Friends and Fans Honor Doyle Brunson at Celebration of Life

At Doyle Brunson’s Celebration of Life, friends and family recalled stories and memories that encompassed the life and accomplishments of Doyle Brunson, a true poker legend.

Tim Fiorvanti
Jul 2, 2023
The poker world gathered to celebrate the life and career of the legendary Doyle Brunson.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'”

That quote, from Hunter S. Thompson, encompassed Doyle Brunson‘s approach to life and became a central tenet of how he chose to live. His friend and longtime agent, Brian Balsbaugh, used it to kick off Sunday’s Celebration of Life for Brunson. 

The crowd gathered inside the Jubilee Theater at Horseshoe Las Vegas featured Brunson’s friends, poker luminaries, and a sea of fans all looking to honor ‘Texas Dolly.’

After Balsbaugh kicked off the festivities, Dewey Tomko, Mori Eskandani, Gabe Kaplan, Lyle Berman, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Hellmuth each took to the stage to share a few words of their own. There were also several video packages that highlighted Brunson’s life on and off the table.

Hellmuth, mere hours removed from a late night in which he won his record-extending 17th World Series of Poker bracelet, recalled his awe at Brunson’s seemingly perpetual ability to get one over on him.

“This man bluffed me in the ’80s. This man bluffed me in the ’90s. This man bluffed me in the 2000s,” Hellmuth said. “In the 2000s, it was recorded, so I got to see all these freakin’ bluffs he put on me. When I found out I was filming with him in December, I said, ‘This guy’s not going to bluff me. I’m going to earn his respect today.

I had Diamond A Heart Q, and I raised,” said Hellmuth. “It came Club A Spade 10 Heart 8. [Doyle called, the turn was the Heart 2, and on the Heart 5 river, he moved in for $25,000. I sat there hemming and hawing, [and folded], and this man, at age 89, he bluffed me one more time [with Club K Club J]. Well done Doyle. I’ll miss you, [but] I’m not sure I’ll miss being bluffed by you.”

Negreanu spoke about the unmatchable impact that Brunson had on poker, especially in the early days of the tournament scene starting in the late 1970s.

“The term legend, that’s thrown around, as far as I’m concerned, rather loosely,” said Negreanu. “There are a lot of ‘legends’ in the world of poker. But there’s only one [true] legend. And that’s Doyle Brunson.”

Having played with Brunson throughout his career, Negreanu remarked that he was astonished by Brunson’s perpetual ability to adapt.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s getting better,'” said Negreanu. “He was playing pots, and he was doing things that I’d never seen before like he had new tricks up his sleeve.”

When he got his moment on stage, Kaplan, an actor, commentator, and long-time poker player, recalled falling in love with the game and striking up a friendship with Brunson on a trip to Las Vegas.

“He wrote a nice inscription in the book,” said Kaplan. “And he said, ‘This book, I’m selling it for $100, but I want you to have it for free as my gift to you, as my opening gesture of friendship… That $100 book, in the last 40 years, has cost me $35 million.”

Closing out the afternoon’s speaking slate, Doyle’s son Todd mixed some sentimentality with a few of his trademark-friendly needles. Todd called out a number of people in the assembled crowd, including Hellmuth, who he accused of stealing the spotlight from his dad by winning a WSOP bracelet three hours before the ceremony.

As he wrapped up his gentle roasting of the poker community, Todd described growing up in Texas, moving to Las Vegas, and the parts of his dad’s life he got to see up close. After a few more gentle roasts, Todd showed appreciation to everyone who showed up to pay one more tribute to his father.

“Thanks to all of you for coming,” Todd said. “He would have been tickled pink to see this turnout.”