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The Godfather Of Poker

Editor's note: Doyle Brunson recently released his autobiography "The Godfather of Poker" and was kind enough to share one of his favorite chapters with ESPN.com. In the following excerpt, Brunson recounts his feelings during his run at his first WSOP main event title. You can buy his book at www.cardozabooks.com.

Sometimes your mind slows things down and you see events playing out like a movie up on the big screen. The 1976 World Series of Poker was one of those times. I'd already watched my poker-playing buddies -- Johnny [Moss], [Amarillo] Slim, Sailor [Roberts], and Puggy [Pearson] -- take down the championship and I really wanted to win this thing. I was sure I was the best player at the time, but I needed that title for validation, not just for myself, but among my peers. I also wanted to prove my abilities to Louise. Although she never once expressed a desire to watch me play, and in fact, never once saw me play a hand -- Louise had no idea about gambling and poker-- I knew she was proud of my accomplishments at the table.

Being the World Champion might accomplish that.

The Main Event, the most prestigious event of the year in poker, was a gathering of the greatest no-limit hold'em players in the world. The field comprised twenty-two players, headed by former champions Puggy, Slim, and Sailor, along with three-time winner Johnny Moss. Only one of those championships went to a non-Texan, Puggy, but he had played with us a
lot. For the first time, I wasn't afraid of the publicity that winning would generate -- not that I wanted the public notoriety, because I didn't -- but the WSOP had received so much press over the previous few years that the stigma of being a professional gambler was diminished. And by now, my competitive instincts overrode everything.

After six appearances and no world championships, I was anxious for the 1976 Main Event to begin. I'd had a good start to the Series, winning the deuce-to-seven draw preliminary event, but the $10,000 buy-in Main Event was the one I really wanted to win. Me and every other poker player.

While there was good money to be won in the tournaments, it wasn't just the Main Event that was the attraction -- it was the big side games, where amateurs and hometown pros would mix it up with us, trying to take on the best players in the world. Those adventurous players weren't used to our level of competition and made a big mistake you often see at the poker tables: they overestimated their abilities. Which was perfectly fine with me. Between the tournaments and the cash games, there was little time to sleep. It was money-making time for us with all the easy action in town. This was not the time of year to take your vacation. The Main Event got under way with a lot of excitement in the air and a lot of ribbing back and forth at the tables. Slim and Sailor were in full form, playing to the crowd and the increasing media frenzy that now accompanied the World Series.

"Hey, things are looking up," Sailor announced. "Last night, Slim and I were betting on what time the six o'clock movie came on. He liked six-thirty. I won that one."

Slim would come back with one of his favorites: "Got half a mind to slip a rattlesnake in his pocket and ask him for a match."

Underneath the jabs, we were plenty focused, and it wasn't long before everybody got pretty serious. We lost two great players right out of the gate. Johnny Moss was eliminated in the first two hours, followed in quick order by Jack Straus. I'd like to say that the field got easier, but it was an all-star lineup of the greatest no-limit players competing. But at least I was two tough players closer. I was playing great poker. I felt I had a real opportunity to win if I maintained my concentration and stayed on my game, which meant being
aggressive, aggressive, and more aggressive. At the end of the first day, I was in good chip shape and the field had narrowed. We were down to eight players when Bobby Baldwin got
eliminated. He was a great young player who would go on to win the championship just two years later -- but this wasn't his year. Puggy went next, along with Bert Rice, a Texan. Crandell [Addington] had taken out both Puggy and Bert on one hand with trip fives and proceeded to break Sailor next with three queens. That got us four-handed: Crandell, Jesse Alto, [Tommy] Hufnagel, and me.

Crandell took great pride in how he presented himself-- he was always the flashiest dresser in the game-- and for the tournament, favored a three-piece suit with a matching flawless Stetson, a lustrous silk tie and top-of-the-line cowboy boots. Crandell's claim to fame was that he never loosened his tie at the poker table. I had run up against him many times around the Texas Circuit and felt he would give me the most problems in the tournament. He knew how to play and, like me, he was aggressive, throwing a lot of bets at the pot. He'd bluff with nothing and just as easily trap an opponent with a monster.

Crandell confidently exhaled blue rings of smoke above the table, but his confidence wasn't quite enough to carry him all the way. Holding a pair of jacks, he thought he'd caught me bluffing. I wasn't. I sent him and his cigar to the rail with three nines. With Crandell gone, I had one less landmine to dodge. Playing three-handed with my toughest opponent out
of the way, I liked my chances. I figured I could outmaneuver and outthink these two relative newcomers to the game. With his youth, talent and flashy style, Hufnagel had earned his nickname of "Fast Eddie" from the movie Hustler starring Paul Newman and had already put in an impressive performance. I would have liked his chances if I hadn't been at the table. But I was -- that championship title would have to run through me. Finally, I broke him when he went all-in with a pair of eights against my pair of jacks.

The championship came down to me and Jesse Alto. Jesse, who ran the largest poker game in Houston, was a good player with a great record -- he eventually made six Main Event final tables -- but he didn't have my expertise at that time. I was picking my opportunities to wear him down and found a good one after I beat him in a big pot. I had played with him plenty and knew he was a notorious "steamer," meaning that he had a tendency to play recklessly after losing a big pot. And I had him steaming pretty good.

