Doyle Brunson was 29 years old when doctors told him he had three months to live.
It was 1962 and Brunson was living in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife, Louise, who was three months pregnant with the couple’s first child. The two were married in August of that year and Brunson was already playing poker for a living around Texas, having left his job selling business machines behind when he cleaned out his colleagues for more than a month’s salary in a seven-card stud game in one night. He chose the life of a grinder over the life of a salesman.
Then Brunson found a lump in his neck. Antibiotics didn’t help. It kept growing. Doctors told him it would need to come out and that it shouldn’t be a problem. Eight hours of surgery later, they thought differently.
“I can never forget the words,” Brunson said. “He said melanoma is like a black corruption. You can see it with your naked eye.”
The cancer was advanced, frighteningly so. It had progressed upwards from the neck to Brunson’s brain, and downwards too. It was everywhere. His brother had recently passed away from cancer. Now he was being told to get his affairs in order.
In a bid to stay alive long enough to see his daughter born, Brunson was sent to MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston. They had drugs designed to keep people alive, and Louise insisted they go. Doctors operated on Brunson’s neck, removing the lymph nodes. Then they realized something.
His cancer, amazingly, had disappeared.
When doctors told him this incredible news, Brunson suggested that maybe the cancer was never there. Perhaps they’d made a mistake. But no. They’d done the tests. They had the slides. Brunson had had cancer. He didn’t anymore. “They said sometimes they see one or two cases of spontaneous remission,” Brunson said. “They had no explanation for it.”
Six months later, Louise gave birth to their daughter Pamela. Brunson was healthy, rejuvenated, and soon back on the road dominating the southern poker rooms as part of the legendary Texas Rounders. The rest, as they say, is history. Poker’s history.
I tell you all this because this is just one of the many incredible stories from a life synonymous with poker that doesn’t involve poker at all. That story alone could be the plot of a film or documentary. Then add to it sixty years of unbelievable stories from the very top of the poker and gambling world.
Brunson’s a ten-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner. He’s survived cancer (multiple times) and being held at gunpoint (again, multiple times). He was the first player to ever win more than a million bucks playing poker tournaments. He wrote the “bible of poker”, Super/System. His son, Todd, also became a high-stakes poker player without him even knowing. And the golf bets, my lord, the golf bets.
He’s lived a truly remarkable life, but there’s still another chapter to be written.
Right now, there are not one but two film projects in the works chronicling Brunson’s extraordinary existence, one a biopic and the other a documentary. This is incredibly exciting for poker fans around the world, but also surprising. Not because his life isn’t worth depicting or recounting. But because Brunson isn’t a man who has ever craved the spotlight. “If I could, I’d go back to being an anonymous poker player,” he has said.
Yet next year, in 2023, when Brunson turns 90 years old, the Godfather of poker could find himself becoming more famous than he’s ever been before.
The Brunson biopic
In October 2020, Netflix released the highly acclaimed chess miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. It took the world by storm and lit the fuse for a chess boom that’s still a long way from seeing its dust settle (the game is still producing mainstream news stories).
That show got many people in the world thinking the same thing: why the hell don’t we have something like this for poker?
For every fantastic poker movie of the past 25 years (Rounders, Mississippi Grind), there’s been another which missed the mark by miles. But the poker world–for better and for worse–isn’t lacking in incredible storylines. It’s rife with interesting characters, dramatic tension, and rich history. It should be a screenwriter’s goldmine.
In November 2020, I wrote a Twitter thread outlining five true-life poker plotlines that could be turned into films, with a brief plot synopsis and my ideal cast lists for each. To my surprise, the tweet exploded and has since been viewed more than 175,000 times. Cheers.
The top film suggestion on the list? ‘Texas Dolly’, a Doyle Brunson biopic. Here’s how I pitched it:
In the early 1950s, a devastating leg injury crushes the NBA dreams of prodigious college athlete Doyle Brunson (Armie Hammer). He turns to illegal poker games to fuel his competitiveness and soon finds himself on the road with a motley crew of Texan card sharks. Over the next 60 years, Brunson (Russell Crowe) writes the book on poker, wins 10 World Series bracelets, and navigates the online poker boom while becoming the greatest player of all time. At 87, Brunson (Christopher Plummer) decides to step away from the tables, but one final high-stakes game brings the Godfather of poker out of retirement.
Russell Crowe (Doyle Brunson)
Christopher Plummer (older Doyle)
Armie Hammer (younger Doyle)
Tom Hanks (Johnny Moss)
Owen Wilson (Amarillo Slim)
David Koechner (Puggy Pearson)
Timothee Chalamet (Stu Ungar)
Matt Damon (Chip Reese)
Danny McBride (Todd Brunson)
Sounds good, right? Tell me you wouldn’t drop everything and go watch it the minute it was released.
