“Are you a gamblin’ man, Steve? You wanna put $100 on it?”
It was early December 2009 and I was 10 minutes into what became an epic, free-ranging 90-minute interview with Doyle Brunson, the legendary poker player and two-time World Series of Poker champ who died this weekend at 89. You can still hear the whole thing on an episode of my then-groundbreaking podcast.
At 76, Brunson had released “The Godfather of Poker,” a brutally honest memoir about a life in poker that didn’t actually offering many, if any, accounts of any particular poker hands or pots.
He and I sat in an ornate but empty high-stakes poker salon at the Bellagio then known as “Bobby’s Room,” where on some nights more money had sloshed in and out than I’ll ever make in my lifetime. Doyle sat without his signature 10-gallon cowboy hat in his motorized wheelchair beneath a LeRoy Neiman painting of several famous poker players, including Brunson.
On other occasions, Doyne was pretty gruff with me. This time, though, he was in an exceptionally good, feisty mood. Even when our dispute arose that led to The Bet, he remained cordial and friendly.
‘You wanna put $100 on it?’
The bone of contention emerged as we talked about how Las Vegas and the poker world had changed since his arrival in the 1970s. I zeroed in on a passage that intrigued me.
Me: “In the book, you make a reference to all the other [poker players] you knew that had either died, stopped playing, or sold out. I wonder what you meant by sold out?”
Brunson: I don’t believe I said that.
Me: You did, you did. Do you feel like a lot of other players are there just for the circus atmosphere of the whole thing?
Brunson: I might have said that in that regard. A lot of the so-called professional poker players that the public knows, they’re not real poker players if they had to come out here and play poker everyday with us, they’d go broke. … But I know I didn’t I didn’t use that terminology.”
Me: Now you got me wanting to find it because I know it was in there. The words “sold out” jumped right out at me.
Brunson: Are you a gamblin’ man, Steve? You wanna to put $100 on it? I bet 1$100 you can’t find where I said “sold out” in there.
Me: OK. I’ll bet you.
Brunson: You won’t find it. I’ve read it, and I’ve read it too many times. You’re looking for a ghost. I never said anybody sold out. We’ll settle up after you concede defeat.
Oh, we settled up alright. But not before the bulk of a revelatory conversation I’ve been thinking about since hearing about his passing.
Brunson lays his cards on the table
Everything about that day at the Bellagio was vintage Brunson.
He talked about the time Steve Wynn tried to hire him for “some kind of corporate job. I wasn’t interested in it. I’m a poker player. I’m like Popeye. I yam what I yam.”
He bagged on the antics of Mike Matasow, who was prone to John McEnroe-style verbal fits, and Phil Hellmuth, who that year was carried into the World Series of Poker on a stretcher dressed like Julius Caesar.
“We’re not entertainers or celebrities. We’re poker players. That’s the difference. You have to be able to make intelligent decisions. How can you make an intelligent decision if you’re always trying to put on the show or whatever these young guys do?”
He spoke about the time he bet fellow poker players he could lose a certain amount of weight in a two-year period and how, in succeeding, he turned $100,000 into $1 million.
In the book, he wrote about how he figured he’d missed his chance at fame when his dreams of a pro basketball career were crushed along with his leg by sheetrock in a gypsum mine. I was curious because he essentially forfeited the first World Series of Poker because he feared winning it would bring him notoriety.
“You were a second-class citizen back in those days if you were a gambler. People thought you were involved in all kinds of illegal activities. My family was living in Fort Worth, Texas, my kids were going to public school. It’s the Bible Belt. I didn’t want people looking down on my kids, too. So I hid it. I was in the insurance business, the oil business, whatever. It definitely made me feel bad and resentful. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong by playing poker, but people could be narrow-minded.”
‘I’m a poker player’
Mostly, he was just really candid. He talked about how traumatic the death of his 18-year-old daughter was, about his regrets as a parent. “Was I a real good father? I don’t think so. I regret that I didn’t spend more time with my family because I was traveling. There’s 10 years there that are a blur. I mean, all I did was play poker.”
In 2009, the game was still being transformed by TV, making some players so famous they were constantly targeted by amateurs playing recklessly merely to be able to say they knocked out fill-in-the-blank star. The influx of online players made the tournament experience less fun, too.
“Everybody knows me, and these kids sit down, I got no idea who they are. And they played on the Internet for three or four years and played more tournaments than I have in 50 years. And right now. You don’t know what they’re doing, you don’t know what their strategy is, you don’t know if they’re good or bad.”
Mostly. Fourteen years later, this comment still resonates for what it says about how Brunson saw himself:
“I don’t consider myself to be any kind of celebrity. I’m a poker player. A long time ago, I was on Good Morning America, and I was on Merv Griffin once. But I remember I went to Manila and everybody was waving at me and calling me on the streets. I just couldn’t believe it. And then I went to Macau and all these Chinese people, they say, ‘There’s Doyle Brunson!’ I went to Budapest and London and everybody was calling me by name. It just blows me away. Why? Because I’m a poker player? Big deal! At the World Series, I have trouble getting to the bathroom to relieve myself. People keep stopping me. You’re not gonna find that in that book.”
Doyle Brunson interview was a favorite moment
You know what I did find in that book?
I spent most of the interview listening to his answers and responding to them while also leafing through his book. And finally, I had it.
Me: You got your 100 bucks, by the way?
Brunson: You got it?
Me: Uh-huh. I found it. Here’s the line: “Benny Binion was the last of a special breed that had died out, sold out, or been sent off to prison.”
Brunson: Ya got me!
He pulled out a billfold, sifted through a thicket of cash, handed me a crisp $100 bill. At the time, I was a bit precious and prissy about journalistic integrity and felt it important to ostentatiously hand the money directly to the nearest cocktail waitress. Take money from an interview subject? What would my editors think? Mon dieu!
Ah, but what I didn’t understand then was that the moment Brunson gave it to me, it stopped being a piece of currency and became a priceless artifact of my career. I should have asked Brunson to sign it and then framed it.
Talking to Brunson in that poker room that day is one of my favorite moments as a reporter. When I read of his death, I stopped what I was doing, found that interview and listened to it again. It still holds up. And not because I had read his book so carefully and was able to ask smart questions that yielded interesting, revelatory replies.
No, it was great because I did get to play a form of poker with Brunson. He was bluffing. You can tell from his reaction when I found the disputed bit, he knew it was there all along. He just didn’t think I’d find it. He thought I’d fold.
Man, I’ll miss that dude.