Appreciation and respect for the author, father, husband, legend, in the twilight of his poker career, riding off into the sunset.
Among the rarest moments for sports fans are the times we get to say a proper farewell to legends of the game as they step away from the limelight. While some stars exit with a whimper and slowly fade away as shadows of their former selves, truly mythical figures somehow manage to mount the grandest stages one final time and deliver not just something special, but a performance that will forever endure in our collective memories.
In my 36 years, I’ve borne witness to a few such special moments. As the poker world watched Doyle Brunson take a final bow, exiting from the 2018 WSOP $10,000 2-7 Single Draw event in sixth place, I racked my brains trying to think of the right final sporting performance to which his could be compared.
— Drew Amato (@drew_amato) June 13, 2018
Not Kobe, Not Pete, Not Jack
The most recent that came to mind was Kobe Bryant’s final game, in which he willed a hapless Laker team to victory with an incredible 60-point gem in their 2016 NBA season finale.
But that game was inconsequential, and poker is the pursuit of individuals, not teams.
I thought of Pete Sampras’ stupendous last tennis match, defeating his longtime rival Andre Agassi at the 2002 U.S. Open Final for his 14th Grand Slam win, ostensibly “going out on top.”
But Doyle didn’t make it to heads-up play last night, and his longest-tenured rivals at the felt were already long gone by the time he made the final table.
While I’m too young to personally remember it, I might also point to Jack Nicklaus’ astonishing victory at golf’s Masters in 1986, where the then 46-year-old successfully turned back the clock to emerge victorious for an 18th and final major win.
But while Doyle, too, turned back the clock, he left the Rio without any additional hardware last night, an eleventh WSOP bracelet remaining tantalizingly elusive.
Then, it suddenly struck me like a lightning bolt.
The People’s Champion, Jimmy Connors
I was not yet 10 years old at the time, but I remember being glued to my TV screen for close to two weeks as I watched tennis’ “old man” defy the odds time and again as he successfully charted a course towards the U.S. Open semifinal. At 39 years old and visibly well past his prime, the aged gunslinger cobbled together a run for the ages, swashbuckling past opponents barely over half his age.
A passionate, emotional player, watching Jimmy play his heart out was nothing short of mesmerizing. He left it all out on the court, fighting for every point, unwilling to yield to Father Time. Match after match he delighted the fans in attendance and watching around the globe with courage and gallantry that couldn’t help but make you swoon.
When Jimmy arrived to face Jim Courier in the semifinal, it felt as though the entire world of tennis fandom was rooting him on, willing him to win. We wanted the magical ride to last forever as we ebbed and flowed with his every swing of the racket.
And then Courier dispatched him in straight sets.
Just like that, the electricity was short circuited.
Among my most treasured memories of watching Doyle Brunson were his multiple appearances on High Stakes Poker. What fan of Brunson’s can’t recall the dulcet tones of Gabe Kaplan on commentary, lavishing genuine affection upon “Big Papa” episode after episode, as we swayed back and forth along with him through the vicissitudes of the largest cash games ever broadcast.
And who could forget Lon McEachern’s now-famous call back in 2005, “There it is, Doyle’s done it!” as Texas Dolly scooped his tenth WSOP bracelet after catching a lucky 3 on the flop to defeat Minh Ly.
Of course, my memories capture just the most recent, twilight phase of Doyle’s poker career. Legions of fans out there know Doyle best as the author of Super System. The older generation of pro players have that much more of an appreciation for him and his decades of accomplishments. And still, Brunson predates even the eldest of the “old school” pros, distinctly being able to recall his days hustling as one of the original Texas road gamblers.
As ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt said on Sports Center last night, “I’m not a poker guy, but everyone knows that guy.” One can’t help but appreciate someone with such a storied, highlight-filled resume of achievements.
While his physical state has weakened considerably over the years, Brunson barely lost a step in terms of his poker skills, continuing to play in the highest-stakes cash games and competing with the best of the best in tournament play right up until the self-declared end of his career.
One Last Hurrah
Who could imagine that once again, in 2018, poker’s Godfather would once again hold court and take center stage?
Going to the Rio to play in 2-7 lowball tournament. Probably the last one I’ll ever play.
— Doyle Brunson (@TexDolly) June 11, 2018
That an 84-year-old can still instantly capture the undivided attention of the modern poker world is nothing short of astounding. From the moment Doyle’s unknowingly-auspicious Tweet was released to the world, we slowly but steadily got worked into a frenzy.
Vivid descriptions of the scene started to appear online, with social media buzzing nonstop as the octogenarian rolled into the hallowed halls of the Rio to late register for the event at the start of Day 2 to play his favorite poker variant.
After years of relative absence from having appeared in poker media, the living legend graciously gave of his time to be interviewed by members of the poker press corps, each of whom had long-coveted such an opportunity not knowing if the day would ever come. Autograph and selfie lines were populated not only by fans but also by professional poker players.
Work until your idols become your rivals.
Dario Sammartino gets @TexDolly‘s autograph before the @WSOP $10K NL 2-7 Championship final table.
Watch on @PokerGO: https://t.co/KNvPQ1muzl
📸: @Drew_amato pic.twitter.com/rfRNhSqwat
— Poker Central (@PokerCentral) June 13, 2018
Poker Hall of Famers, led by the great triumvirate of Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey, also chimed in with words of praise and gratitude for everything Doyle has done for the game, acknowledging that poker wouldn’t be what it is today without Brunson having played such an integral role in getting it mainstream attention.
And then Doyle started doing what he does best; he played.
Boy, did he ever play.
Later in the evening, as Doyle glided into the money, fans started daring to dream the impossible.
Straight out of Hollywood, fans watched on as Doyle’s son, Poker Hall of Famer Todd Brunson, also cashed in the event and for a time sat together with Big Papa not only side by side at the same table, but just behind him on the tournament leaderboard.
And as the hour grew late with the clock ticking past midnight on Day 2, the remaining players unanimously agreed to wrap up play for the night, with Doyle obviously set to shine as the star of the show on Day 3.
Lo and behold, soon after play began anew, Doyle was still in the field as it condensed to a final table.
— Lizzy Harrison (@Lizzy_Harrison) June 12, 2018
One by one, players continued to fall. With each elimination our hopes grew. All of us, whether physically in the Amazon Room, or watching the PokerGO live stream and following the live updates from home, were willing our champion to victory.
Until suddenly Doyle ran out of bullets, failing to outdraw James Alexander.
Just like that, with the turn of a card, it was time for the great man to hang up his cowboy hat for good.
A Send Off for the Ages
That upon his elimination, play was stopped so that his opponents could give him a standing ovation is heartwarmingly sublime.
The outpouring of tributes on social media over the past 48 hours has been unprecedented, with seemingly everyone in poker paying homage to the man’s legacy.
Much like Jimmy Connors’ fabled run to glory in the late summer of 1991, Doyle Brunson’s 2018 curtain call is something we’ll still be talking about a generation from now.
And so, as the sun rises in poker’s Mecca of Las Vegas, somehow today will feel just a little bit different. As the big games get going once again in Bobby’s Room, one seat will forever remain open, no matter how many people try to lock it up.
Thank you, Mr. Brunson, for treating us all to one final, unforgettable moment.
So long, Big Papa.
— Drew Amato (@drew_amato) June 13, 2018
Ed. note: A couple of the embedded Tweets in this article feature images captured by the very talented photographer Drew Amato. Other images he’s taken of “Doyle’s last ride,” along with an excellent article, can be found on Poker Central.