Last month Doyle Brunson got an unexpected reaction after dashing off a quick tweet after a long cash game session. “I’m afraid I am finally gonna give in to Father Time and pass on tournament play at the WSOP this year,” he tweeted. “Too many hours.” The poker world perked up and generated about a million words yet missed a key part of the 79-year-old Poker Hall of Famer’s message to them: he wasn’t quitting poker, just the grind of the WSOP.
“I had just finished a 10 hour long cash game and had made three glaring mistakes in the last 30 minutes that cost me thousands of dollars,” he wrote in his blog. “When you play at the highest levels and against top talent, you can’t make stupid mistakes and survive. I always review my plays in my head before going to sleep. The only answer I could come up with was that I was mentally tired and had played too long. So I figured that it would be much better for me to play in the cash games instead of trying to sit through a bunch of tournaments. “
Beyond showing just how popular the 10-time bracelet winner remains with a public that’s on average several decades younger than him, people’s reaction to the news also underlines just how much has changed in poker since Doyle’s heyday. Tournaments are poker today. But for the first 50 years or so that he made his living playing poker Doyle relied on cash games. And for the first 20, tournaments didn’t even exist. If you were playing poker, you were playing every single hand for real money.
When tournament play finally evolved, Doyle was so experienced – and the fields were so small – that he wasn’t really challenged. He won six bracelets in the first decade of the WSOP – two of them in the Main Event – and was hailed as the best player at the Series. Those six bracelets were worth $775K total, which was pretty good money for the time, but they paled in comparison to his earnings in cash games and on the golf course. And given that the Series was just a few weeks long, stepping away from the cash games to invest time in a tournament he might not even win was like setting money on fire. By the mid-1980s, even with the schedule expanding to new lengths seemingly every year, Doyle had stopped playing in most of the events completely.
By the early 1990s the Series had grown significantly and several players from the new generation had begun to close in on the gold standard set by Doyle and his fellow Texans in the 1970s. Bracelets, which hadn’t even existed in the earliest years of the WSOP and didn’t mean a lot to most players once the Binions began awarding them to winners, had suddenly become a mark of greatness. The schedule was also significantly longer, running up to 25 events by 1995. Doyle came back to play tournaments on occasion throughout the decade, making seven final tables appearances and winning two more bracelets.
Cash was still king, though, and it remained that way until the the poker boom. Once every average Joe who’d ever played in a home game started flocking to Vegas during the summer, there was suddenly enough value for an old-time cash-game destroyer to justify a serious time investment chasing a bracelet. Doyle hadn’t yet hit 70 years old and his stamina was still strong thanks to constant action in the biggest cash games. His advantage showed: from 2003 to 2005 he won two bracelets and made a deep run in what was at the time the largest Main Event in the tournament’s history. At almost $500K total, just those three scores were worth nearly as much as his six bracelet wins back in the 1970s combined.
That bracelet in 2005 was Doyle’s tenth, moving him into a tie with Johnny Chan for the most ever (at the time) and cementing his status as the one of the greatest tournament players of all time. But the money still paled compared to his other gambling revenue streams. His $2,279,459 in earnings over the first 35 years of the WSOP were only worth a little more than double the money he once won in a single weight-loss bet with fellow poker pros. Throw in decades of high-stakes cash games and golf against big-time gamblers all around the country, and it’s highly likely that even the $2.96 million he’s earned overall at the WSOP represents a small fraction of what he’s earned gambling in his lifetime.
The 2013 WSOP is now one-third over. So far the Godfather of Poker has been true to his word and hasn’t shown up for any bracelet events. If that holds and doesn’t enter any tournaments this year, he’ll miss out on a WSOP cash for the fourth consecutive year. The difference is that he actually showed up to play at least a few events during those years. Being one of the last of the original Series players, it doesn’t seem right that he’s not at the tournament tables this year. But looking back at his long history with poker, it’s easy to understand why. As for anyone who thinks he’s bluffing and just can’t keep up anymore, Doyle had a word for them in his blog post after his ruckus-starting tweet: “(M)y health is good and there is still some gas in my gas tank. If anyone doubts it, I’m playing almost every day at the Bellagio or the Aria. Come on by and play with me!