Doyle Brunson, poker's legendary 'Texas Dolly,' passes at 89

Doyle Brunson
Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: May 14, 2023 16:37 PDT

The poker world is in mourning after the death of one of the game's legends, Doyle Brunson, on Sunday. The iconic "Texas Dolly," also widely known as the "Godfather of Poker," passed away in Las Vegas. Brunson, a Poker Hall of Famer, leaves behind one of poker's largest imprints after a famed professional career that spanned well over a half century.

Brunson's son, Todd, confirmed Doyle's passing on social media, even as he spread the word to family and friends. No cause of death has been disclosed.

Doyle Brunson 's impact on the game stands without parallel, from his early days as a Texas road gambler and his arrival in Las Vegas, where he became one of the stars of the burgeoning game. He was part of the scene when tournament poker first came into public awareness, while also holding down a seat for decades in the famed "Big Game" held at the Bellagio and in other Vegas rooms.

Besides his immense success as a player, Brunson contributed to the game in other ways. He was one of poker's first true authors, and he self-published one of the seminal strategy books on the game, Super/System. The massive book offered insights into several prominent poker variants and was often referred to as the Bible of Poker, and it changed the game, as other players learned and implemented the secrets of Brunson's aggressive tactics at the table.

Brunson repeatedly told the world that he regretted writing the book, but that didn't stop him from issuing a follow-up, Super System 2, decades later. He also wrote or contributed to seven other books, some on poker strategy and others biographical in nature.

Brunson wasn't one of the charter members of the Poker Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1979, but that was because he helped create the framework for the hall, working with legendary Binion's Horseshoe owner Benny Binion. Doyle's own enshrinement occurred in 1988, answering the question of not if, but when. In 2016 his son Todd also entered the Hall, making the Brunsons the only father-son combo to be honored.

Early sports success for Longworth, Texas native

Doyle Brunson was born on August 10, 1933, in rural Longworth, Texas, an unincorporated community located west of Abilene. Brunson was so talented at sports that he made Texas's all-state boy's basketball team while also winning a state title in track in the mile run. Brunson turned down numerous college offers from across the county in preference to staying close to home, where he studied and played basketball at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene.

Brunson starred at Hardin-Simmons, and he was being looked at by the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers when personal tragedy struck in the form of a workplace injury that shattered his right leg. The injury ended his dreams of a pro basketball career and left him with a lifelong limp. He was able to walk longer distances only with the aid of a crutch. In later years, Brunson's motorized cart was an everyday sight at the venues where he played cards.

Brunson continued to study toward his degree and graduated with a degree in education administration in 1954. He worked briefly as a school principal and as a salesman, and it was soon after he began the sales job that he realized what opportunites a lifetime in poker might offer. On one of his first sales calls, he was invited to join a game, and he won more money at the table in a single session than his sales job was to pay him for a month's work.

The Texas road-gambler days

Doyle Brunson's full-time poker career soon became reality with years of play in illegal, underground games throughout Texas and neighboring states. Brunson first traveled with a poker friend, Dwayne Hamilton, and he later joined forces with two other eventual HOF enshrinees, Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston and Bryan "Sailor" Roberts.

The players survived the perils of the Texas poker scene, doing well enough that Brunson, Preston, and Roberts decided to pool their bankrolls and try to beat the games in Las Vegas, where poker had begun to explode. Instead, they went broke, though each of the three eventually found his way to Vegas for a successful poker career.

The WSOP era begins

Brunson was already a fixture in the Vegas poker scene when Benny Binion created the World Series of Poker in 1970. Binion invited seven elite Vegas poker pros to take part in a high-stakes cash game. Brunson was one of the seven invitees, as were Preston and Roberts. Since it wasn't a tournament (it was changed to a freezeout tourney the following year), the seven players simply voted on who played the best. The honor -- in the form of a loving cup -- went to the Grand Old Man of Poker, Johnny Moss.

