The Player

Dallas' T.J. Cloutier may be the best tournament poker player in the world--even though he's never won the "big one." You can bet on it.

He bet fewer games after that.

"You pay your dues when you're learning, and I was always kind of an impulsive person. I don't drink at all, but if I were a drinker, I'd be an alcoholic; if I took dope, I'd be an addict. Everything I do, I do to its fullest."

Always has, since his days as a three-sport star at Jefferson High School in Daly City, near San Francisco. "I played football, basketball, baseball--which was my best sport. I played in the rookie leagues between high school and college. I batted fourth, cleanup, and [Hall of Fame ballplayer] Willie Stargell batted fifth. I was a power guy."

T.J. Cloutier always seems to have aces in his pocket, which is one reason he has won so many tournaments. His first-place jewelry includes two watches from the Binion's Hall of Fame tournament, middle, four World Series of Poker bracelets like the one below and a ring from the Legends of Poker tourney.
Mark Graham
T.J. Cloutier always seems to have aces in his pocket, which is one reason he has won so many tournaments. His first-place jewelry includes two watches from the Binion's Hall of Fame tournament, middle, four World Series of Poker bracelets like the one below and a ring from the Legends of Poker tourney.

After high school in 1957, Cloutier went to the University of California-Berkeley on a football scholarship, even playing in the 1959 Rose Bowl. He dropped out when his mother became ill, and then he enlisted for a two-year Army stint. In 1961, he walked onto the Canadian Football League's Montreal Allouettes, playing with them and the Toronto Argonauts for five years. When his knees went, so did he.

By then, Cloutier had been gambling for years. He first started playing poker while caddying at the Lake Merced country club in Northern California. "We'd go out, knock those bags around for five hours, come in and get seven dollars for it," he says, "and there'd be someone waiting there to take our money away playing poker. One day, a guy came by, and he was passing out what they call 'lucky bucks' down at Artichoke Joe's in California. So if you put up 10 dollars, you got 20 dollars worth of chips in a regular, legalized poker room. I was 17 when I went down there. And, believe me, they had my paychecks for the next 10 years."

He continued playing in the Army and in Canada. But when he returned to California in the mid-'60s, he began to play more often, which didn't make for a cheery home life. In fact, he was married, then divorced, then married, then divorced, then remarried to his first wife and divorced again. (He's been with his current wife, Joy--"my stabilizing force, my rock"--for 17 years.) All told, he has six children.

"See, you can't hold a job and try to play poker," he says. "It's too hard to do both. I was raising a family, trying to sneak out an hour here, an hour there, losing money that should have been going to the family. That's why I discourage my kids from getting into it. My oldest boy wants to do it so bad he can taste it. But I told him, 'You've got a good job. Stick with it.' It's too tough a business. I've made a lot of money at it, but there are very few people who can actually make a living out of it."

He wasn't planning to do so in 1977, after his last divorce. He just needed to start over, so he moved to Longview, Texas, with $100 in his pocket. He was a derrick man on the oil rigs for six months--until he realized that he was making more money by playing poker at the Brass Rail than he was at his legit gig. He moved to Shreveport 50 miles away so he could play in good games.

It wasn't all poker. The ladies called. Cloutier was single, an ex-athlete, and he loved to dance--so much so that whenever he walked into his favorite dance hall, the band would immediately break into "Just a Gigolo." (His dancing prowess would later pay off when he wooed his current wife. On their first date in Dallas, he not only took her onto the dance floor but sang to her as well. "Just being me," he says, laughing.)

He found time to play cards nearly every day in Shreveport, during the week at the Turf Club and on Sundays at professional gambler Harlan Dean's place, sometimes using Susan B. Anthony dollars for the antes. "He'd call me on Sunday mornings and say, 'Well, old buddy, we're broke, aren't we?'" Cloutier says. "I'd say, 'Well, Mr. Dean, I know you're not, but I sure am.'" Dean would stake Cloutier, taking half the profits.

As he became more comfortable in bigger-money games, Cloutier heard about the Dallas scene. "If you wanted to play no-limit hold'em," says longtime poker pro, coach and author Bob Ciaffone, "there was no better place in the country during the early '80s than Dallas."

Cloutier began making the trip from Shreveport to Dallas for big games. The first 16 games he played in Dallas, he won. Then he stayed gone for six months. Then he came back 12 times, won all those. These were private, illegal but profitable. He played with what is now reverently known as "the road gamblers," guys from Oklahoma and Arkansas and all over Texas who would roll along blacktop from town to town, looking for the best action, even after he settled in Dallas in 1983.

"That's how we did it then," he says. "I'd go to Houston, San Antonio, San Angelo, Waxahachie. There are zillions of games in Texas, still, believe me. But we got busted in a game in Dallas after we'd been playing 11 years. Nothing happened, except the guy who was running the game, they turned him into a snitch, which got rid of the good games around town. So poker in Dallas was over with. I mean, the kind that I like."

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