The Brunson 10(Duece)

When the NBA, NHL, NFL or MLB gather a collection of stars together all at once – like, for their annual all-star extravaganzas – the spectacle is nothing short of stunning. Though, it’s almost like a mirage: one minute they’re as phenomenal a group of talent incomparable to any other in the world, all briefly under one roof for your viewing pleasure. Then they’re gone.

Now imagine for a moment if one of those all-stars decided he wanted to shift the focus from his own stardome to that of a future generation – the ones who will inevitably take his place when his day of owning the spotlight is no more.

Like if Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth were still around, and they were asked to assemble a team of today’s brightest phenoms in their eyes. You’d end up with hell of a lineup and a photo-op featuring a legend surrounded by a collection of future ones. Or just as the adage says: Talent recognizing talent.

Never before in any professional sport or league has an initiative like the one you’re about to hear been put forth. When Michael Jordan retired for good the third time in 2003, he didn’t pledge to the media at his press conference: “Look… I can still play, but it’s time to leave my throne to a future generation. So my first move is to go out and find the next group of Michael Jordans and groom them and during the next 25 years, they will make it seem like I never left. And the NBA will never miss a beat.”

Poker, however, may just be the first to accomplish such a feat.

Because unlike the rest of pro sports, poker still has its Michael Jordan around to actively push such an envelope: Mr. Doyle Brunson.

Two months ago, Brunson – winner of ten World Series of Poker bracelets, including two Main Event in 1976 and 1977, and a man who has dubbed “The Most Influential Person in Poker” (and not just by this magazine) – made an announcement just to that effect. Although there was no press conference, Brunson made a declaration to the poker world in recent months: He was assembling a highly exclusive team of all-stars who he believes are the most talented young players in the world under the age of 25. And he’ll call them “The Brunson 10”.

“It’s the future of DoylesRoom, that’s what it is,” says Brunson, referring to his namesake online poker site, DoylesRoom.com, “I mean, hey, I’m 76 years old. I ain’t gonna last forever. I don’t have any plans of stopping or retiring soon, but sooner or later it’s gonna come. So this Brunson 10 is the future of (my site) – and the game itself, in my eyes.”

Actually, the entire team, when filled out, will be more like “The Brunson 10-Deuce” – signifying Doyle’s trademark hand that won both his Main Event bracelets.

That’s because, up until now, Brunson only let word leak that he was working on a team of ten, which would be comprised of the most renowned up-and-coming players – almost exclusively hailing from the Internet – to be the new faces of DoylesRoom.net.

Though upon reflection, Brunson said he felt that he needed two more players to somehow tie in the famous 10-2 hand named after him – a little announcement the legend himself shared only with BLUFF.

“The Brunson 10 will be the brightest young poker players in the world – most of which are the biggest names out there from the Internet,” says Brunson, adding that the ten will all be young men with the unveiling of the team taking place January 1st. “But then I got to thinking: I felt like we had to honor the 10-2 in some way. So after we name the final ten in January – my marketing director [Will Griffith] will kill me for telling you this – we’re also naming two more in honor of the 10-2.

“And both of them will be women.”

Brunson then paused just for a moment and collected his thoughts, as if to be sure what we was about to say came out exactly how he wanted it to.

“And, you know,” he began, “once we get these twelve players together, I really do think it will be the class of the field.”

Three down, nine to go

When asked what criteria a Brunson 10 member must posses, the man they call “Texas Dolly” was quick on the draw.

“You ever read the Boy Scout manual?” Brunson quipped. “In all honestly, we want upstanding, level-headed individuals. Players who are well mannered. With good personalities. And we owe that to poker. This is our living and we have to pay (the game) back sometimes. And the way to pay it back is to be a good representative, so that’s what we intend to find.”

So far, The Brunson 10 is actually just The Brunson 3, as DoylesRoom has only signed a trio of players to contracts thus far since the initial announcement by the website last month.