(OK, so not all my casting choices would work today. Christopher Plummer sadly passed away in February 2021, and Armie Hammer…well, the less said about him the better).
Obviously, Brunson’s life story is hardly an unturned stone. Chances are many people have tried to adapt his fantastic 2009 autobiography, The Godfather of Poker, in the past, but for whatever reason, it never made its way to the screen. Perhaps it just hadn’t had the right people behind it.
Perhaps one person who happens to be a former high stakes poker pro turned movie producer and writer, who happened to interact with the Twitter thread when it was published, is exactly the person that this project needed.
Poker fans might know Justin Smith best by his online moniker, “BoostedJ”. At a young age, he rapidly ascended the poker ranks and had incredible success in both live and online cash games with blinds as high as $4,000/$8,000.
But when Black Friday (another poker film suggestion in the thread) stunned the poker world in 2011, particularly players in the United States, Smith began to pursue a different passion. He’d always loved films and began to produce them, soon teaming up with Radar Pictures, a production house led by industry veteran Ted Field that’s developed more than 80 films (including two Jumanji films starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise) with revenue of more than $9 billion.
Smith teased in his comment on the Twitter thread that a poker movie was on the way. Then, in May 2022, Deadline reported that Radar Pictures had secured the rights to Brunson’s story. A biopic coming, and Smith would pen the screenplay.
“The [writing] process is really exciting as I get to text and speak to Doyle on a regular basis,” Smith tells me from his home in Los Angeles. These texts and conversations aren’t his first interactions with Brunson. The two have battled in Bellagio’s Bobby’s Room (or the Legend’s Room, as it’s now known) many times.
In fact, Smith’s poker journey shares some similarities with Texas Dolly’s. Brunson turned to poker after a leg injury crushed his NBA dreams, while Smith suffered a near-fatal motorbike accident during his senior year of high school and was left temporarily wheelchair bound and unable to work. A friend introduced him to low-stakes online poker, and he went from playing penny stakes to battling in the highest echelon of poker.
All this puts Smith in a unique position to tell this tale. “[Brunson’s life] is a classic American story,” he says. “There aren’t many more worthwhile stories left to tell from the mid-century, but we are bringing one of the last truly incredible ones to light here.
“Even people who know Doyle as I do are going to be moved by this script.”
Smith also told us that there’s going to be some exciting news regarding the film very soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
The Doyle documentary
At the time of writing, less is known about the documentary project, but what we do know is extremely exciting.
In September 2021, Brunson himself revealed on Twitter that a documentary of his life was currently in production. Moreover, he revealed that the same people who made the exemplary Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance for Netflix were behind it.
Although we’ve heard nothing more about the project since, this was thrilling news. Not only was The Last Dance a ten-part event that got massive ratings and the entire world talking in 2020 (and frankly, the mere thought of having something similar about Brunson and poker no doubt titillates us all). It was also expertly crafted and superbly made.
Jason Hehir was the man who brought that documentary to our screens, and while there’s no confirmation he’s working on the Brunson project, it stands to reason–based on Brunson’s tweet–that he’s at the very least involved.
Hehir has spent the majority of his career bringing sports stories to the masses, from his work on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (The Fab Five, The ‘85 Bears, Down in the Valley, Bernie and Ernie, Shark), to his beautifully realised Andre the Giant documentary for HBO. He’s now a master of the craft.
And interest in the craft in question–sports documentaries–only continues to increase. In May 2021, Parrot Analytics—a media-tracking company that measures audience demand with a formula that accounts for streams, search-engine traffic, illegal downloads, and social media—produced data for The Ringer showing that while true crime was the biggest documentary subgenre, sports documentaries were the fastest growing, predominantly down to The Last Dance alone.
Our collective appetite for long-form documentary storytelling isn’t going to be ruined any time soon. Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers, a ten-part docuseries, was released on Hulu in August. The Redeem Team, which tells the story of the USA Men’s basketball team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, will be released on Netflix in October. Hopefully, it won’t be long until we see Brunson’s story on the ‘coming soon’ lists.
We don’t know when the Brunson documentary will be completed, or when the biopic will begin shooting. We don’t know on which streaming service either will land. But if either project is anywhere near as good as we all hope they will be, there’s a very good chance poker could enjoy its own Queen’s Gambit-like boom.
And Doyle Brunson will be 90 years old when he reaffirms himself as poker’s most beloved figure.
“I come from a long line of livers, on my mother’s side,” Brunson said. “Most of ‘em lived to their nineties and some of ‘em into the hundreds. I’ve always tried to stay mentally alert, and I just love playing, so I kept playing.”
Feature illustration photo courtesy Creative Commons user: flipchip