Brunson was actually the last of the three Texas road-gambler friends to win the WSOP Main Event when he captured the title in 1976. Preston was named the winner in 1972, reportedly as part of an unofficial deal involving Brunson, while Roberts claimed the 1975 title.

For Brunson, though, it was just the start. He became the Main Event's second repeat winner, after Moss, by again taking down the tourney in 1977, and he nearly won it a third time in 1980, when Stuey "The Kid" Ungar won the first of his own three Main Event titles.

As the WSOP expanded its schedule of events, Brunson played many of them and won more of them than any other player. By the time the 1970s ended, Brunson had won six bracelet events. By 2005, when he won his last WSOP title, Brunson was the first player to reach 10 bracelet wins. He'd eventually be tied by Johnny Moss, Phil Hellmuth and later, Phil Ivey, though Hellmuth has since moved well clear of other bracelet winners with his current total of 16. Yet it was Brunson who was, for decades, the WSOP's all-time bracelet leader.

By 1980, Brunson had topped the $1 million mark in lifetime WSOP cashes, becoming the first player to do so. Brunson earned just over $3 million in his decades at the WSOP , or roughly half of his total of $6.17 million in total lifetime earnings . His cash-game earnings, of course, were likely several times that total.

The Godfather of Poker was also one of only 10 players who cashed in a WSOP bracelet in each of the WSOP's first five calendar decades, the 1970s through the 2010s. Three players -- Perry Green, Billy Baxter, and Mickey Appleman -- have since cashed in a bracelet event this decade, extending the record to six.

Other notable achievements mark Brunson's long poker career

Doyle Brunson's imprint on poker stretches far beyond the WSOP. He also found time to win a major World Poker Tour (WPT) title in 2004 at the Legends of Poker, at Los Angeles's Bell Gardens Casino. Brunson's winner's payday of $1,198,260 was the largest cash of his lengthy career.

Last June, Brunson returned to the WPT family with a brand ambassadorship deal that would've seen Brunson appear at various WPT stops in branded gear. The WPT offered its own condolences after learning of Texas Dolly's passing.

Brunson even forayed into online poker in the early 2000s along with dozens of other established Vegas pros. The Brunson-fronted Doyle's Room was founded on the Tribeca (later Playtech) Network in 2004, and seemed destined to become a leading online room. In 2006, Brunson reportedly turned down a $235 million offer for his stake in the business.

It was a rare moment of bad timing; later in 2006, Doyle's Room became one of the former US-facing sites most impacted by the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), when the Tribeca/Playtech network abandoned the US market. Doyle's Room then bounced from network to network trying to stay available to its core audience of US-based players before closing for good in 2011.

Brunson's awards and accolades are far too numerous to list. One distinctive honor has yet to reach fruition, and that's being the subject of a boipic. Last year, former poker pro and current film/TV producer Justin "BoostedJ" Smith announced a deal with Brunson to create such a film, after such a project had been talked about in movie-industry circles for years.

Smith's plans for the film remain on track despite Brunson's passing.

Brunson survived long odds for decades

The poker world was blessed to have Brunson around for many decades. The future legend of the game encountered far more health hardships than his life-changing leg injury. Brunson met his future wife, Louise, in 1959, and the two were married three years later. Louise soon became pregnant with the couple's first child, daughter Doyla, but a cancerous tumor was found on Doyle's neck during a separate health exam. Brunson was deemed terminally ill, but surgeons removed as much tumor as they could in the hopes of extending his life long enough to see his baby's birth.

Instead, Brunson's cancer disappeared, which he and his family attributed to prayer. Doyla Brunson died at age 19, but the Brunsons later had two other childen, Todd and Pamela. They and Doyle's wife Louise survive.

Doyle's near-fatal battle with cancer in 1963 turned out to be just the first of several such health crises. In 2020, Brunson posted on his @TexDolly Twitter account that he'd been declared cancer-free for the fourth time in his life. Whether or not a form of cancer contributed to his passing, as noted earlier, remains undisclosed.

Feature image source: Jayne Furman/PokerPhotoArchive