The History of Poker—The Players—Texas & Vegas Legends

THE HISTORY OF POKER

THE PLAYERS—TEXAS/LAS VEGAS LEGENDS

In the 20th century there was no better place to be a professional poker player than Texas or Las Vegas. Here we focus on four of the most legendary players who defined this poker era.

DOYLE BRUNSON (TEXAS DOLLY)

Doyle Brunson is one of the most well-known and accomplished poker players of all time. He has won ten WSOP bracelets throughout his poker career and was the first player to win over a million dollars in poker tournaments. He also authored Super/System and Super/System 2, two extremely influential poker books.

His poker adventures began in the 1960s when he and his friends traveled around Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas looking for the biggest games. Unfortunately, these games frequently happened to be run by organized crime gangs and Brunson had a gun pulled on him and was robbed more than once.

He could have been a player in the NBA in a parallel universe, but a knee injury prevented him from pursuing it further after a good stint in high school and college basketball. Instead, he found himself at a seven-card stud game one day and in one game won more than the monthly salary he made as a business machine salesman.

His poker career turned out to be more than stellar, with 37 cashes at the WSOP and winning the tournament back-to-back in 1976 and 1977. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988 for his contributions to the game. By the late stage of his career, his poker winnings exceeded six million dollars.

Two Texas hold’em hands are named after Doyle Brunson—the ten-deuce and the suited ace-queen. The latter is a hand he claims never to play, while the former is the hand that won him the WSOP Main Event twice, in 1976 and 1977.

STU UNGAR

Along with Doyle Brunson, three other players have won the World Series of Poker back-to-back. One of them is Stu Ungar, a brilliant poker player and a dark legend of the game.

Born to a bookmaker and a loan shark, Ungar started early. Despite his father’s efforts to keep his son shielded from games of chance, Ungar seemed to have a natural talent for them. He won his first gin tournament at the age of 10. Then, after his father’s premature death due to a heart attack, he started playing gin professionally to support his family.

With gin, Ungar was a victim of his own success. After playing and beating the top gin players in New York, Miami, and Las Vegas, his skills became well-known, and most players did not want to play against him at all. At one point, he had to handicap himself in the game to offer a winning chance to his opponents. Nevertheless, he always maintained he was a better gin player than he was a poker player.

Despite his modesty, he was an exceptional poker player. He entered the 1980 WSOP Main Event (his first poker tournament) and won it, defeating Doyle Brunson heads-up in the final table. Not only did he become the youngest player to win the tournament, but also came back and defended his title successfully next year.

However, when it came to his personal life, things weren’t as rosy. He started using cocaine at an early age after his mother’s death, a recreational habit that eventually became an addiction and destroyed his life. Additionally, Ungar became heavily interested in sports betting, often losing most of his poker winnings on that.

By the time he won his last WSOP Main Event, he had little money left and was wholly addicted. He turned to his friends to raise money to enter the tournament and finally found his backer in Mike Sexton. Fighting the physical effects of his addiction, he kept a picture of his daughter with him as he made his way through the field. Eventually, he emerged as the winner, becoming one of the only three players to win it three times.

Stu Ungar wore a pair of sunglasses throughout the tournament to hide his nostrils that had collapsed from drug abuse.

The win didn’t change his fortunes, and he spent most of the money he won on drugs and sports betting. Despite winning more than $30 million over his poker career, Stu Ungar died in a $24 motel room in the Las Vegas Strip with no assets to his name. To date, he is considered one of the best poker talents to have ever lived, known for his highly aggressive style and unbelievable bluffs.

PHILL HELMUTH

Along with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan (don’t worry, we cover Johnny next), Phil Helmuth is one of the few players who won more than 10 WSOP bracelets throughout their careers. However, Helmuth is an outlier even in that list, as he currently holds the record for the most WSOP bracelets won (16).

Like Stu Ungar, Helmuth started young, eventually dropping out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a career as a professional poker player. Again, he found success early, becoming the youngest player to win the WSOP Main Event at 24.

Along with his skills, Phil is known for his temper outbursts at poker, earning the nickname “Poker Brat.” Although he earned his status in the live poker scene, his entertaining appearances on poker TV shows made him extremely popular in the subculture.

For 57-year-old Helmuth, his career is far from over, and his contributions to the game finally saw him being inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007.

JOHNNY CHAN

Johnny Chan first started playing cards with the staff of his family-owned restaurants in Houston, Texas. By the age of 21, Johnny too decided to drop out of school and pursue a career in Las Vegas as a professional poker player.

It would prove to be the right decision, as he broke several records, cementing his position as a legend of the game. Like the other players on the list, he won the WSOP Main Event in 1987, and became the first non-US national to do so. The following year, he returned and defended his title successfully. Unfortunately, for the year after that, he ended up 2nd, losing heads-up to a young poker player named Phil Helmuth.

Over his career, he won 10 WSOP bracelets and became a frequent guest on poker TV shows. In 2002, the Poker Hall of Fame inducted Johnny Chan into its list of the greatest poker players worldwide.

THE FIRST ACTUAL PROFESSIONAL POKER PLAYERS

During the 80s and 90s, Las Vegas was the mecca of professional poker players. There was no shortage of action, and tournaments like the WSOP helped legitimize the wild world of poker.

Yet, the tales of this era were just as wild as the early poker players in the old west.

Over the following decades, a new breed of online poker players would emerge from the poker boom in the mid-2000s. Yep, we cover that era too.