I was in solid chip position, holding twice as many chips as Jesse. "If I can win the next hand, I might break him," I told myself.

We had played all night, and it wouldn't be much more time before dawn. I thought I could beat him out of his chips before long. On the next deal, I drew the 10-2, not quality pocket cards and a hand I wouldn't ordinarily play, but I as playing out my hunch. Jesse was in the small blind and tentatively raised the pot. I called him since I had so many chips and had position on him. The flop came A-J-10, giving me a pair of tens. Jesse bet and I called him. While my bottom pair of tens with a worthless kicker wasn't strong, I didn't put Jesse on much of a hand either.

A deuce fell on the turn, giving me two pair. Jesse was first and led into the pot with a small bet. I figured to have the best hand and moved in on him. He took a hard look at me, trying to gauge where I was at. We still had another card coming, and it would cost Jesse the rest of his chips to see that card. If I won, it would all be over. If I lost, he would win a big pot and be right back in the game. I could see that Jesse was feeling the effects of our marathon session. We'd been going at it for thirty-two hours straight, something I'd done countless times in my career, but never before with so much prestige on the line. Jesse's eyes had dark shadows underneath them, and they were hooded with weariness. He was drinking coffee to stay alert, and his head drooped slightly so that he observed me from a lower angle, resting his chin more and more on his hand. The stubble on his beard was a full day past a five o'clock shadow and he looked like a man who needed some serious sleep. I don't imagine I looked a whole lot better, certainly not with all the cigarette smoke making my eyes bleary. But none of this detracted from my concentration or Jesse's; neither one of us was going to hand the championship to the other just because of a little sleep deprivation.

Jesse didn't deliberate as long as I expected before he called my all-in bet. That wasn't a good sign. All of Jesse's chips slid right into the pot. I thought my two pair was good and he'd need a lucky river card to win the pot. But I was wrong about who would need it. "What've you got?" I asked.

My heart sank when Jesse showed the A-J. The board cards were A-J-10-2, giving Jesse aces and jacks -- better than my tens and deuces. He was a prohibitive favorite to win this pot. Of course, I didn't know that until we got all the chips in the middle and turned over our cards. Because he was steaming, I just knew he was going to play this hand regardless of what he had, and it was simply bad luck for me that he had happened to wake up with a quality hand. Many times before I had called him without a pair, with just ace-high, and it was good. More than any other player, when Jesse Alto was steamed, he just shot his money off. That's the main reason I played that 10-2. But this time, he had picked up a big hand.

"You've got me beat," I said turning over my 10-2. But I knew if I lost the pot, I would still have about one-third of the chips and could easily come back. There would be plenty of play left, and I was confident I could take back the lead. Also, there was one more card to play, the river, and I had four "outs," cards that would make my hand the winner. If either of the two remaining tens or deuces got dealt, I'd make a full house and have the winning hand. I was an 11 to 1 underdog to get one of those outs, but even if that card didn't help me, I was still in this game. When people take a quick look at a hold'em hand, it seems like the game sometimes comes down to one lucky card, and they write it off as that. But poker is not played in one hand; it's a long series of hands and if you make the right decisions, the chips will come to you. A lot of trapping and setting up of plays occurs way before a pivotal hand comes down. The top players play their opponents, not their cards. That's what separates them from the merely good players, who don't fully understand that concept.

The tension in the room was heavy as everyone waited to see the final card. As the railbirds leaned in over the table, the dealer hesitated ever so slightly, waiting for the go-ahead nod from Jack before dealing. I'd never experienced such a significant moment at a poker table. If I got my card here, it would be over. I felt the weight of all those hours of play as the dealer slid the card off the top of the deck and turned it over. Wow! Was it really the ten of diamonds? The noise rising from the spectators jammed up around the table and the TV cameras undeniably confirmed it. I'd made a full house, tens over twos to beat Jesse's two pair. I was the new World Champion of Poker!

I got up from my seat with a smile that must have been wider than my Stetson hat. Everybody was screaming their congratulations, jumping up and down and clapping their hands and each others' backs. Their jubilation was contagious, finally spilling over on me: I'd been waiting for this moment a long time.

In some ways, this victory was the greatest thrill of my poker career, but in other ways, my elation was tempered. It was as though winning the championship was my due. In 1972, okay, I didn't win it, I gave it to Slim. In 1973, Puggy won it outright. Then in 1974, it was Moss again followed by Sailor in 1975. But now it was my time. I felt like I was supposed to win so I wasn't particularly surprised. It wasn't so much the money thatreally struck me, a big pile of it in stacks of $100 bills that Jack Binion pushed over to me. I had picked up $220,000 for the victory, which was a lot of money at the time and the most ever won in a tournament, but the championship meant more than the money. It validated my standing
among the great no-limit players that I regularly competed against in cash games.

I had played world-class poker to win that match and felt, deep down, that the title belonged in my hands. It was also gratifying that Slim, Sailor, and I had completed the championship triangle from our partnership days.

When that last card crowned me champion, I felt like I had just climbed Mount Rushmore. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I was glad it was over. The truth was I wanted to get into one of the side games, which were always particularly good during the Main Event. For one year at the minimum, I would hold the crown as the World Champion of Poker. As a poker player, there isn't a better feeling in the world.