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.


Many people like to play the kind he likes: no-limit Texas hold'em. The games are not easy to find outside of tournaments, though. If you go to Vegas or the California card rooms or any casino, you usually find "limit" hold'em and Omaha games. This refers to the "blind structures," which are--oh, you don't care, do you? You just want more poker stories. Fine. Here's one with a pretty boy in it.

Matt Damon made a bad movie with cool poker scenes called Rounders. It is famous mostly for John Malkovich's performance as a Russian poker king who says unintentionally hilarious things in a Bela Lugosi accent, such as, "Dunt splesh zee pot." (Don't splash the pot--more poker nomenclature.)

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.

Damon and his Rounders co-star Edward Norton became enamored of hold'em while making this movie. (Poker stars like Johnny Chan were in the film.) So they entered the 1998 big one.

It is said that not everyone was happy that the rich young actors were there. It is said there was a bounty placed on them, a reward for whoever knocked them out of the tournament. Not sure if that is true, but it is, like many poker stories, too good to fact-check.

Cloutier wasn't thrilled with the Rounders group, as he says the film's narration took lines nearly verbatim from his books but didn't thank him in the credits. Whatever the case, it wasn't Cloutier who faced off against Damon. It was Fort Worth's Doyle Brunson, "Texas Dolly," the first two-time champ of the big one, a poker Hall of Famer, a man who is not impressed with Matt Damon-level fame. Brunson, after all, once flew to Paris to play poker with a millionaire, lost nearly one-and-a-half mil and still told Mike Cochran of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "it was about as good a game as I ever saw."

So at 5:45 p.m. of the tourney's first day, Damon makes a stand and throws his last six grand in the pot. Brunson swiftly moves in against him. Damon shows two kings. Brunson turns over American Airlines, two aces. The flop, the turn, the river, still no help for Damon. Bang bang.

Damon is charged, though. He shakes Brunson's hand. "That was one of the biggest thrills of my life," he says as he walks away from the table. "If I had to go out, that's the way I wanted to--against a champion."

The point being that he did not learn what you discovered earlier in the story: Best hand wins. You will beat Cloutier or another champ, right? Because you realize that even movie star cowboys die, and it's bullets that kill them.


Here's the deal with the new players, the ones who know that in most cases there is a 38.4 percent probability of completing their hand after the flop if there are 10 cards out that will make their flush. They wouldn't know how to get to San Angelo or Waxahachie if you told them there were six novices and three strippers waiting there to play hold'em.

That said, some of them really can play. They can challenge and beat ol' school ridden-hard champions such as Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Cloutier.

Sure, as Bob Ciaffone notes, that doesn't mean that statistics are all there is to being a good player (as is often the case in, say, blackjack). "Someone like T.J.," Ciaffone says, "has a big edge on anyone who has a sound understanding of poker theory but who doesn't read people as well as he does."

Nevertheless, a revolution has occurred in the last 10 to 15 years, one that has made stars out of folks like David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, whose works contain many numbers and charts, as well as phrases such as "non-self-weighting gambling strategies."

Darse Billings, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta who played poker professionally for a few years, is typical of this new breed. He studies probabilistic games and designed a program called Poki, which seeks to play hold'em in a humanlike manner, learning how you play as the game goes along.

"I have tremendous respect for T.J. Cloutier and believe he is one of the greatest players in the history of the game," Billings says via e-mail. "I also agree with him--the human element will always be an important facet of top-flight poker.

"[But] there is definitely a trend toward a more scientific, probabilistic approach to the game, and I believe this will lead to much stronger play than has been attained in the past. A similar revolution took place in backgammon, starting in the 1970s. Today, all of the top backgammon players in the world have a solid understanding of the mathematics of the game, whether it is applied explicitly or only intuitively. However, the new generation of poker players will still need to master the skills that make T.J. a great champion. Poker has elements of both a science and an art, and neither by itself can compete with a player who knows both."

Cloutier knows the competition is getting tougher. There are more Indian casinos, and more people play on the Internet and their computers. "There's no doubt there'll be more good players because of this," Cloutier says. "But when they go to the World Series of Poker, well...most of them are the best of their home game. But out there, it's not like stepping from high school to college; it's like stepping from grammar school to the pros. Some of them might as well be showing me their hands.

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