By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Contrary to what you may think, you most likely will never beat T.J. Cloutier at the poker table. Oh, you may get lucky and win a game on the last card, but that's a "bad beat," which is not really a beat. You may get a big hand, maybe put a tall stack of chips in and watch him fold his cards. Even then, you don't win; he does. He saves his money. You fail to extract it from him. He knows what you have. He reads you as one reads Entertainment Weekly--effortlessly, dismissively.
Maybe you'll get lucky, though, huh? You'll take him at his own game, "no-limit" Texas hold'em. Sure. Happens. Blind pigs find acorns. You could hit that middle-buster nine of hearts on fifth street, backdooring you into the nut straight when you had no business going to the river, since every railbird watching you knows that you shoulda mucked your Johnnies on the flop as T.J. was representing pocket aces or, at the very least, cowboys. But if you don't understand that last sentence, you're just another fresh fish, and that blind pig has just as good a chance as you do.
You don't have to take my word for it. Nor do you have to listen to World Series of Poker champions such as Mansour Matloubi, who says that Cloutier "is head and shoulders above anybody else [in no-limit poker]. He is a legend." Ignore if you will Cloutier's 50-odd tournament victories throughout the United States and Europe. Con yourself into believing you can mess with the best because Cloutier himself says, "The edge, for us even, isn't that big, because there's such a luck factor in poker. People get in with the worst hand, then they draw out on you, and there's nothing you can do about it." Disregard his years of experience, his fearless reputation, the fact that he has played regularly scheduled games of high-stakes poker with at least three men who killed other men. But you cannot ignore, no matter how delusional you may be, this man's poker prowess once you hear how he beat a pro empty-handed.
It occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Cloutier was playing "pot-limit" hold'em. In hold'em, everyone gets two cards facedown (the pocket), then three community cards belonging to all players are turned up in the middle (the flop), then a fourth communal card (the turn, or fourth street) is dealt, then a fifth (the river, or fifth street). The player with the best combination of five cards wins. In pot limit, the most you can bet is the size of the pot at that time. "I was playing Wayne Edmunds, who always looks down after he makes a bet, doesn't see what's going on," Cloutier says. "On fourth street, I had the nuts"--the best possible hand; even with one card to go, he couldn't lose--"so I bet $2,000. Well, the dealer accidentally grabs my cards and throws them in the muck [discard pile]. But Wayne, he didn't see it happen. Everyone but Wayne saw it. So I don't say anything, but I'm wondering what to do. Then I just held my hands out in front of me, like the cards are under there, like I'm hiding 'em."
Cloutier is 6-feet-4, probably 250 pounds. He played tight end in the pass-happy Canadian Football League for five years. He doesn't have hands so much as he has sandbags with five sections of plumbing pipe attached. He could palm a Michelin radial.
The last card was turned over. Cloutier didn't hesitate. He reached out with one hand and bet his last $3,000. Edmunds, a good player, better than you, met his gaze.
"He folded," Cloutier says. "Threw his hand away."
Therein, the definition of a poker stud: a man who doesn't need cards to win a game of cards.
Perhaps you or your spouse or your offspring or your buddies or your gal pals could learn how to play poker well, and perhaps you wouldn't even have to spend years driving throughout the South to find the best big-stakes games in backrooms. It happens. You could buy books, perhaps even one of T.J. Cloutier's three tomes, and you could learn about Big Slick and the little blind. You'd absorb the lingo, get on the Internet and play, buy software games, study the tables that tell you about "pot odds" or "implied odds" or any other sort of statistical model you need to help tell you when to raise a badass like Cloutier.
Others have done it. Just last year, Jim McManus, a novelist and poet, placed fifth out of 512 participants in the biggest poker tourney there is, the $10,000 No-Limit Hold'em World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He learned by reading books and playing computer games.
Even then, you'd be in awe of Cloutier. He's that much better.
Worse, you'd be just like them. All the newcomers, the statisticians and the poker-bots who all play hands the same way--check at the same time, call from the same position, gambling as uniform policy. "Yeah, you can almost put 'em all in one box now," Cloutier says between bites of two muffaletta sandwiches. "You couldn't in the old days. Your old-timers, they didn't have the books. They played every player differently. And that's what I do."