The man with the trademark cowboy hat at the poker table almost became the man in the shorts on an NBA court. Indeed, poker legend Doyle Brunson was such a terrific athlete that he was scouted by the Lakers back when they were still in Minneapolis. And despite having a distinctive first name that could have predated the championship likes of Shaq, Kobe, Magic and Kareem, Doyle never went pro because of a knee injury.
Instead, the owner of a sharp math mind turned to selling business machines, but found there was more money to be made putting those math skills to work at poker. So, he lit out of his small Texas hometown of Longworth and became a road gambler, driving from town to town with other legendary poker figures Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston and Brian "Sailor" Roberts, looking for big poker games, then driving some more when they had cleaned out the town. Honing his craft and gaining a reputation as big as the Stetson he often wears, "Texas Dolly" even has a hand named after him: 10-2. That's a "Doyle Brunson," because that was the final hand he played at the final table in winning back-to-back World Series of Poker championships in 1976 and 1977.
Following his second WSOP title, Brunson, who owns a record-tying nine World Series of Poker bracelets, published his groundbreaking book Super/System on power poker, still considered the bible for card players. The seventy-two-year-old Brunson, who plays in the biggest cash games around, has also entered the modern age with an Internet poker site called-what else? - Doylesroom.com.
Brunson says the best hand he ever played came nearly fifty years ago, long before he won those back-to-back World Series of Poker championships. Heck, it came even before there was a World Series of Poker. But that hand, he believes, was the one that helped him get those bracelets and the millions he has won.
It came against Johnny Moss, a Hall of Fame player who was awarded the championship trophy at the first World Series of Poker in a vote of the players in 1970 (the World Series did not begin its current freeze-out tournament form until the next year). "I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old at that point and still kind of new," Brunson says. "Johnny Moss was the best. He and I were really fierce competitors from the beginning because I think he recognized that I was going to be the next top player, so he tried especially hard against me.
"Johnny had a lot more money than I had, so Johnny could money-whip me. He could make situations where it was hard for me to call because he had so much money and I didn't have that much.
"This was a cash game in Texas. There weren't any tournaments in those days. The guy in the first seat made a small bet about the size of the pot. Johnny Moss called it. I had a J-10."
The flop came K-7-8. Brunson thought Moss was drawing at a straight. The turn came a 2, and everybody checked. The river came a 3.
"The first guy checked and Moss made some kind of real big bet, and I thought to myself he was drawing at a straight and he missed it and he thinks he's going to win this pot. I called with just the jack-high. The other guy paired kings and threw that away. Johnny was drawing at a small straight.
"That was my greatest hand because I think that kind of defined the moment that I became what I knew was a real top player."
Poker is about heart: having the heart to go with your gut in calling down a master player with just a jack-high. "You have to have that competitive spirit," Brunson says. "I don't know what it is. I can't define it. It's an innate ability in you that surfaces in times of stress and hard situations, and that's the difference. It's nothing you can explain."
If Moss had been holding just a deuce, then the deuce on the turn would have made him nearly a 4-1 favorite. For that matter, if Moss had been holding just a queen, Brunson loses. And when the board failed to pair, Moss' bet could've been interpreted as the last chance to get paid off on a pair of kings. In all, almost half the cards in the deck had Brunson beat.
When the man with the bigger stack made a major bet into a hand without so much as a pair, the money play, it seems, would have been to muck. But Brunson had a read on Moss. It was a combination of Moss' betting pattern - many players with busted flushes and straights tend to make a big play for a pot that gets checked down to the end - and Moss' history of money-whipping. Brunson had the heart to stick with his read on Moss and not bow to the odds against him.
This is the first hard lesson in poker: balancing the contradictory dogma of the read versus the science of the math - what your gut tells you about whether you have the best hand versus what the pot odds and betting patterns tell you about it.
Poker is, of course, about people, starting with yourself. You must have the heart to play your cards against a big raise or a scary board if you believe you have the best of it. If you shrink when facing adversity - and every player faces it, even Doyle Brunson - you don't stand a chance.
Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback, check out his mailbag.