Within the world of poker, there may never be a name that draws the kind of reverence and admiration as that of Doyle Brunson. The World Poker Tour champion and 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet-winner was around when Texas Hold’em first rose to popularity in the 1970s, as Brunson became a back-to-back WSOP Main Event champion.
Over the next 50-plus years, Brunson competed at the highest stakes poker had to offer, finding success wherever and whenever he played. Tales of his legend stretch well beyond Brunson’s recorded tournament and cash game successes, from his time as a collegiate basketball player, to Texas road gambling and beyond. And so, even before Brunson died back in May at the age of 89, if any poker player’s life merited the Hollywood treatment, Brunson would be a primary candidate.
Unsurprisingly, several projects are in the works. In addition to a long-awaited documentary on Brunson’s life, a high-profile biopic project is also underway. In May 2022, Deadline reported that Radar Pictures had secured Brunson’s life rights with plans to develop the biopic. Justin Smith, who retired from poker seven years ago to pursue a career in producing films and TV, was a natural fit to work on a Doyle biopic.
“I played with Doyle quite a bit,” said Smith. “I think the first time I played with him was when I turned 21. We were playing in the big game, the old school big game in Bobby’s room. I jumped into it and started playing pretty regularly with him for a few years, and so I had some background knowledge on him.”
Smith made a name for himself in the world of poker with millions of dollars in live and online tournament results as well as playing in some of the biggest cash games in the world. In his new career track, he found an ideal landing spot in the industry with Radar Pictures and founder Ted Field. Field has been an Executive Producer on a lengthy list of high-profile films including Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Jumanji, among many others.
While Field is intricately connected throughout Hollywood, it was Smith’s connection to the gambling world that ultimately helped to set the Doyle Brunson biopic into motion.
“Mike Svobodny – he’s a legendary gambler, he won the world championship of backgammon and he’s extremely well known among the old school kind of gambling circles – Svobo and I have had a close relationship for over 10 years, where we still talk to each other pretty regularly,” said Smith. “He is close friends with Jack Binion, who of course was Doyle’s best friend, pretty much. I think Svobo got the green light from Jack, so he called me with this idea, a biopic on Doyle. I’ve actually always had that on my list to do, but I thought that maybe Doyle didn’t want to do it for some reason.
“Brian Balsbaugh, the poker super-agent, got involved, and I’ve known him since I was 18,” said Smith. “He was already kind of familiar to me. My partner Ted and I flew to Vegas to meet Brian and Doyle for lunch, flew back the same day and we had a solidified deal for the rights to Doyle’s life story. That was the origin of how it all came to be.”
Smith got to work writing an initial script, and once he had something tangible on his hands, he had a direct line of contact so that Brunson could weigh in on some key points.
“Doyle gave me his notes on the script,” Smith said. “Mostly it was Doyle and I speaking, and Ted and I developing it. There are so many stories to tell.”
Others with experience in the poker and gambling world lent their voices and opinions along the way as well. In addition to Balsbaugh and Brunson himself, Daniel Cates, David Oppenheim, Illya Trincher and Mike McGuiness also got involved.
Smith delighted in putting together the script, which went through several revisions along the way to get its current state. Along the way, he also found a deeper appreciation of the journey Brunson went on throughout his life and gleaned a few nuggets of wisdom that he took to heart.
“With Doyle, there’s no one else like him,” said Smith. “He started in the old world and we see how he adapted to the times and technology of poker. He learned by sitting there, dealing out cards [and doing the math by hand]. But now there’s computers, and in more recent years since I’ve even been out of the game, there are solvers. And he figured it out [and stayed in the game].
“I think just analyzing the life of someone who lived so long is just inherently interesting, because I’m not there yet. I wasn’t bathing in a steel tub outdoors with dirty water, after my older sister was done. I’m only 35, and so much has changed in my lifetime. I’m always curious about how people’s mindsets change as they get older. Knowing more about living such a colorful life as he did and the lessons that he learned along the way.”
The project, which started with Brunson himself involved, has a different feel to it following his death. Beyond having him as a resource to bounce things off of, Smith feels as though his absence will be felt most once the movie is finished.
“It’s sad that he wasn’t able to bask in the limelight, walk a red carpet of his own movie of his life,” said Smith. “Have that whole experience of being able to see the whole thing completed. To me, at least, I have the text messages between Doyle and I, knowing he was able to read a script and that he was very excited and happy about it.”
There have been some delays in the process due to the ongoing actor’s and writers’ strikes, with the latter having been settled in recent weeks. Smith and Field are also looking to lock down a few remaining key players, with Smith indicating there’s been positive momentum and “a very strong interest from an ‘A-list director who has read the script.”
Poker fans will certainly be excited to see a Brunson biopic once it comes to fruition. But in Smith’s mind, the movie has the potential to be the kind of successful crossover into the mainstream that poker hasn’t seen in quite some time – and the person at the heart of the project is the primary reason.
“He’s a legend, and there will never be anybody else ever like him,” said Smith. “This movie will just bolster his place in history, [especially for people] outside of poker.”