And while the decision on who will fill the remaining spots – seven guys, and two girls – will be a wide-ranging, intensive search conducted by the DoylesRoom team during the next four months, the initial cast of three, the oldest of which is 24, already have pretty sparkling resumes.

The first player signed was Orange County, CA native Alec Torelli. Torelli is 22 and goes by the name “Traheho” online, though he will use “alectorelli” when The Brunson 10 becomes a reality the first of the year. Aside from having earnings of just over $2 million between online and live play since taking up the game six years ago, Torelli has already made two final tables on the World Poker Tour – the Bellagio Cup V in January earlier this year, finishing fourth for $271,000, and most recently the WPT stop in Bratislava, where he again finished fourth. He also won back-to-back events at the WPT’s Fiesta Al Lago stop last year for just over $200,000, and he’s even made a huge splash at the World Series of Poker the last two years, finishing second in the 2008 No Limit Hold‘em heads-up championship for $336,000 losing to poker superstar Kenny Tran), then final-tabling the prestigous $40,000 buy-in event at this year’s WSOP, where he finished sixth for $329,000.

Brunson said he first met Torelli in the Bellagio’s famed “Bobby’s Room” one night after stumbling onto a game with some Chinese investors and finding they needed a fifth player. Coincidentally, Torelli just happened to be walking by whe Brunson suddenly called out to him.

“It’s a funny story. Someone saw him walking past and said, ‘Hey there’s that kid who just won two tournaments.’ So I called him over,” Brunson remembers. “I said, ‘Son, how’d you like to come in here and play some poker with us?’ and he said, ‘I’d love to, but I can’t play as high as they want to because I don’t have that much cash on me right now,’ and I told him ‘That’s okay, I’ll put you in the game and I’ll take half.” “After a few hours, I coudl see what a talented player he was – and he even won us a few dollars.” Sometime in the week after his introduction to Torelli – and with The Brunson 10 idea already swirling around in his head – Brunson decided to put Torelli’s name up as the first member for consideration.

And it was a moment Torelli calls “the biggest honor of my young career so far.” “I guess after that (chance meeting) I think Doyle really grew to respect my game – and how I handled myself at the table. That’s a big part of finding the right guys for The Brunson 10, getting guys who act right at the poker table whether they’re winning or losing,” says Torelli, who enrolled and attended SMU twice to study philosphy after high school, only to quit both times because he was having so much success playing poker.

As it turned out, we ended up doing pretty well in the game (that night). I helped him win some money for us and we made a connection. Walking away from that (one-time) meeting, it just seemed so surreal and picturesque all in one. One minute I’m walking through Bobby’s Room, the next I’m shaking hands and playing poker with Doyle Brunson. And now six months later, here I am… representing his company.”

The second player Brunson signed was 24-year-old Brookfield, WI native Amit Makhija, who is widely known online as “amak316″ – the same name he will use at DoylesRoom. Makhija has almost $5 million in combined earnings in online and live tournaments, including huge scores on both Full Tilt and PokerStars over the last four years. Playing live, Makhija notched a fifth-place finish at the 2009 World Series of Poker Pot Limit Hold‘em championship for $198,000, and a second-place result at the WPT’s Legends of Poker Main Event in August of last year for $563,000. Some of you may remember that epic WPT heads-up battle: Makhija facing off against uber-talented poker pro John Phan, going back and forth in one of the most exciting, gut-wrenching, suck-out filled, mano-a-mano bouts in WPT history.

Brunson admittedly had never played with Makhija before signing him, but says when DoylesRoom began searching for the second name to join the new team, “Amit kept popping up over and over again.”

“One of the main criteria to be on The Brunson 10 is that you’ve got to be under the age of 25 and a top Internet player. And Amit was a guy people kept telling us we had to sign,” says Brunson, whose current stable of pros – an old-school collection including Hoyt Corkins, Billy Baxter, Dewey Tomko, Mike Caro, and his son, Todd, who is the youngest of the bunch at 40 years old – are known primarily as successful live game poker players.

