With a recent resurgence in both published poker literature and poker strategy, I decided to take a break from learning about optimal three-bet ranges from the small blind, and instead dove into something a little more fun.
More Than Just Strategy
I’ve written (usually glowing) book reviews for our site before, but this time I wanted to read something closer to a novel than a textbook. So I reached onto the shelf and dusted off Doyle Brunson’s autobiography. The book is called “The Godfather of Poker,” and is published by Cardoza Publishing, an industry leader in poker and gaming literature. Doyle co-wrote his memoirs with Mike Cochran, an author specializing in all things Texas.
If you’ve watched enough poker on television, you’ll know that Doyle is a great storyteller, and that skill shines through in these pages. Although, at times it’s hard to know when you’re reading Doyle’s contributions and when your reading Mike’s more refined author’s pen. It’s my understanding that Doyle essentially orated his life story to Mike and then Mike turned spoken word to written. Fortunately, the Doyle-ness of the writing still comes through. It almost feels like the Godfather himself is sitting in the room with you.
“Godfather” was published in 2009, so I thought it might be interesting to see Doyle’s worldview before poker soured a bit. Here is a book published pre-Black Friday written mostly during the poker boom years. I was curious as to what exactly the poker boom was like for one of the most famous players on the planet. What kind of stories waited for me inside the cover?
It turns out quite a lot. Because Doyle’s story is exactly what you’d expect: one of a kind.
A Real Autobiography
I’ve read maybe six or seven of these biographies, and they usually follow a common formula of splicing together the players’ life story with the tournament that put them on the map. Doyle’s book was a little different. His was a true autobiography. Here was the man’s whole life, mapped out from beginning to end.
And I suppose that’s because even Doyle knows that the climax of his gambling exploits probably happened decades ago. He’s writing all of this in hindsight, as an old man looking back on his adventures. And what adventures they were.
This book was also able to sorta hit my nostalgia buttons. Doyle speaks in depth about so many World Series runs and the atmosphere surrounding the game during the poker boom years. While reading those passages I was able to be transported back 15 years when the game was simpler and we all seemed to just print money.
Doyle puts some of his classic one-liners or “Doylisms” at the beginning of every chapter. Most are not actually Brunson originals. Lines like “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” Many readers will likely interpret these lines as originating from Doyle himself, but rarely is that the case. The one above is paraphrased from Mark Twain. For the most part all the Doylisms are just good ol’ one-liners from the South.
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and I had to smile as I flipped through the middle of the book which features pictures of Doyle in his youth. One page features his school photos from ages 6 through 15. Others show action shots of him running cross-country or playing basketball. These photos provide a nice contrast with the grizzled old poker veteran that so many of us envision when we hear the name Doyle Brunson.
Baby Doyle: The Legend Begins
Doyle starts out his story in Longworth, Texas, where he grew up. Doyle was born in 1933 (right in the middle of The Great Depression), so reading about his life and surroundings during that time provides a sharp juxtaposition to what his life would become in Sin City.
Right from the get-go, Doyle makes it clear that he loved sports and competition. And it’s well-known that before taking up cards Doyle was a world-class athlete. Doyle was one of the top basketball players in the country, and an All-State cross country runner. The man ran a 4:18 mile in college. 4:18! That’s incredibly fast even for today’s standards. Brunson notes that he held the regional record for the mile-run for many years.
So it’s a little heartbreaking to hear Doyle talk about his injuries. Looking at him now, one of the last thoughts to go through my head is “Hey, that looks like a professional basketball player.”
But it was the crushing injury to his leg that would set him on the path to poker. A path that no one from little Longworth, Texas had ever traveled before.
Brunson Enters the Working World
You can’t help but smile as you read about Doyle’s days as a salesman and businessman. He had disastrous results when he tried to be a respectable adult. His struggles in the fifth chapter even foreshadow the future business failings that he would experience once he finally came into some money.
No, truly Doyle was destined to be a poker player.
It’s in this part of the book (the first third) where his story begins to really pick up pace. The stories of running from the law and having shotguns pointed at his head are what many readers are going to look forward to the most when they pick up Brunson’s bio. And the Texas road warrior days between the original crew of Doyle, Amarillo Slim, and Sailor Roberts make for great reading. Brunson’s stories about meeting his wife and surviving cancer are heartwarming as well. But it’s all simply laying the foundation for Doyle’s stint in the city of sin.
The Godfather Heads to Vegas
Of course, the most thrilling part of this autobiography begins as Doyle enters his Las Vegas residency. Old Vegas characters like Stu Ungar, Billy Baxter, and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro sprinkle throughout his stories, and it makes for exhilarating reading.
