Baxter, Cloutier Admitted to Poker Hall of Fame
By Justin West
Of all my experiences in Las Vegas, perhaps the most memorable came less than twenty-four hours after I'd entered the city. With excited eyes still free of the exhaustion inherent in a seven-week stay in Sin City, I came upon the halls of the original home of the World Series of Poker.
The name "Horseshoe" no longer casts its neon glow upon the asphalt of Fremont Street. No. The symbol that once epitomized the very soul of downtown Las Vegas is gone forever, replaced with a lonely sign proclaiming merely "Binion's," hiding beneath the shadow of the Fremont Street Experience. Even so, a deep sense of nostalgia and purpose still pervades the old gambling hall.
And if one makes their way into the casino, weaving through overzealous craps players and into the poker room, it's easy to miss a deceivingly understated collection of photographs along the wall. This, my friends is the "Wall of Fame."
The day before the 2006 World Series of Poker main event was to begin, before the tables were crowded with players vying for what would prove to be the largest prize in poker history, two individuals received one of the biggest honors a player can receive.
On Thursday, July 27, 2006, gleaming before a crowd of reporters, T.J. Cloutier and Billy Baxter were both inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
Billy Baxter , perhaps best known for having staked legendary professional poker player and gambler, Stu Ungar, has undoubtedly made a lasting mark upon the game of poker. Baxter went heads-up with the IRS (yes that's right) in what would prove to be one of the most important battles on record for both poker, and its players.
The IRS had ruled that the poker winnings Baxter had claimed on his taxes between the years 1978 and 1981 constituted "unearned income," which is taxable up to 70%. The IRS contested that his winnings were based upon luck and therefore could not be claimed as "earned."
Baxter's stance was that earning money in a poker tournament was no different than money earned by a golfer through his/her efforts on the golf course. Chance might play a part, but skill was the driving factor. Therefore, Baxter proclaimed, the game of poker should be included in the same tax bracket as its sporting counterparts, and poker should be declared a lawful method of acquiring "earned income."
After a lengthy battle, which saw numerous judgments in Baxter's favor and subsequent appeals by the government, the case ultimately wound up in the Supreme Court - and Baxter emerged victorious. An appropriate amount of the tax money Baxter had paid in vehement protest to the IRS was returned, and poker was thereafter legally defined by the United States as a legitimate profession.
While this case may have been brought up later, it was Baxter who took one of the first steps in making poker not only a legitimate profession, but a mainstream, above-the-table endeavor.
T.J. Cloutier first picked up the game of poker while serving in the military, having been drafted into the Army. After his discharge, Cloutier played professional football for the Montreal Allouettes, but much like fellow poker pro and legend, Doyle Brunson, a knee injury brought his career in sports to a decidedly abrupt halt.
T.J. owned a wholesale food business for a while with his family, but when it folded in 1976 Cloutier made his way to Texas and started working on an oil rig. Still a card player, however, T.J. eventually began making more money on the felt than he did at his square job. That's when T.J. decided to take the leap and start playing poker full time.
It was a move that would prove to be the correct one. Since then, with more than $6 million in career wins and six World Series of Poker bracelets to his credit, T.J. Cloutier has assuredly proven himself to be one of the greatest poker players of all time.
This isn't the first chance T.J. has had to be admitted to the Poker hall of Fame.
"A few years back," said Cloutier at the press conference heralding his inclusion among the all-time greats of the game. "Becky Binion told me I was going into the Hall of Fame, and for some reason, I didn't make it. Then the next year, she told me I was going in, but somebody else made it. But when they came and told me this year, I knew they meant it."
Getting into the Poker Hall of Fame, however, is only one of two things T.J. has always wanted to achieve.
"I wanted to get into the Poker Hall of Fame," said Cloutier. "And, I wanted to win the big event here - it's the only one I haven't won. But, there's still a chance because I'm still kicking."
I mentioned earlier the "Wall of Fame" at Binion's. This is no longer the "Poker Hall of Fame," to which Cloutier and Baxter were admitted.
I was curious as to whether or not the new entrants to the Poker Hall of Fame would be included in the gallery at Binion's, so I contacted Gary Thompson, Director of Communications for the World Series of Poker.
"I doubt [Binion's] would be putting up Cloutier and Baxter's photos," said Thompson, via e-mail. "I may be wrong on this, though. If they did put up those photos, we'd probably object."
Thompson, who worked diligently for the press and gained my utmost respect during the World Series of Poker, is probably right. Seeing as Harrah's obtained all intellectual property for the WSOP in 2004, including the Hall of Fame, Binion's probably wouldn't have a reason to include the new entrants.
So what's to come of the Poker Hall of Fame? Will Harrah's put up their own display?
"We are planning a permanent location for the Hall of Fame," says Thompson. "Possibly in the Caesar's Palace poker room."
Harrah's did an amazing job with the World Series of Poker this year. Granted, there were pitfalls and hang-ups, but one could expect as much from the largest series of poker tournaments the world has ever seen.
And, while the Poker Hall of Fame may no longer reside in its original location, such does not detract from the honor, prestige, and notoriety that comes with being included among such greats as Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Bobby Baldwin, and Mr. Benny Binion, himself.
Congratulations, T.J. and Billy. You've earned it.
Justin West played poker since the age of 17, he spent more than a year earning a living on the green felt; a modest living, to be sure, but a living nonetheless. His aim was at one point to win the WSOP main event, thus causing Hell to freeze over. However, given his penchant for sin and his extreme dislike of cold weather, Justin has put that dream to rest.