When we think of great Texas competitors — the legendary Cowboys football players, the basketball stars of the modern Mavericks, and so on — poker players don’t typically come to mind.
Of course, this is in part because poker isn’t exactly a sport.
But over time it has morphed into a spectator competition that is at least on the fringe of the sporting world. And when we consider it this way, it’s only right to include the name Doyle Brunson in the pantheon of great Texas competitors.
Not for nothing, Brunson was an athlete in the traditional sense! In his early days, he was a track star in the now-unincorporated territory of Longworth — by no means the immediate Dallas area, though closer to Dallas than any other major metro area. He ran a sub-five-minute mile in competition in 1950 but then turned his full attention to basketball, where he was a star. Brunson was a sought-after recruit who wound up playing for Hardin-Simmons University (still a Division-III sports school in Abilene), and his college stats are actually still available online! Brunson made enough of an impression during the 1952-53 season to garner attention from the Minneapolis Lakers.
Whether or not Brunson would have gone on to a career in professional basketball, we’ll never go. Sadly, he sustained a serious knee injury and ended his career after just two college seasons.
Lucky for him and the world of pro poker though, Brunson had already begun to dabble in cards by that point.
Mind you, this was a very different era. Today, people can download an app or play poker online when looking to get into the game. There are options both for casual practice and for real-money play, and the only risk in giving it a shot is that of losing money in games. When Doyle Brunson began to get more serious about his poker though, he was at that time essentially practicing an illegal activity. There was crime surrounding the poker culture, and some of Brunson’s friends ultimately wound up on the wrong side of it. Nevertheless, he thrived at the tables when he played, and the game ultimately took him on a journey to Las Vegas (possibly to escape the poker scene in Texas without giving up the game altogether).
Resettled in Vegas, Doyle Brunson quickly established himself as a force in professional poker, where he would go on to be the ultimate fixture. Brunson was involved in the inaugural World Series Of Poker in 1970 and wound up winning the Main Event in back-to-back years in 1976 and 1977. Combined, these are considered to be among the most significant wins in poker history. They even got a hand in the game named for Brunson. Because both wins started with Brunson being dealt a 10 and a 2, that combination of cards is known in poker circles as “The Brunson Hand.”
Those back-to-back wins represent the peak of Brunson’s career, but he kept on playing for decades — right up until he retired from poker at age 85, just a few years ago.
He entered the WSOP alongside his son, earned a cool $43,963 in his last ever event, and left the Rio Convention Center in Las Vegas on an electric scooter.
Doyle Brunson may not be from the heart of Dallas, and he may not have wound up playing a major professional sport.
But the once-promising athlete is a bona fide poker legend, and one of the truly great competitors to have ever come out of the states of Texas.
Featured Image: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today