By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Still, there's a new guy on the scene every year. There are some real good young players. I sit at a table with eight or nine strangers; in about 15 minutes, I can tell you what everyone there can do. That's my strong point. And I'll never forget it. Let's say you and I played a hand of poker eight or nine years ago, played in the same game. I wouldn't remember your name, but believe me, I'd remember how you played your hands."
He says it simply, like it's just plain true. Maybe it isn't, maybe it's hyperbole. But if you listen to other pros talk about his style of play, his power of recall, his uncanny ability to fold good hands because he's figured out what others have based on their past play--well, you wouldn't bet on that claim being overstated.
Which is why, even though he's a dinosaur, he is still feared--because he has made something both artful and scientific look somehow easy and cutthroat. "The man in person is a puppy dog," says Lakes CEO Lyle Berman. "But he's an absolutely ferocious poker player."
How then to argue that he is one of the world's best, at least at what Fort Worth's Brunson (and Cloutier) have dubbed "the Cadillac of poker," no-limit Texas hold'em? After all, he hasn't won the big one.
Well, we could talk about his famous bluffs, the worst poker play he ever saw. We could point out that every time he's lost at the final table in the WSOP big one he had the best hand until the last card, like the crushing loss he took at the final table of the big one in 1985 to fellow Dallasite Bill Smith, the man who introduced Cloutier to his current wife.
But instead let's retell a story already considered a classic in the poker world. It's about how Cloutier won by losing at last year's big one. It's about grace in defeat. To support this decision, let's quote Andy Glazer, the sterling gambling columnist from Detroit, who wrote this following Cloutier's second-place finish at the $10K No-Limit WSOP 2000:
"In a society where money talks and b.s. walks, where the winners get not only to write the history books but also to act however they please, you can't usually point to a second-place finish as the moment in time when you can say, 'Here is when a man defined his greatness.' The final day...provided us with such a moment."
There were two players left of 512. Cloutier was one of the final two players. He was heads-up with Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, so nicknamed because he really looks like Jesus, if Jesus were fond of wearing dark shades, a cowboy hat pulled low and dancing shoes. (Long story.) Ferguson had a big chip lead, holding $4.3 million to Cloutier's $900,000, nearly a monstrous 5-to-1 difference, meaning he had much more money with which to gamble--bluff, challenge Cloutier when he raises, so on. Also, it means that even if Cloutier went all-in, putting every chip of his in the pot, Ferguson could call without losing all his chips. If you have more chips than your opponent, you only have to put in as many chips as he has to call all-in yourself.
Even playing behind, Cloutier seized control. He won three big pots, the third time making Ferguson fold when Cloutier called all-in: Cloutier had $1.4 mil; Jesus had $3.7 mil.
Then two hair-raising all-in calls, each time Cloutier has the better cards in his pocket. But both times, the pot is "chopped," meaning they each have the same best-five cards (you don't have to play both your pocket cards; you can play one or neither--best five of the seven win, no matter which five). That means they take their chips back, and it's as though the hand was never played.
Cloutier keeps at him. He takes over the chip lead, $2.9 million to $2.2 million. Ferguson comes right back and takes the lead back from him.
Then, once more, Cloutier moves all-in. Ferguson thinks about it a long time. In he goes. This is the tournament. Once again, for the third time, Cloutier has the better hand down: an ace-queen, while Ferguson turns over the ace-nine. Surely, in this, the third showdown in which Cloutier had the better cards, he would win.
The flop came two-king-four (no flush was possible). On the turn, another king. That was it. The odds were squarely with Cloutier. He could lose only if the final card was a nine, which would give Ferguson two pair--nines and kings--to Cloutier's one pair. (They shared the pair of kings showing faceup on the table, but the queen in Cloutier's hand gave him the edge.) Finally, he would be called "world champion." The only thing standing between him and the bracelet was...
The river card came nine. Jesus leapt.
Immediately, he reached over to shake Cloutier's hand. "You outplayed me."
As Jim McManus described the scene in Harper's, Cloutier's smiling, congratulatory face was shocking, considering he'd just been "harpooned in the ventricles." Glazer would write, "I wish there were two bracelets to give today."