The Player

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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.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste