For a man who is 74 years
of age, Doyle Brunson moves with a speed
that suggests his gambling brain also
dictates the movement of his body. Even with
the help of a walking stick and
hampered by a heavy limp, he is a hard
man to keep up with as he side steps his way
across the floor of the Bellagio's poker
He is on his way through to Bobby's room - the venue of the big game, poker's richest cash contest. Inside, Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius trade $50,000 a hand blows playing pot-limit Omaha. It seems the perfect setting for an interview with the most iconic figure in the poker world.
There is a sense of irony too. At the time of this meeting, poker's most celebrated tournament, the main event, is gently slipping through the gears across the Interstate 15 Highway at the Rio. But Brunson - himself a winner of back-to-back main event crowns in 1976 and '77 - has always said that trophies are secondary to money. For him, the game is at its best here at the cash game tables, where survival demands the sharp instincts of a poker genius and the guts and brawn of a road gambler.
'I've always played poker for a living.' he says, his Texan drawl not quite as deep as you would expect. 'If you didn't win, you didn't eat. The guys who play in tournaments today, yeah, they're good players. But stick them in this room, in the Big Game, and they wouldn't survive. Cash game players are better players. It's a totally different environment.'
Like many who excel in their chosen field, Brunson's path to greatness was not born from the heart. After a promising basketball career was ended with a horrific leg injury, he discovered poker, where he found he could make more money from playing in one day than he could from a whole months salary. His sporting prowess came through a passion. But, at first, poker was a way where he could simply make more money - all be it with a skill set that has proved defining.
'It was obvious from an early age that I was better at poker than most,' comments Brunson. 'I don't know why, I could just see things and remember them. People ask me how I remember so many hands; I remember thousands of hands against thousands of players. Early on I would remember how people would act, and what they did in certain situations. I'd think back, work on what was the best course of action and act accordingly. It's like a sixth sense - something I've always had.'
On the outside, Doyle Brunson's persona is a difficult one to gauge. He offers all the pleasantries you would expect from a gentleman of his stature, but there is also an edge to his character. For years, his gambling appetite took him into poker's most dangerous waters in a world far removed from today's Hollywood high-roller. It was an education earned the hard way, playing in games run by organized crime groups across America's south throughout the late 1950s and '60's. poker was always about winning. But it was never a time for careless minds. 'I travelled to all the games across the south,' says Brunson, his look becoming more piercing as if to add effect. 'It was a dangerous time. There was always trouble and there was always bad people around you. It was never a safe environment to be in. But that was how we earned our money.'
It is this fearless approach to gambling that has taken Brunson to where he is today. Under the soft ageing skin lays one of the toughest nuts in poker, a hard nosed gambler from the old school. A man who realises the importance of risk taking; always ready to put his neck on the line and ready to rely on that gut feeling. The single test was, and still is about making the most money. 'I take risks when I have to,' he says. 'I bet when I shouldn't bet, but that's just built into me. I have the urge to gamble and I am convinced that all the top cash game players are compulsive gamblers - because we all have to do it.'
He happily admits that getting married in 1962 helped to 'settle him down'. But the earning potential that poker offered was too great an incentive to ignore. And when he moved to Vegas on a full time basis in the 1970's. the danger on the strip would never temper is hunger for cash games where the action involved anyone from drug dealers to hotel owners.
'Vegas was a dishonest place when I first arrived here,' he recalls. 'Pretty much everything that went on was illegal. But poker was probably the most honest part of gambling. And cash games back when I first arrived were a lot easier than they are now. Trust me nothing gave me greater satisfaction than taking money off a drug dealer. When the boys from the south bought Texas hold'em out here, it was always going to take time for other players to acquire the skills needed. It was a good time, I can tell ya.'
Despite his love of the cash game environment and his first determination to be recognised as a master in that field first, Brunson remains proud of his tournament record. Ten WSOP bracelets are testament to his pre-eminence above the succession of luck-boxes the series has thrown up over the years. And it's worth noting that he has cashed in all of the last six WSOPs. But, he still clearly places most value on his double main event success some 30 years ago, saying his victories came against a field of the 'best players in the world'.
There were no weak players back then. It was still a truly gambling atmosphere. Tournaments today have brought new breed of player. Players have promoted themselves well and you can't knock that. But back when I won, everywhere you looked there were strong players. Today, you can play the ,main event and not even come across one good player in days.'
But even in Brunson's 'Golden' era, the greatest of tournament players still carried faults that were brought into sharp focus at the cash game tables. Take Stu Ungar, the man seen through many eyes as the greatest World Series has seen. 'I get asked about him a lot,' says Brunson, rubbing his eyes to suggest his tiredness at dissecting the 'Kid's' game. 'He was a great winning player, but a terrible losing one. He couldn't handle the beats. for me, he would never have survived in the real world of poker. he was just too volatile with a terrible temper. It was one of his shortcomings.'
Brunson's analysis of Ungar's character reveals a clear message: all the great players can perform when thigs are going well, when the beats don't get them down, or when their reads are hitting the mark. But it's away from the good times, when the cards don't fall and the form just can't be found. That is the time when the truly great players earn their stripes.
'When people are struggling, that's when you see how great a player is - or how bad they are. poker is poker, and it has always been the same. The object of the game is to win the other guy's chips - whether it's in a tournament or a cash game. How you do it depends on how your opponents play. There is no magical formula. But, the key to being a great player is about how you play when things are not going too well.
'Chip Reese is the best all-round poker player I have seen. It's chips temperament that is the main thing. He brings a huge amount of discipline to the game, even when he is losing. Chip has that in-made ability that you just can't teach. He is a good friend of mine, but he is the last person I want to play poker with because I have so much trouble playing him.'
With over fifty years of poker behind him, It's fair to say that whatever dangers the game has brought to Brunsons life, overall, it has been good to him. He has treated poker as an earner of money, rather than an earner of fame - although one has complemented the other. But, while the hunger to gamble cannot be ignored, his success is down to more than a bit of risk taking. Brunson remains a student of the game with a now unrivalled passion for it. Even at his age, the craving for action stems from the deepest commitment to success.
'I believe my passion has played a part in making me who I am. I was always determined. I'm 74 years old and I'm still going. I love the game. Hell, I plan on playing poker for another 20 years.'