The Only Legend
In a mass media age where branding and Q rating are almost as important as the competitive accomplishments they celebrate, words like "legend" get thrown around far too liberally. Poker is not immune, with new "legends" emerging victorious from every television broadcast. But in the end, when you utter the word "legend" among poker circles, there's only one name that connects with it in any mind that's educated in the game.
Doyle Brunson is poker's Babe Ruth. He played poker in its Texan infancy, was a tactical generation ahead of the competition and was almost solely responsible for educating the masses about the true nature of the game. Even now, closing in on his 76th birthday, he's among the top handful of players in the world. Even the Babe wasn't a dominant figure for half a century.
Brunson now stands on the precipice of the 40th installment of the World Series of Poker, the master of all he surveys. He's watched as the WSOP has gone from a seven-player excuse to drum up cash game action in 1970 to the 8,773-player extravaganza we saw in 2006; from a family business to a corporate one. He's had a table-side view of every major development in the history of poker's marquee event.
"It wasn't that big a deal," Brunson remembered of that first WSOP, held at Binion's Horseshoe Casino. "The idea was to get players to come out to the cash games, attract some players. The tournament was just a means of getting them there, it wasn't important to any of us. I remember Benny Binion telling us 'Someday we may have a hundred players in this!'"
Brunson didn't believe him for a second.
"It definitely was a combination of Benny and Jack," says Brunson, crediting two generations of Binion men for spurring on the initial growth of the tournament game. "Jack had more hands-on responsibility, but Benny would give him the ideas. If they were sound business ideas, Jack would implement them. Jack had a way of talking Benny out of doing anything he didn't want to do. Poker wouldn't be close to where it is today if it wasn't for Jack Binion. He was a visionary."
It was that visionary Brunson credits with the creation of the freeze-out format primarily used in tournament play today. After the '70 championship was decided by player vote, it was suggested a clearer road to the championship was required. Two Hall of Famers -- Puggy Pearson and Amarillo Slim Preston -- have taken credit for the creation of the tournament format.
"Jack," Brunson replied when asked which of them was the most responsible. "He always listened to people. Slim and Puggy might have suggested the freeze-out to him, but the final decision was Jack's."
It was Jack Binion who was also responsible for early television interest in the WSOP.
"It was different when the cameras showed up," Brunson remembered. "I wasn't looking for any publicity back then; in fact I was doing my best to avoid it. In Texas, you were recognized as a second-class citizen if you were a poker player. They associated you with all kinds of illegal activities and thought you were a gangster and consequently I tried to hide the fact because my family was back there. They finally came to the forefront and said, 'We're not ashamed of what you do, so go out there and do it.' I'll always appreciate my family for that."
That blessing in tow, Brunson finally won his first title in 1976, then another in '77. He'd become part of a tradition of top professionals winning the tournament, with every winner through 1978 eventually being enshrined in the Hall. In 1979, however, that all changed when amateur Hal Fowler shocked the poker world with his victory.
"That probably was the biggest upset in the history of WSOP," Brunson said of Fowler's win. "He wasn't even a good amateur. I think the entire poker world knew it was a fluke thing, but I'll say this for Hal: He always conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner and I always respected him for that." It was Fowler who first showed the world that anyone could win. The floodgates had opened.
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It was two years after Fowler's victory that Brunson's least favorite development in WSOP came about. Tournament director Eric Drache created the satellite when confronted with a group of 10 players each sitting with over $1,000 and crying poverty when pitched the idea of buying into the $10,000 main event. They each put up $1,000 with the winner getting a seat in the main event.
"I think we realized right away how big a deal they were," Brunson recalls of the revelation. "I wish they'd never started because they really ruined the cash games. I'm still not a satellite fan. I think they were the biggest contribution to the growth of the Series. That and the Internet."
Focused on cash games, not recognizing the value that would one day be placed on bracelets, Brunson failed to win one from 1979 to 1991, opting only to play in the main event and 2-7 lowball championship each year. "I never did play in many tournaments," Brunson admits. "A guy like Phil Hellmuth has played three times as many tournaments as I have. I have no idea how many bracelets I'd have today, but obviously it would be more. I didn't pick a couple of mine up because I had so many. I'd given a bunch to family members and didn't think it was worth it to go get them."
After sporadic play in the 1990s led to Brunson missing his only two WSOPs (1998 and '99, when he boycotted to protest Jack Binion's ouster as controlling partner at Binion's), his interest in tournament play was reawakened by the poker boom. "Television started getting the game all kinds of attention and youngsters said the old guys couldn't play," Brunson said with a twang of competitive fire in his voice. "I was determined to prove them wrong. Still am, by the way."
While Brunson returned, the Binion touch departed. WSOP was sold with the host casino to Harrah's, whose interests were more financially inclined than the Binion clan's. "There was a sadness when the ownership changed. It was the end of an era. It went from being a family atmosphere to the gigantic fields we see today. Used to be that one of the attractions was that you got to see all of your old friends from around the country. Nowadays, it almost seems like you don't see anybody you do know. Still, I think Harrah's has done a pretty good job. I think they've kept interest high. I think the decision to postpone the final table was a brilliant move cause it kept interest up longer. I think the personal thing has gone out of the series because the field is so big and Harrah's may be more into making money than the Binions. I'm sure they are because the Binions lost money every year putting things on for the players."
Now? Brunson prepares himself for his 38th WSOP with renewed vigor. "I'm going to attempt to play in more events than I have recently and try not to concentrate on the cash games, mostly for Doyle's Room," he says of his online poker room. "I think winning a bracelet or two would be huge for the company, so I'm going to try to focus on winning a bracelet this year. The company is making a big comeback from UIGEA and great things are in store." An 11th bracelet would be massive for the company, but for the man it would be merely another notch on his belt. Some people transcend trophies and trinkets. They are the true legends.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to espn.com. You can hear more of his poker musings on The Poker Beat at Poker Road.