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.)