The Player

Page 5 of 7

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.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste