Poker Book Club #1: Jaime Staples on The Godfather of Poker

Jaime Staples
Posted on: February 7, 2024 03:55 PST

The 2024 Poker Book Club is underway and the first title is in the bag. Jamie will bring you his thoughts on each book here, but it's never too late to join the club yourself.

Each month a new book will have its own thread on Discord, where you can read and discuss through the month. You can read as much or as little as you want – it's the taking part that counts, and the community is growing all the time. You can get involved here . February's book is The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman.

Doyle Brunson: Godfather of Poker

Book #1: The Godfather of Poker – Doyle Brunson & Mike Cochran

Our first entry in the poker book club is the autobiography of Doyle Brunson, the most famous player in poker’s history. If you asked a random person on the street to name a poker player, Doyle is one of the first they’d mention. “Who's that guy, something Dolly? Texas Dolly? The godfather. . . yeah, him.”

Doyle’s story begins in the small town of Roby, Texas. It’s still a small town today; the population stands at just less than 600 (go on Google Maps and look around, it’s still not paved). We are at the height of the depression, there is no indoor plumbing or creature comforts, and out of this seeming void comes the most famous poker player of all time.

The early years

We follow Doyle through his childhood and teenage years at school, where he’s a star athlete playing baseball, running track, and quickly becoming a local basketball star. He has dreams of turning professional, but has to rethink his plans when his leg is crushed in an industrial accident. And so he becomes Doyle the poker player, gambling for a living on Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas.

This is a tough street, in a largely self-policed area where people meet to gamble, and where shootouts and robberies are a part of life. The games are filled with the toughest people in town, and Doyle shares first-hand accounts of the everyday dangers poker players have to face.

From Texas to Las Vegas

It’s not his forever home, though, and soon Doyle starts playing further out of town, eventually making it to Las Vegas. The book explores Doyle’s early years in Vegas, with his friend Benny Binion running the Horseshoe Casino. Back then it was a mob town, and Doyle explains how careful you had to be to make sure you didn’t anger the wrong people (the guys who inspired the mobsters in the movie Casino were regular fixtures in Doyle’s life).

If someone wanted to cut into your business, you had to either let them or take on the risks of physical danger that came along with standing up to them. Doyle was good at making friends, and had enough of them in the right places to do okay for himself. His stories of how he survived those early years, before the game was relatively straight, make for a really interesting high stakes tale.

We also get to learn about the World Series of Poker and its origins. As well as a first-hand account of Doyle’s back-to-back wins in the Main Event, we get to see how the WSOP grew from a simple idea to drum up publicity and get new players into the Horseshoe, into the most important competition our game has.

Doyle Brunson 1976 Doyle Brunson at the 1976 WSOP

A gambler, through and through

Doyle's success leads to a full-time gambler's lifestyle with everything that entails, from the high stakes golf games that take up so much of his time, to various projects and businesses completely outside of poker. Most of them fail, although he does find success in writing Super/System 1 and 2, some of the best-selling poker books of all time.

For me, that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book: Doyle was a gambler, through and through, but he also had these other sides to his life. For example, he lost a daughter when she was just 18, and Doyle talks in the book about how his religion played a big part in coping with that.

As he diversifies and explores other business ventures, Doyle’s projects often lead to him spending months away from the tables. In the end, though, he always comes back home to poker. The book ends with Doyle touching on the most important things to him over his time: his family, his son, daughters and wife; his friend Chip and their times together; and what he thinks it is to live a meaningful life.

Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese Doyle Brunson playing alongside his great friend Chip Reese at the WSOP

The verdict

The first half of the book follows a pretty linear storyline, but the back half starts to feel more like a collection of short stories, tales from the golf course and the type of anecdotes you’d expect to hear at a poker table.

If poker is something you do for fun, this book is sure to be enjoyed. Outrageous and daring moments that can only arise out of sitting at the table with a familiar group of strangers ‘til 4:00am. Only poker, and especially live cash games, can bring about this sort of camaraderie. It’s got the kind of ‘sleepover energy’ that you experience as a kid: the whole world is asleep, but you aren’t, and there could be trouble at any moment.

There are raging emotions and desperate competition, but underneath it all is a shared experience, friendship, and a lot of laughs. If you play poker regularly, you’ll know that feeling, and it comes through on the page.

However, if poker is what you do for a living, if you are a gambler, a lifer, and it’s part of who you are, this book is a must-read.  It’s not just Doyle’s origin story, but it’s partially ours too. Some parts of those Texas road gamblers live on today in the $5/$10 at the Bellagio that’s running right now. The way we talk to each other. The norms of our group. Our attitudes. It’s all in here through one man’s eyes. 

I feel like I understand more about all of us, collectively, from having read this book.

Haigh Stakes Poker Doyle Brunson Doyle dominated and Jamie Gold tried to become "the world's best bluffer"

It’s worth mentioning that this is one man’s story, through one set of eyes. In sharing little parts of this book on Twitter, I received lots of messages, and not everyone was complimentary about their experiences with Doyle. These aren’t my stories to tell, but it’s worth acknowledging that this is not the conclusive history of poker, but rather one man’s take on a life spent at the forefront of the game. It’s the heroic story of Doyle, as told by Doyle, but also the heroic rise of poker along with him.

Rest in Peace to the Godfather of Poker. A must read.

Next up we take on the The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman. From the origin story, to the mechanics of the engine, how does this game work? How should we think about the actual gameplay of poker? I’ll report back.

Join Jaime Staple's 2024 Poker Book Club on Discord .