That also ties into my favorite part of the book, which will likely be many poker players’ favorite part as well. I’m talking about when Doyle is recapping his victories and the big hands he played in the World Series of Poker. In the 70’s, there was no ESPN coverage, no PokerNews, and certainly no live-streaming. Doyle’s hand recaps against players like Stu Ungar, Jack Strauss, and Puggy Pearson are all we have to go on. And man, what a great read. Not only was this the first time I had ever read about some of the bigger hands in the tournament, but you can really see how far ahead of the curve Doyle was when it came to aggression and putting his opponents to the test. I could read book after book talking about his bracelet wins.
You can also see how much Benny Binion and Binion’s Horseshoe Casino meant to Doyle. He talks a great deal about the house that built poker.
The Horseshoe stopped hosting the WSOP in 2005 right as many players were getting into the game. And Doyle makes it clear that he misses the place that was the setting of so much of poker history.
In the final chapters, Doyle really starts to have some fun. His Texas road gambler days are long behind him. But Doyle still craves action. Fans and players alike all love a good prop bet. And Doyle’s don’t disappoint as he details absurd million dollar bets that involve, poker, golf, and eating. Through it all Doyle really does seem a kid at heart.
Readers will finally start to catch up to Doyle when he begins talking about the poker boom days. He relives tales of playing on national television, his 2004 WSOP Main Event run, and of course the Biggest Game against Andy Beal. It’s really refreshing to hear the perspective of someone who was around before, during, and even after the poker boom. That same energy is captured when Doyle is describing his sole WPT victory. Doyle remembers hands fondly as he re-lives his victory over Lee Watkinson. His excitement for the game clearly hasn’t left him.
Heartache and Loss
Poker players seem to have this sense of infallibility that makes them overconfident in other aspects of their lives. Doyle’s no exception, and his several failed business ventures only made me shake my head as I read them. A failed search for the Titanic, a failed search for Noah’s Ark, a failed African emerald mine, racehorses, sports books, a failed orange grove, a tele-evangelist channel, a golf tour… Doyle describes mishap after disaster after train wreck as he goes through all his failed businesses in Chapter 27. At least he has the humility and good temperament to laugh at himself while reliving them. And it’s fun reading.
Unfortunately, one section of the book that doesn’t really hold up are the final few chapters where Doyle discusses DoyleRoom.com and online poker in general. “Godfather” was released in 2009, just two years before Black Friday effectively shut down online poker in the U.S. Even so, Doyle clearly is a live player and doesn’t know a great amount about the online arena. It shows a little bit as he talks about poker’s online variant.
Before finishing up, the book hits some sadder notes. Doyle is clearly devastated when he talks about the death of his best friend, Chip Reese. The two were evidently very close and his death almost stopped Doyle from playing poker ever again.
Doyle then reflects upon the passage of the UIGEA which really marked the end of the poker boom. Naturally he was upset by it, not because he played online all that much, but because he was aware of how much money it would take out of the industry.
Doyle’s Greatest Victory
Doyle finally closes with a section about his loved ones. Doyle Brunson is a man who loves poker, sports, food, gambling, and action. He is still probably one of the top five most famous poker players in the world. But in the end he says all that really matters to him is his family.
Doyle Brunson has ten WSOP bracelets, a WPT title, and countless other poker accolades, but he says his wife and children are his greatest accomplishment.
– The book is well put together, yet I did notice three or four typos. Not the end of the world, but I couldn’t help noticing.
-I would have liked to see some of the newer photos that Doyle included to be in color. All photos were in black and white.
-This book comes in at just under 400 pages with almost every page filled with text. It’s a big read, and probably the longest poker book I’ve ever read.
Some Final Thoughts
Midway through the book, Doyle inserts a collection of pictures from his life. This practice is rather commonplace, especially among autobiographies. But these were a special treat for me as I had never seen many of the pictures before – especially those featuring Chip Reese, Benny Binion, and Johnny Moss.
As someone also from the Bible Belt, my heart goes out to Doyle when he talks about going back to high school reunions and his old friends still shunning him just for playing cards. I’ve only had to deal with a fraction of what he speaks, but that part definitely hit home.
I was surprised at the level of sadness in these pages. Doyle has experienced a full life. And because of that he’s also experienced a lot of loss. When he’s speaking of the deaths of his daughter, his best friend Chip Reese, and Chip’s son Casey, the reader can’t help but be affected.
I’ll say it one more time. I could read book after book of Doyle talking about his tournament runs against other legends like Stu Ungar.
“The Godfather of Poker” is definitely an autobiography worth reading. It’s not going to help your poker game. It’s not going to make you rich or any better at gambling. But if you love the game, then you have to read this book. It’s the story of the Godfather himself. The living legend Doyle Brunson.
Final Review 8/10
Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.