Using money as the measure of size, they played the biggest golf tournament in the world in Las Vegas last week. You could take the purses from a dozen Greater Open Classics and still be barely within range of the amount of cash that 58 guys teed up for in the third Professional Gamblers Invitational at the Sahara Nevada Country Club.
The players bet each other more than $2 million during the three-day tournament. Nobody is quite sure who the winner was. A bookmaker from St. Louis came out well over $100,000 ahead, but he didn't win all his matches. The only one who did was Don Keller, who owns some drive-in cafes around Dallas. Keller is built like a monster squash and carries in his mouth a cigar that looks like an exhaust pipe. He couldn't break 90 if he had the only pencil on the course. But the way the PGI is handicapped, it is heart and luck that count, and Keller bounced his grounders onto enough greens to win the trophy—if there was one. "I think we ought to give Keller a pistol and a ski mask so he doesn't have to come all the way out here to rob people," said Jack Binion, who organized the tournament, made the matches and in his own wagers got "drown-ded," as the gamblers say.
Several of the country's king poker players were in the tournament. In fact Doyle Brunson, who won the World Series of Poker the last two years at Bin-ion's Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas, not only inspired Jack Binion to start the PGI, but he also was one of its attractions to the other players.
Since early May, when he picked up $340,000 at the poker tournament, Brunson has lost enough money playing golf to pay the electric bill for a medium-sized nation. Nobody is supposed to have as much cash money as Doyle is said to have lost on the golf course in the last 2½ months. Brunson is a very high player who has the reputation of never flinching from a bet on the golf course or at the poker table. He has won millions at poker in games with the other king players and all challengers in Las Vegas, which is where you have to win at poker to be a king player.
But Brunson is what he calls "a bona fide golf 'dengerarate.' " He is preparing a book, which he will publish himself, with the title How to Win $1,000,000 Playing Poker. "I may do a sequel called How to Lose $1,000,000 Playing Golf" Doyle said the night before the PGI began. He was eating watermelon in the Sombrero Room at Binion's Horseshoe. The next morning he was to play Butch Holmes, a commodities broker from Houston. The match had been rated even by Jack Binion, whose decision in such matters for the PGI is supreme. Doyle thought he ought to get a stroke.
The entry fee to play in the PGI was $1,900. That was broken into three $600 Nassaus on the three days of the tournament, plus $100 for carts and greens fees. Binion thinks of the $600 Nassaus as just a way to say hello to the person you are matched with. If you're not willing to go for a lot more action than that, you will not be invited to return.
"Action don't mean the same to Doyle as it does to most people," says Pug Pearson, himself a former winner of the poker world series. "I asked Doyle one day if he was going out to sweat some players, and he said, 'Naw, there wasn't enough action.' Doyle had $70,000 bet on the deal."
So when Brunson is losing at golf, there is blood in the water. Some of the sharks who came to Las Vegas for the PGI will stay and play golf with Doyle the rest of the summer. The only reason the gamblers quit playing golf in the fall in Las Vegas is that betting on football requires much time for study.
"My goodness, they go crazy over football," says Louise Brunson, Doyle's wife. Louise is a pretty woman with a quick smile. Like the wives of several other king poker players, Louise is very active in Christian work. She sends Bibles to Taiwan and cassettes of Christian testimony to folks in prison. Before they got married, Doyle promised Louise he would give up gambling. Then Doyle was operated on for a melanoma and given four months to live, at the outside. Louise was working as a pharmacist. She was five months pregnant and prayed Doyle would live long enough to see the baby. Doyle got up and started raising every bet, and the cancer went away.
"The doctors at M. D. Anderson Institute said it was a miracle," Louise says. "Everybody thought Doyle was as good as dead. One day when he came home between hospitals to make out his will, more than 200 people showed up at the house to tell Doyle goodby. But the Lord lifted Doyle out of that bed. I know the Lord has got some kind of a plan for Doyle.