“I’ve been called a ‘legend’ in the poker world. And I was hearing the same thing about Amit in the online poker world. He’s exactly the kind of guy we’re looking for.”

Makhija didn’t start playing poker until his freshman year of college at the University of Minnesota, where he managed to find time to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in between becoming one of the most feared Internet tournament players.

“I guess you could say I’m pretty well known (on the Internet),” says a modest Makhija, who was introduced by WPT announcer Mike Sexton during his TV final table appearance as “a true legend in the online poker world.”

Makhija continues: “These days, I’ve also transitioned to playing a lot more live cash games, while still playing a lot of heads-up sit-n-goes live and online. I was a fairly high-ranked online tournament player at one point and I know us helping and talking to players at DoylesRoom will be something we’ll be doing as (members of) The Brunson 10. And I think I bring a pretty good background to the table for what they’re looking for, and so do the rest of the guys signed so far.”

Although, while the third member certainly falls in the category, his story, no matter who is selected, is slightly different than all the rest.

A “Chip” off the old block

Rounding out the early Brunson 10 signees is a kid from California who’s had a bookie since the fifth grade. His mom, a former professional blackjack player, taught him how to beat 21. And he even used to run a casino out of his house during high school – complete with everything from poker tables to pit games – for his friends to play at.

Of course, when you’re the nephew of one of the most legendary gamblers of all time – David “Chip” Reese – that kinda comes with the territory.

Number three on The Brunson 10 list is none other than 24-year-old Californian Zach Clark – a choice that almost makes this story a poker fairy tale come true.

It’s widely known that Reese, who passed away in December 2007 at age 56, was so close with Brunson in the thirty years they knew each other that the best friends were not only inseparable, they were like long-lost brothers.

“Some of the arguments I’ve seen those two have,” Clark begins, “absolutely hilarious.” But don’t think for even a second that Clark rode the coattails of his famous uncle onto this list.

No, no. The kid can straight-up play.

Remember Makhija’s WPT final table duel with Phan from just a second ago at Legends? Well, Clark finished third in that same tournament for $281,000 – getting knocked out by Makhija, his good friend for many years before this whole Brunson 10 thing ever came about.

While that was his biggest live cash to date, Clark – known as “CrazyZachary” in the online world, though he will go by “Zach- Clark” at DoylesRoom – has been destroying online tournaments for the last three years, and especially in 2009. Between August 2007 and March 2008, he won almost half a million between the Full Tilt Online Poker Series ME ($395,000k), Full Tilt Sunday Mulligan ($37k,000), and the PokerStars $100 rebuy ($26,000k). Then in April this year, Clark chopped first in the SCOOP Event #8 for $390,000k, then took home another $70,000 combined in June and July between Poker- Stars’ $250,000k guaranteed the $20,000k guaranteed.

However, of the existing The Brunson 10, CrazyZachary was the only one who wasn’t 100 percent crazy about the idea initially. Mostly because ever since his Uncle Chip died, Clark says he’s been trying to lead his life in a way that would’ve made Reese proud. And if there was one thing that many in the poker world know about Reese, he didn’t like Internet poker deals.

“Chip hated deals – he hated feeling like he had to answer to anyone. Although had he known it was Doyle offering and what he was trying to do by putting in place talented players he thinks could be the future of their game, I would have to say he probably would be proud with the way this whole thing’s taken shape,” Clark says. “One of the many things I learned from Chip growing up – besides how to win at everything you do – was that working for yourself was the way to go. That’s why he gambled. That’s why he played poker. He was his own boss. So at the end of the day, any decision – good or bad – falls on you. That’s the way he liked it.

“I try to always think, when making tough decisions, ‘What would Chip do?’ And I think he would’ve approved of this decision.” Brunson would agree.

