Longform

The Player

Page 6 of 7

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."

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste