The Player

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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.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste