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Poker News | Poker Book Review

A Review of The Godfather of Poker

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There are lives that are lived out quietly, affecting few, if any people, making little or no mark in the world.  And then there are lives like Doyle Brunson’s, as big as the wide-open Texas expanses from which he came, as full of risk and adventure as a typical Indiana Jones movie.  The publication of The Godfather of Poker: Doyle Brunson - An Autobiography, written in conjunction with Mike Cochran, gives us a look back at the life of probably the most influential figure in the rise of poker in America.  More importantly, it is an honest self-examination by a man, warts and all, who has seen and done things big enough to fill 100 lifetimes.

While Brunson has written about many of the stories and characters that appear here in some of his other books, this is the first time that he offers a complete look at how he went from a boy growing up on a dry cotton farm in a tiny town in Texas, to a multi-sport college athlete good enough to be considered a top NBA prospect, to the legendary gambler and businessman we know today.  The story is a compelling one, and along the way, we are introduced to the people that surrounded Brunson throughout his life.  We meet his Road Gambler partners, Amarillo Slim Preston and Sailor Roberts, the notorious Tony Spilotro (the vicious Mob character played by Joe Pesci in the movie Casino), Jack and Benny Binion, Chip Reese, and a multitude of other legendary figures that made an impact in Brunson’s world.  Perhaps most importantly, we are given an inside look at Doyle’s family relationships, at the father who rarely spoke and never expressed his feelings for his son, at the mother from whom Brunson withheld the knowledge of his profession, knowing that she, and the entire Baptist-influenced town in which he grew up, would treat him as a pariah and at Brunson’s remarkable wife, Louise, with whom he experienced both the miracle of his recovery from melanoma and the tragic death of their daughter, and through whom he discovered a religious faith that infuses much of the later part of his life.

While the public knows Doyle Brunson the 10-time bracelet winning, high stakes playing poker player, this book allows us to see the roller coaster ride that typifies the life of any gambler.  We watch Brunson win and lose millions of dollars in golf matches, throw away multiple fortunes in a variety of failed business endeavors, spend time in jail, get harassed by the IRS and FBI, have his life threatened many times, and lose many of the people closest to him.  A number of those deaths, including Sailor Roberts and, of course, Stu Ungar, were directly caused by drug use, a topic on which Brunson speaks movingly in the book, having lost so many dear friends to their influence.

As we move through Brunson’s life, he is refreshingly candid about his failings in different areas of life, while being justifiably proud about his accomplishments.  He is a man clearly comfortable with the choices he has made in his life, particularly as regards his chosen profession.  While he was pressured numerous times throughout his life to choose a line of work more respectable than “poker player,” he showed a remarkable ability to listen to his inner guidance, despite the outside noise and disapproval, and stuck to what he knew he not only was best at, but also what gave him the most pleasure.  In many regards, this aspect of the story reads just like the biography of almost any successful person.  He found something he was passionate about, and then worked his tail off to be the best that he could be at it, and ultimately achieved success.

Brunson’s autobiography often reads like a movie script, simply because there are so many outrageous stories told about so many outsized characters.  From Minnesota Fats to Titanic Thompson, and Oscar Goodman to Johnny Moss, the reader is entertained on every page.  One of my favorite stories in the book was the time that Doyle and Chip Reese, who were constantly having trouble losing weight, decided to go together to an exclusive weight-loss spa in Utah.  They paid thousands of dollars up front for the stay, as well as $4,000 to get a satellite hook-up for their room, so that they could follow and bet on sporting events while they were in residence.  The first night they were there, they decided to go to a Sizzler across the street, before beginning treatment the next day.  After several trips to the salad bar and multiple entrees, they got up, and without saying a word to one another, jumped in Reese’s car and drove back to Las Vegas, abandoning the plan, as well as thousands of dollars.  The book is replete with anecdotes like this, as well as little-known information about the development of poker through the years.

Through both triumph and tragedy, The Godfather of Poker is an irresistible read.  I put a number of other projects on hold, because I simply could not put the book down.  Whether it was reading about the dangers of poker playing in Fort Worth, or the creation of Super/System, or the Andy Beal match from Brunson’s perspective, or a remarkable man’s confusion about his relationship with his father, Brunson’s autobiography was compelling from start to finish.  For those of us who take for granted the integrity of an online poker site or the honesty of a live tournament, it is important to see what conditions the poker pioneers put up with in struggling to clean up the game and make it the multi-billion dollar industry it has become.  While Brunson himself seems shocked by how big the game has gotten, he is truly proud, and should be, of his own contributions to the growth of the game.  If you are someone who has even the least bit of gamble inside you, you will want to read this book.

*Read Clearspine's Blog*

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