Smart poker players know that they have to play the other players, not the cards, and Doyle Brunson, at 69, is probably the smartest poker player there is. A two-time winner of the World Series of Poker, Brunson literally wrote the book: His Super System, first published in 1979, is the bible of poker pros all over the world. More a tome than a book, its dense pages are filled with Brunson's obsessive technical analyses of how to play the hand you're dealt.
But watching Brunson play—as you can on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT, Saturdays, 2 p.m. ET)—you notice he only looks at his own cards after he's watched the other players look at theirs. His cards aren't going anywhere—but the reactions of his opponents will be gone in the blink of an eye. And the way a competitor's eye blinks (or doesn't) may be the crucial "tell" that indicates the strength of his hand and makes the difference between Brunson's winning or losing one of the six- or seven-figure pots that quickly build.
You don't have to be all that interested in poker to be fascinated by how the pros on World Poker Tour play—and play with—each other. They're all smart, so they're all watching each other watch each other and then some, navigating and manipulating the Heisenbergian uncertainty of it all. If you can't imagine making any kind of intelligent decision in such a dizzying situation, let alone one with massive amounts of money at stake—well, now you know why you're not a world-class, high-stakes professional poker player.
World Poker Tour's two-hour episodes focus on the finalrounds of tournaments held in casinos in locales ranging from the expected—Vegas, Reno—to the exotic—Paris, Costa Rica, Aruba. (Hence the Travel Channel tie-in.) The game played on the World Poker Tour is "No Limit Texas Hold 'Em." A variation on seven-card stud, it distills poker to its essential elements of bluffing and psychological aggression. Players are dealt two cards, face-down (which hidden cameras allow us to see); the rest of their hands are drawn from up to five "community cards" dealt face-up in the middle of the table. All the players can use these cards to build their best five-card hand. Because there is so much overlap among the cards, differences among the hands tend to be small. Hence the importance of big bluffs backed by big bets to bully other players off the table fast.
Poker matches at this level can go on for hours and days, with long stretches of monotony punctuated by sudden bursts of game-altering action. But skillful editing on World Poker Tour keeps the pace brisk, and up-close-and-personal segments humanize the players. The play-by-play of Mike Sexton and the color commentary of "Hollywood Home Game Master" Vincent Van Patten can swerve in an instant from giddy enthusiasm (think Fred Willard in Best in Show) to hushed solemnity (think Bill Murray in Caddyshack). But they help illuminate the players' strategic dilemmas and psychological gamesmanship. Van Patten is especially fun to listen to. Like George W. Bush, he never uses someone's given name when a corny nickname will do: Kirill Gerasimov, an aggressive young Russian player, is never "Kirill" or "Gerasimov" but "The Rookie From Red Square" or "The Red Square Rumbler."
The players talk some trash to each other but never to demigod Brunson. Legendary for his kindness and generosity—away from the tables—Brunson recently lost 100 pounds in order to win a $1 million bet made by concerned friends on the tour. He is still an enormous man. He sits impassively at the table, Buddha-like down to the hint of a knowing smile perpetually pulling at the corners of his mouth. Brunson—the "inventor of the big bluff"—said in an interview that he had had to change his style after he revealed in Super System just how aggressive a bluffer he was. Or was that just another piece of misinformation floated out there to confuse his foes?
If so, it didn't work—not this time, at least. Brunson took a shockingly early exit from the season-ending championship match at the Bellagio. He went "all-in"—put all his chips, a few hundred thousand dollars' worth, onto the table—in a stone-cold bluff to scare away the other players and steal a pot. He (and we) knew he had no cards to back it up. Maybe he outsmarted himself, or maybe there was something about the way his eyes twitched. But his bluff was called by Alan Goehring, a retired junk-bond analyst (oh the irony!), who took the $1.6 million pot en route to winning the championship itself. As Brunson left the table, "The Rookie From Red Square" jumped up from his seat to shake the master's hand.