Doyle Brunson, widely considered the “Godfather of Poker,” died on May 14 at age 89. Known for his distinctive cowboy hat and Texas drawl, Brunson was the first player to win $1 million in poker tournaments, and won 10 World Series of Poker bracelets throughout his career, including two main event championships.
A professional poker player for more than five decades, Brunson is widely credited with helping popularize poker across the U.S., and has written several books about the game.
Doyle Brunson also lived a remarkably colorful and eventful life, both at and away from the poker table. Here are just a few of Brunson’s wildest true stories.
#1. His cancer suddenly disappeared.
Doyle Brunson was only 29 years old when he was told he had three months to live. After he discovered a lump on his neck, doctors found an advanced form of melanoma progressing upward from his neck toward his brain. Brunson was told to get his affairs in order, and he only hoped to live long enough to see the birth of his daughter, Louisa.
But when it came time to operate, Brunson's doctors were shocked to discover the cancer had disappeared, seemingly completely on its own. “They said sometimes they see one or two cases of spontaneous remission,” Brunson told Poker.org. “They had no explanation for it.”
#2. He witnessed a shooting during a poker game.
Brunson’s career as a professional poker player started with a bang—literally. In his early years, Brunson frequently played on a particularly dangerous street in Fort Worth, Texas called “Bloodthirsty Highway.” During his first year as a pro, Brunson claimed he was playing in a pool hall there when someone came in and shot another player in the head.
“His brains seemed to splatter all over the wall,” Brunson said of the incident on Twitter. “We all ran out the back door to keep from talking to cops. We had to go through a cold, cold creek.”
#3. He won two straight championships with a bad hand.
A 10 and 2 of any suit isn’t typically a great starting hand in poker, but it is known as the “Doyle Brunson hand” because Brunson famously won two back-to-back No Limit Hold ‘Em events at the World Series of Poker while holding that hand in the final play.
Both in 1976 and 1977, Brunson was the underdog holding the 10-2, with his opponent having him beat until the “river card,” or the final card flipped by the dealer. In both instances, he needed a 10 to be dealt on the river to give him a full house and the victory. The odds of that happening once were 11 to 1, and yet it happened both times for Brunson.
#4. He rebuffed threats from a mobster.
Doyle Brunson has stared down some big bluffs in his day, but none compare to the time he called the bluff of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. The infamous Las Vegas mobster—who is believed to have killed at least 20 people, and inspired the character played by Joe Pesci in the film Casino (1995)—reportedly demanded a 25 percent cut of Brunson’s poker winnings.
“If you don’t like it, I’ll stick 12 ice picks in that big fat gut of yours,” Spilotro allegedly told Brunson, to which Brunson replied, “You can’t kill everyone.” Brunson never paid, and he believed his connections with Benny Binion—the former mob boss who founded the World Series of Poker—helped protect him from any retribution from Spilotro.
#5. He faked a heart attack during a robbery.
Brunson claimed he had been robbed at least five times in his life, including one instance in which he faked a heart attack to confuse the robbers. During that 1998 robbery, two men dressed in black and ski masks pulled a handgun on him and dragged him into his Las Vegas Country Club home, repeatedly yelling, “You’re going to die,” and demanding money.
Brunson, who was handcuffed to his wife, didn’t have much money in the house, so he faked a heart attack. “I just knew that if I didn't have any money here to give them, they'd be awfully mad,” Brunson told the Las Vegas Sun. The robbers made off with $4,000 in cash and $80,000 in chips. After that, Brunson said he carried a gun with him at all times.
#6. A man died after losing a hand to him.
Doyle Brunson once beat an opponent in a hand so badly that he died, according to Texas Monthly. Red Dodson was playing Brunson in a poker variation that rewarded having low cards. After getting bluffed by Brunson all night, Dodson was dealt an ace, two, three, four, and six, the second-best hand possible in this version of the game.
After betting big, Dodson turned over his cards, confident in his victory until Brunson revealed ace, two, three, four, five—the only hand that could beat him. Dodson's eyes allegedly rolled back, he started turning blue, then he fell out of his chair, dead before he hit the floor. Brunson collected the pot while awaiting paramedics: “I felt bad, but that’s poker, and bad beats happen.”
#7. He made a $235 million miscalculation.
Many virtual poker rooms were created during the online poker boom in the early 2010s, and Brunson got in on the action. His site, called Doyle’s Room, generated a great deal of interest due to his name branding, and Brunson claimed at one point in 2011 he was offered $235 million for the room, but he turned it down because he believed it was worth more.
Unfortunately for Doyle, shortly after he rejected the offer, the federal government cracked down on virtual poker during what became known among the community as “Black Friday,” significantly reducing the value of his site. “That haunts me to this day,” Brunson said. “I thought it was going to be worth twice that and it would have been. How much do you need?”
#8. He made a $1 million bet to lose weight.
During a 2003 poker game, Doyle Brunson’s weight had become such a problem that he had trouble standing up from the table, according to Texas Monthly. He told the other players he needed to lose 100 pounds, and they offered him 10-to-1 odds that he couldn’t lose the weight in two years. Brunson took the bet, putting up $100,000, meaning he’d get $1 million if he won.
After going one year and several months without losing any weight, Brunson went on a diet and the pounds started dropping rapidly. With a few weeks to go, he was down 98 pounds, and his friends offered him $980,000 to end the bet early. He accepted, and afterward they played poker, during which Brunson lost all of the money.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.