The VIP lounge at the World Series of Poker is a players-only sanctuary.
Hidden just outside of the Rio’s main tournament room, the lounge allows the game’s biggest names to grab a snack, shoot pool, surf the Internet, test their skills on a putting green or just relax.
The lounge is also the place where two-time world poker champion Doyle Brunson holds court.
At 73, Brunson is the game’s living legend, and he’s treated as such by poker’s most recognizable superstars.
On a break in play during the $50,000 buy-in HORSE event, players flocked into the lounge. When they saw Brunson, each immediately wanted to describe a hand in which they doubled up in chips or staved off elimination.
"You’re a great all-around player. You were my first alternate," Brunson told Annie Duke, one of the game’s top female players. He was putting together a team of players for side wagers.
Most of the players affectionately referred to Brunson by his poker nickname, "Texas Dolly," which pays tribute to his home state. Brunson’s ever-present cowboy hat symbolizes his heritage.
Longtime professionals, up-and-coming players and amateurs who learned the game on the Internet all treat Brunson with reverence.
If poker is a sport, then consider Brunson the game’s Arnold Palmer, who helped pioneer the professional golf tour into a sports staple during the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, when Palmer plays in a PGA Tour event, he receives standing ovations from the gallery.
The same is true with how poker players and poker fans view Brunson. He draws applause throughout the tournament room and his presence carries the aura of an American icon.
"What I love about poker is that people do understand the tradition," said Nolan Dalla, the director of public relations for the World Series of Poker who has promoted and written about the game for almost two decades.
"A lot of us see all the big faces, but only one person still puts a lump in my throat. That’s when Doyle Brunson walks into the room and people are clapping," Dalla said.
MGM Mirage executive Bobby Baldwin, who won the world poker championship in 1978, said it’s appropriate for fans to acknowledge Brunson and what he has meant to the game.
"As well they should, because he is a legend and there is no question he is responsible for what the game is today," said Baldwin, the president and CEO of Mirage Resorts.
For his part, Brunson doesn’t consider himself a celebrity, just an old-time gambler who makes his living playing poker.
"It’s flattering and appreciated but it really is unsolicited," Brunson said. "I don’t mind a little of it, but it can really begin to get old. I’m a poker player. That’s what I do and that’s what I am. I’m the real deal there."
Brunson can’t fathom how much he has earned or gambled away playing poker since he took up the game in the 1950s. He estimates tens of millions of dollars have crossed the tables.
"I really have no idea how much I’ve won and lost," Brunson said. "A lot, obviously."
That’s a good thing. Brunson freely admits he hasn’t had much success in the business world outside of the poker room.
Brunson said poker helped offset the millions he lost betting on sports when he was younger. He has also invested money over the years in an oil business, an Alabama television station, a mining company, a horse racing track and a 900 telephone number tout service, all of which went under.
"The only way I ever made any money was in poker," Brunson said. "I went into about 10 businesses and they all failed. So I always had poker to fall back on, and that’s what I did."
Brunson said real estate ventures in Southern California and Texas, however, did pay off.
His life could have had a different story. Brunson was born and raised in rural Texas and he went to college on both a basketball and track scholarship. He was set to play in the NBA for the Minneapolis Lakers when an accident shattered his leg and ended his basketball career before it started.
Brunson’s leg never healed properly, and to this day he uses a crutch to get around the poker room.
Brunson soon picked up poker and the legend was born. He was one of the Texas Rounders, a group of gamblers who traveled the back roads of the state finding big-money poker games in the 1950s and 1960s. He eventually settled in Las Vegas in 1973 because he could always find the best action on the Strip.
Brunson was one of the six players in 1969 to compete in the original tournament poker competition, dubbed at the time as the Texas Gamblers Reunion. With the help of downtown casino owner and fellow Texan Benny Binion, the World Series of Poker was created.
Brunson won back-to-back world titles in 1976 and 1977. He also has recorded second-, third- and fourth-place finishes in the world championship event over the years.
Brunson has won 10 World Series of Poker events, which ties him with Johnny Chan and is second only to Phil Hellmuth’s 11 championship bracelets. Through last week, Brunson had earned more than $2.5 million in World Series of Poker competition, finishing in the money in two events last year and one so far this year.
"I don’t play in too many other tournaments anymore," said Brunson, who competed on the World Poker Tour and other made-for-television poker tournaments.
These days, Brunson enjoys playing big-money games at the Bellagio.
"I’ve always considered myself a cash game player," Brunson said. "There are certain guys I go way back with and we’ve developed a certain camaraderie."
Baldwin, who still plays the occasional cash game with Brunson, said Brunson has modified his methods to challenge today’s Internet and television-trained player in tournaments.
"I think Doyle is playing better today than he was 20, 30 years ago," Baldwin said. "He’s had to adapt to the changing tactics of his opponents. Doyle never misses a big game."
Dalla said Brunson connects the history of the World Series of Poker, from its small roots at Binion’s, to today’s 55-event, six-week tournament at the Rio.
"Doyle Brunson, perhaps more than any other poker player, represents the bridge between the past and present," Dalla said. "He was there at the beginning, he’s here now and maybe he’s part of the future, based on the way he’s playing."
Brunson has authored two of the biggest-selling self-help books on poker, "Doyle Brunson’s Super System: A Course in Power Poker," and "Doyle Brunson’s Super System II." Both books have sold well over 200,000 copies.
Internet gambling, which boosted the popularity of poker in the past few years, brought Brunson a new legion of fans.
He lent his name and image to an online poker site housed in Costa Rica. In its heyday, before federal legislation effectively eliminated the ability of Americans to legally gamble online, Doylesroom.com was one of the most visited gambling sites on the Web.
"It’s amazing the people that know me because of Doylesroom," Brunson said. "I think I was a little overly friendly because I tried to accommodate everybody."
This weekend, Brunson plans to ante up his $10,000 to play in the 38th world championship no-limit Texas hold’ em event. He’s seen the game he loves go through many changes, including an era before television and the Internet when Las Vegas casinos were shutting down poker rooms.
"Poker is the American game and I’ve seen the game go full spectrum," Brunson said. "I think Americans have found out what a great game poker really is. It has a lot of qualities of a sport. I really don’t think poker has reached its zenith yet. I still think there is room for the game to grow."2007 World Series of PokerNews, information
WORLD SERIES OF POKER CHAMPIONSHIP EVENT The championship event of the 38th World Series of Poker begins Friday at the Rio. Opening play in the $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold’em event is scheduled for four days with up to 3,000 players per day. Last year’s event drew a record field of 8,773 players and was won by Jamie Gold, who collected $12 million for the victory. The world championship’s final table of nine players is scheduled for July 17.