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Poker legend Doyle Brunson marks 40th WSOP

July 12, 2009|Richard Abowitz

Wynn Resort's posh nightclub Blush didn't seem to be enforcing its "casual chic" dress code earlier this month when poker players gathered to honor one of their own: Doyle Brunson. Wearing a big cowboy hat (normally a club no-no) and bouncing the occasional admiring young woman on his knee, the 75-year-old Brunson was having a blast telling stories of games past.

The 40th anniversary of the main event of the World Series of Poker would be starting its first day of registration the next morning, and the party was honoring Brunson's 40th anniversary as a player at the WSOP. Brunson has won the main event twice (the first to do so in consecutive years) and altogether has won 10 bracelets at WSOP events.

Brunson's beginnings in poker, he recalls, date back to playing illegal games in the '60s, but that changed with legal poker in Vegas and his highly influential book "Super/System" from 1978 (originally self-published). But it wasn't until TV and the Internet that poker's profile exploded. Now the game not only attracts celebrities but has also made players such as Brunson into stars themselves. This year at various WSOP events, he's routinely rubbed elbows with players such as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Charles Barkley, Jason Alexander, Herschel Walker, Brad Garrett, Cedric the Entertainer and Jennifer Tilly.

That amazes and amuses Brunson. Although he's surprised by his own celebrity, he is not surprised by the game's change in popularity -- from crime to spectator sport. "No one thought it would come to this," he says, as he looks around the plush club. "But America found out what I knew 50 years ago. Poker is the greatest game there is."

Brunson will always be remembered for being one of its all-time great players. "More than any single figure, Brunson bridged poker's past to its present," says Las Vegas gambling expert Anthony Curtis. " 'Super/System' was probably the most influential book in constantly attracting new players." And, as a player, Curtis does not count Brunson out. "He's always commanded the respect of even the newest and brashest on the scene, which is a testimony to the fact that, on top of having seen it all, he's also extraordinarily skilled. Truth is, if he couldn't play, they'd ignore him."

The young players concur. "Not only can he still play competitively, he is still among the best in the world," says Daniel Negreanu. "And in some senses, he is even better now, because Doyle learns something new every day." Jennifer Harman, another poker pro, adds: "He still has the poker mind of a 25-year-old. It is amazing."

Regardless of his future winnings, Brunson's ties to the past will always keep his stature unique. At the Blush party, packed with the young and the beautiful as well as some of the best up-and-coming players in the world, Brunson sat next to an unassuming man in a sports jacket: Jack Binion, who with his late father Benny Binion helped create the WSOP.

Though Harrah's now owns the tournament (which no longer takes place at Binion's but at the Rio), Binion has seen the best players for decades. "Doyle dominated poker in his day more than anyone could today," he says. "He is not as good as he used to be, but he is still good enough that these young players better watch out."

Brunson, on the other hand, thinks his days of winning big are behind him: "I have a bull's-eye on me, and everyone wants to beat me. So, if I am not real lucky, I have to jump too many hurdles."

Still, each year Brunson forks over the $10,000 fee for the buy-in. "I feel I owe poker to play in the main event. And, I love playing. I am a poker player. That is all I am."

As it turned out, he was right about his chances. At 1:59 p.m. last Sunday, Brunson sent out a tweet: "WSOP 2009 is over for me. It's disappointing, but also a sense of relief. Now back to the real world."


Showgirl Electra

"It is my dream to be in a Vegas show," Carmen Electra says. She is sitting in her dressing room at MGM Grand, before a rehearsal for a week of cameos in "Crazy Horse," the resort's topless show in which she will appear with pasties.

Even casually dressed in sweats, with sneakers bearing a likeness of Jim Morrison and a logo for the Doors, Electra is stunning in person and looks far younger than her age of 37.

Twice before, the dancer, actress, model and singer has come close to being a showgirl on the Strip. The first attempt was years ago: A news conference announced Electra as the star in a forthcoming show at the Aladdin. But the show simply never happened. "It sort of dissolved," Electra says now. Her next effort was in 2007, as a would-be assistant to magician Hans Klok in his short-lived show at Planet Hollywood. But she departed during rehearsals, and the show opened with Pamela Anderson as a replacement. Electra has no regrets: "I felt as if my heart was not into it. The chemistry wasn't there. I could not fake it."

But with her guest appearance in "Crazy Horse," Electra feels she has finally found an suitable outlet, especially because it taps into her ability as a dancer. "I have so much respect for the beauty and history of 'Crazy Horse.' I am honored to be able to do this. So much of it is based on classical ballet."

So she says she has been rehearsing with more discipline than those who know her reputation as a party girl may expect. "For me on this trip," she says, "I have just been working long hours. I don't want to leave. I really want to nail the choreography and the music and after rehearsals, I go straight up to my room."

Though her first run ends with her shows tonight and Monday, she is hoping this becomes more than a cameo. "For me, my heart is really here," Electra says. "I love doing this and I love live audiences. I really want to perform in Vegas more permanently."


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