“(Chip) would’ve loved it. He would absolutely love it,” he gushes. “I’ve known Zach since he was eight years old, and I can remember him standing behind us watching us play poker when we’d all get together and go on vacation to Montana. Zach and Chip were real close and I’ve watched that kid grow up. And I just can’t tell you how pleased I am to have him (on The Brunson 10).”

Brunson is the first to admit that he never knew Clark would turn into a card player – much like his own daughter, Pam, who has become a successful poker player after not initially following the family path.

“Well, it took Chip calling me up one day, telling me Zach had just won $400,000 in some online tournament for me to even know he was playing poker really,” Brunson says of Clark, who turned almost all of his focus to the game after becoming injured while playing quarterback for the University of Nevada- Reno’s football team after high school. “I knew he was a tremendous athlete growing up and Chip would always brag about him. So when I found out he got hurt and (had put his attention) into card-playin’ and gambling like the rest of us, I guess I would be lying if I said I was surprised.”

Clark says he wasn’t actively seeking an online poker deal, but when he and Brunson spent time together during this year’s WSOP and discussed the possibility, “it just felt right.”

“I thought about all those times I’d be at Chip’s house on the couch watching TV, and in through the back door would walk Doyle. He’d go back to Chip’s office – Chip had the coolest office you’ve ever seen – and they would just sit back there for hours,” Clark recalls. “To me, Doyle was always just Chip’s best friend. I didn’t really see him as the leg- end in poker that he is. Although, now that I’ve grown up and play, I understand completely just how much he means to this game. “So when this opportunity came up, it was something I just couldn’t turn down.”

Cream of the crop

The Brunson 10 is not a reality show or publicity stunt. The ten guys – and two girls – will not be bottled up in a stunning Las Vegas mansion, followed by cameras 24/7 and be forced to interact until a fight breaks out and someone is sent home.

But that doesn’t mean Torelli, Makhija and Clark haven’t been in touch. “I knew of both Zach and Amit before all this happened, but we didn’t necessarily hang out,” Torelli says. “But since this announcement, I’ve gotten to know both of them pretty well and we’ve talked about where we see this going and what we want, individually, to get out of this. And I can honestly say, we all want the same thing: To improve the poker room and help it grow, to represent a legend like Doyle with class and to be recognized as one of the most elite teams in poker.”

Torelli added that, in an effort to stay in touch, the trio circulates an e-mail that contains a growing list of ideas about ways to make Doyles- Room the most user-friendly site out there based off each of their experiences at other sites. And they even hold a weekly telephoneconference, along with Brunson and the DoylesRoom team, to discuss anything from upcoming promotional events to duties of The Brunson 10 to the official announcement of the entire team January 1st.

Makhija says that day can’t come soon enough. After all, when The Brunson 10-2 is finally complete and a wealth of bright-and-shining poker talent is standing shoulder to shoulder as the next big thing in the game, the poker world will simply not be able to ignore the all-star collection.

Especially with the Doyle Brunson stamp on it.

“It’s going to be a very prestigious group. (DoylesRoom) is looking for the best out there, and that’s all they’ll settle for. Plus, I know Doyle’s personally interviewing everyone, and he’s not just looking for great players, but players who are also great ambassadors for the game,” Makhija says. “I hope to be a part of this for as long as they’ll have me. When the entire team is announced, you’ll have a group assembled by one of the greatest players of all time. And I wouldn’t bet against Doyle’s instincts.”

Instinctively, Brunson knows before he moves on to greener poker pastures, he has to leave one last mark on the poker world.

Even if it isn’t at the table.

“These kids don’t want to be another name on Full Tilt or PokerStars, where they’re just one of 250 pros. They don’t want to just be another face,” Brunson says. “At DoylesRoom they’re gonna get a lot of publicity, a lot of exposure, and hopefully make a lot of money. Because when we get our ten guys and two gals, they’re the face – and the future – of poker, as far as I’m concerned.

“And that’s it. There won’t be a Brunson 20.”

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October 2009