The Player

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."

See, even if you think you win, you lose. Playing the players takes more life than you have left. You learn about the game, but you're still just one of the many people who try but fail to be T.J. Cloutier, the road-hardened dinosaur--a man who learned the game by playing against contract killers and drunks and millionaires. A man who knows that you can play perfectly, as he has done, and still come in second in that $10,000 WSOP championship, the "big one," as he has done twice. A man who never steams, who always smiles when he loses, even though he's the all-time WSOP money-winner, and he, like football's Dan Marino, still doesn't have the championship he desires and, perhaps, deserves. For Thomas James Cloutier is a player, one who doesn't worry about any of the crap he can't control because he plays the same games the same way no matter the place, the day, the money in front of him.

"He hasn't won the big one, but he always plays like a champion," says Lyle Berman, chief executive officer of Lakes Gaming and a helluva player himself. Berman "backs" Cloutier, paying his entrance fee for the big tournaments, then they split his winnings evenly, minus that entrance fee. "He's never lost his confidence. He really believes all he needs is a chip and a chair, and he'll beat you. And that's usually true."

You can beat him. Anyone can beat him. He can be beaten. You just need the cards, right? You have a big pair, you flop a set (three of a kind), you win. All that stuff above, the "introduction" to this story--it's hyperbole. T. J. Cloutier is just a poker player. Tell yourself that.

You could be Diego Cordovez--except that he's a top pro, but ignore that for a moment--at this year's big one during the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the $10,000 No-Limit tourney.

The WSOP is a confusing tournament. It comprises more than 20 smaller tournaments of various games during a three-week period, each one rewarding the victor with prize money and a WSOP bracelet. But when people say "world champion," they are referring to the WSOP's final event, the $10,000 No-Limit Hold'em WSOP, which Benny Binion began three decades ago and which requires a $10,000 entry fee (unless you win a spot through $1,000 "satellite" tournaments leading up to the event). Winning that final event is like a golfer winning The Master's instead of The Byron Nelson at Las Colinas. It's a major, the big one.

At this year's big one, Cordovez was just one of a record 613 entrants trying to win the $1.5 million first prize and coveted bracelet. He sat at table No. 48, going against six blank faces and three other top-25 players, including Cloutier. TV cameras gathered 'round.

Cloutier was one of the heavy favorites. He's been at the final table at this event four times. He's won four other WSOP tourneys in his career, for which he received first-place bracelets, but he's won no jewelry from the big one. Earlier in this year's tourney, he'd placed second in another no-limit tournament, battling with poker superstar Phil Hellmuth Jr. So the smart money, if there is such a thing, moves toward him.

"The first day is the toughest for me," he says a few weeks before he heads to Las Vegas for a month of WSOP games. "You've got to realize, I've gotten through the first day six times. Out of the six, I've gotten down to the final five players four times."

So if he gets through the first day of this now five-day event, he's like a thoroughbred breaking from the pack.

A few hours in, Cloutier is smoking and raising. He ups the pot to $425 before the flop. Cordovez calls. The flop is a queen, a seven and a six of different suits. Cloutier immediately bets $1,000. He always moves fast. It's a smart way to play for many reasons, not the least of which is it intimidates most people, as though he knows something you don't.

Cordovez takes a long time to decide his move. He pushes out $1,000. Cloutier quickly says "all in," meaning he's betting all his chips, and he pushes forward $13,000. He has Cordovez read. He knows what he has. "They say I'm the best at reading players," Cloutier says matter-of-factly before the tournament. "I'm not so sure about that. But I know I'm one of the best."

Not today. Cordovez calls. Because Cloutier is all-in, there is no more betting, so it's time to turn their cards over.

"Did you flop a set on me," Cloutier asks?

Cordovez says no.


Cordovez nods and turns over two aces (a.k.a. "bullets"). Cloutier's pocket cards are two cowboys, or kings. The next two community cards don't help him. Quick as you can click a chip, Cloutier is out. First day, two hours in, buh-bye.

Now you know that cowboys die. Bullets kill them. You're ready to gamble.

T.J. Cloutier likes to gamble. But he only gambles when he's not playing poker. Poker, you see, is not gambling. If done well, it is a game of skill at which one makes a handsome wage--which he has, at times, given away by gambling at the craps table, on sports, at the links, on the horses. One fall, he lost $47,000 on football.

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."

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."

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.)

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.

"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."

His composure was typical of the big Texan but still somehow shocking given the stakes. It's not unusual for players, world champions, to "steam" after taking a bad beat like that. To curse the gods, to damn the dealer. One year after losing a hand he felt he would surely win, world champion Phil Hellmuth Jr. sprinted from the table in anger so fast that he tripped and fell on his face. Cloutier, however, told the many well-wishers who crowded him to stop talking about how he should have won. "You should be talking to Chris," he told one interviewer. "He won."

His poise won him many fans that day. Yet even now, more than a year later, it seems in retrospect to be almost unbelievably unlucky.

"I played the best poker I ever played in my life," Cloutier says. "About as close to perfect as can be played. Right after, they asked me how I felt about the bad beat. I said there's one thing you'd better learn if you're going to play poker for a living: You're going to take some beats, so you'd better get used to it."

Still, the Dan Marino syndrome is frustrating--if not to Cloutier, then to others. "Because if you can't put the name 'world champion' after your name," Ciaffone says, "the general public thinks, 'Well, maybe he isn't that good.' But the pros know how good he is. He'll always be respected by them."

"The title would have been worth another half a million to me for appearances and my book, not to mention the extra $600,000 I would have won on the spot," Cloutier says now. "But, you know what? What the hell. It's just poker."

OK, you can't beat him, just like you can't get a hit off Randy Johnson or slam over Shaquille O'Neal. But you can call his bluff. You can believe he wants that title. Believe he's not Dan Marino but John Elway, who also got close four times before breaking through.

You can also wish him luck. Yes, he's arguably the world's best, but he does play poker, and anyone who does so, even T.J. Cloutier, needs a break now and then on the river.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste