wife, Louise, helped build clean-water wells in Africa at a funding cost of $1,500 each. Some of the wells came to be named after famous poker people, so people were getting water from a Brunson Well or a Binion Well, or even a Tomko Well, even though Tomko had nothing to do with it.
Eskandani: ‘We lost the legend’
Next up was PokerGO President Mori Eskandani, another long-time friend of Brunson’s. “We didn’t lose a legend, we lost the legend,” Eskandani told the assemblage. Eskandani shared a story regarding Brunson’s character. Despite Brunson’s handicap — a shattered leg in a workplace accident ended his chances at an NBA career and left using a crutch to walk for nearly seven decades — he didn’t expect others to cater to his disability.
Eskandani told of filming a commercial including Brunson that involved other actors being placed in front of a nautically-themed background while on a platform ten feet in the air. The other actors climbed a ladder to the platform, but Eskandani had arranged a separate chair for Brunson and planned to film him against a green screen, then edit him into the footage. Brunson would have none of it; he climbed out of his chair, tossed aside his crutch, and climbed up the ladder to join the others.
Kaplan: Doyle’s book cost him $35 million
Next to speak was actor and poker commentator Gabe Kaplan, who recently retired from his own gig as the co-commentator of “High Stakes Poker”. Kaplan began his show-business career as a stand-up comedian, and for those in the audience expecting a splash of humor, he didn’t disappoint.
“We’re here to celebrate his life, his legacy, his wit, his charm, the ‘Big Papa’. Never anybody like him. And never will be anybody like him again. If you knew you loved him. And if you knew him really well, you knew that there was another side, not quite so lovable. And I saw that side, especially. You’re trying to make a golf match on the first tee; I’m not saying that guy was a tough bargainer, but if he was a hostage negotiator, there’d be a lot of dead people.”
Kaplan shared a few more laughs with the audience, then brought up how when they first met, Brunson gave him a copy of his strategy book, Super/System, as a token of friendship. It came with a nice inscription, too, and Kaplan said, “So thank you very much, it was a great gesture. That $100 book in the last 40 years has cost me $35 million.”
Berman, Hellmuth add personal memories
Each of the speakers at the celebration shared memories that for the most part, hadn’t been widely shared with the public. World Poker Tour financier Lyle Berman, another long-time friend of Brunson’s, recounted the time at the Commerce Club in Los Angeles where he encountered Brunson dining with three other older gentlemen. Later on, chatting with Brunson in general, Berman remarked about one of the thing he always wanted to do in poker was to meet celebrity actor/poker player James Garner, best known for his lead role in “Maverick”.
Brunson responded, “I introduced him [Garner] to you at lunch today.”
Next to speak was Hellmuth, just hours removed from winning his record-extending 17th WSOP gold bracelet. A short-on-sleep Hellmuth wasn’t about to miss the ceremony, and he told the audience that to him, Doyle was “like an oasis”, a calming presence in the vast poker sea. He then switched gears and related how Brunson kept on bluffing Hellmuth off pots through the decades, even at age 89. “I’ll miss you,” Hellmuth said in Brunson’s honor. “But I’m not sure I’ll miss being bluffed by you.”
Daniel Negreanu: Doyle was highly educated, was a ‘solver’ before solvers
The next-to-last speaker at the ceremony was “Kid Poker”, Daniel Negreanu. Negreanu reiterated Eskandani’s line that Doyle Brunson wasn’t a legend, but was the legend instead. Negreanu also focused on Brunson’s unmatchable durability. “For someone like Doyle to be able to do it, decade after decade, and continue to be not just playing in the biggest games but still winning, is something that I think we can all admire and aspire to do.
“And you know, when you think of the Poker Hall of Fame, I think one of the key aspects that Doyle always stuck to and I think Dewey mentioned, this was just standing the test of time. He’s the barometer.”
Negreanu also detailed how the “highly educated” Brunson was a solver before “solvers” existed for poker. “We think about what’s available today to learn how to play, poker-solver data; this man was the solver. He took a pen and paper and dealt out hands and figured out, like, pocket tens is a favorite over ace-king.” Negreanu also professed that even in his late eighties, Brunson was still improving as a poker player, still “learning new tricks.”
Todd Brunson wraps the celebration
The last guest speaker to take the podium was his son Todd, who kept the mood light. One dig went Hellmuth’s way when he said, about Hellmuth winning his 17th bracelet just hours earlier, “Hellmuth] couldn’t stand that my dad had this big event for him.”
Dewey Tomko caught some shade as well, when Todd Brunson recalled his many days of accompanying dad Doyle to the golf course and watching when Doyle played up to 54 holes of golf a day in the heat of the Vegas summer. That might then turn into a poker session lasting until three in the morning at a Vegas casino. “He would send me him with some flunky…,” then dropped Tomko’s name, leading to riotous laughter from the celebration’s attendees.
Todd Brunson then told a more serious tale from the early days of online poker, years before Doyle’s Room came into existence. Doyle Brunson owned a large stake, 40% according to Todd, in one of the first online-poker rooms ever launched, Highlands Club Poker. The room utilized the Planet Poker software, which was later shown to be non-random, and Highlands players, including Doyle’s close friend Chip Reese, may have been cheated.
As Todd Brunson told today’s gathering, the site also suffered from internal graft, including the commingling of operating funds with player deposits. Highlands Poker soon went under, owing its player base hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite owning only 40% of the company, Doyle Brunson stepped up to make sure the site’s players were made whole.
Doyle Brunson Day?
With the guest speakers finished, celebration host Brian Balsbaugh returned to the podium to thank all those who attended the ceremony. Balsbaugh offered a few details about a gift presented to each ceremony attendee: a special deck of 52 playing cards called “Doyle Brunson: Celebration of Life”, with the details about the event.
Each card in the unique deck offers one of 52 different “Doyle-isms”, as Balbaugh described it, and the deck contains 26 tens and 26 deuces, in honor of the “10-2” hand that became one of Doyle Brunson’s most favored hands.
Balsbaugh also proposed that there be an annual “Doyle Day” to be celebrated throughout the poker world. “I’d like to propose that October 2, the 10th month and the second day, is hereby known as Doyle Day,” Balsbaugh offered. He asked for a second for his offhand motion, got several, then held an unofficial voice vote. “We should just honor his life every year on October 2.”
Featured image source: Haley Hintze