WSOP 2013: A legend looks at 80

"The trouble with this stuff is they do it right before you die."

That was Doyle Brunson. He stood at a lectern looking down at a field of WSOP Day 1B players. Nearly all of them were younger than him. He was, in a way, looking down at hundreds of younger versions of himself. Grinders. Rounders. The future of poker.

Doyle knows he is not the future of poker. He seems--even if he doesn't like it--comfortable with the idea that the game he helped make famous is different today. But that's not the point. The point is, at this moment, seconds before the beginning of the tournament day, the man known as Texas Dolly is literally standing next to a younger version of himself.

Beside the lectern sat a bronze bust. It represented a younger Doyle, his chin upturned, a smile on his face, his collar open. Unveiled today, it's the WSOP's way of saying thank you, its way of saying, "Doyle, this tournament will always be yours."

WSOP exec Ty Stewart said it as clearly as he could: "He is the living legend of the game."

The crowd cheered and whooped. Brunson watched and listened, knowing, like the bronze bust, that's the kind of thing they say about you right before you die.

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***

As mathematically inevitable as it is, there is no accounting for the psychic torture each advancing year brings. For every hotshot optimist who declares, "Age is just a number!" there is someone looking in the mirror and seeing a little more gray hair, another wrinkle, or some miniscule but clever metamorphosis that will someday be the new normal. There are phantom aches, muscles pulled for no reason, and memories scattering like aerosol mist. It's a steady creep that--on some random morning of some random year that comes way too soon--hits with a cloudy early morning cheap shot. Youth is now a Norman Rockwell memory.

If it seems like I'm belaboring the point beyond what's polite, please know I have reasons. I turn 40 years old in December, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it's taking a bit of a toll on my already fragile ego. I'm looking and feeling older every day. It's not like turning 30, where "I'm so old!" is just something you say so you have something to say. It's as real as it is arbitrary, and I'd be lying if tried to pretend I don't spend an inordinate amount of time quietly lamenting the state of my personal and crumbling union. I look at what I've done and know it's not enough. I look at what I'm doing and know it's not enough. Most waking moments are spent in half-conscious self-loathing. It's really quite pathetic, no matter how you look at it.

And so as I stood looking at a smiling Doyle Brunson on stage this morning, something occurred to me: Doyle Brunson turns 80 years old in a few weeks. Even the WSOP-commissioned bust represents a Brunson who is older than I am.

Put another way, as I looked at Brunson, I had no doubt he would give up the bust, his WSOP bracelets, and all but his case money to be 40 years old again.

Or, put even another way, almost everything for which we celebrate Doyle Brunson at the WSOP happened after--AFTER--he turned 40 years old. He was born in 1933. He won the WSOP Main Event for the first time in 1976. He won it again in 1977.

After he was 40 years old.

And now, just a few weeks short of turning 80, Brunson was standing tall, smiling, and resting his hand on top of a bust that commemorates the amazing life he lived after he turned 40.

And, forgive me for the language, but that was right about the time I started feeling like an asshole.

***

Brunson still regularly plays the cash games here in Vegas. He works harder than most people half his age. He plays as many hours as he can, but still tries to make it home before midnight, because his wife doesn't like to go to sleep until he's home. He does it, because he lives in constant defiance of his age.

He told a story a couple of weeks ago: he went bust, stood up to get more chips, stumbled, and fell. He still had a hand when he righted himself. It was ten-deuce, the hand with which he won both of his Main Event titles, the hand that carries his name, the hand in front of him when he fell over in the poker room at age 79.

It was the kind of Hollywood script that would require some serious suspension of disbelief, but Brunson saw the potential.

"Would have been a great story if I kicked the bucket," he said.

Today, after saying he wasn't going to play the Main Event, Brunson showed up anyway, because that's what he does. He plays the World Series of Poker, and no matter how many jokes he makes about his age, he lives. He lives because he's still alive.

***

One of the first lessons I ever learned in journalism is that you just don't join a round of applause when you're on the job. Reporting is at its essence a practice in objectivity.

But today I found myself standing in the crowd of young people, and I was clapping. I was--almost absurdly--feeling a tightness in my chest as I watched Doyle Brunson graciously accept the honor. He is a man who has done more since he turned 40 than most people do in their lives.

No matter whether he lives to a hundred years old or gives it up after this Main Event, he's still happy to be here. He's still happy to live because he's still alive.

And then he looked out over the Main Event players and told them his motto: "You don't cry because it's over. You smile because it happened."

He waited one beat and said, "Shuffle up and deal."

Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Photos courtesy Poker Photo Archive.