Interview with T. J. Cloutier
By Dana Smith
If you ask players on the tournament circuit who they think are the best poker players in the world, T. J. Cloutier's name always comes up. Not because he's won the Big One. He hasn't ... yet. And not because he's made the most money at the World Series of Poker. He hasn't ... although he was the first player to make more than $1 million at it without winning the main event. No, his name is always mentioned because his peers highly respect and fear him as an opponent. "T. J. is the number one no-limit poker player in the world," said Mansour Matloubi, the 1990 WSOP champion. WSOP tournament coordinator Jack McClelland concurs: "T. J. is one of the very best all-around players on the tournament trail today."
Cloutier won two gold bracelets at the 1994 WSOP, one for pot-limit hold'em and the other for Omaha high-low. He also has garnered a WSOP trophy in limit Omaha, and placed second to his long-time friend, Bill Smith, in the 1985 championship match. Altogether, Cloutier has won 43 titles in major tournaments, including the $10,000 no-limit hold'em championship at the Diamond Jim Brady three years in a row. But as impressive as his record is, Cloutier is equally as well-known as a story teller. During breaks in the hectic action at the Series, you'll see him surrounded by other poker players listening to his fascinating and humorous tales about the gamblers he has met over the past 21 years in smoky back-room Texas games, players who "faded the white line" back and forth from Dallas to Houston to Shreveport. Cloutier is one of the last of the legendary road gamblers whose numbers are, unfortunately, dwindling each year. Before he went on the road to make his living playing poker, Cloutier played pro football for the Montreal Allouettes, and later owned a wholesale food business with his father and brother in the San Francisco area. When that business closed in 1976 because of an embezzlement by an outside partner, he headed for Texas with $100 in his jeans. "I went to work for six months as a derrick man on the oil rigs. On my off days, I was playing poker. Pretty soon, I was making more money at poker than I was on the rigs -- and I'd been freezing up there, anyway -- so that's how I moved into playing poker full time," he explained.
Today Cloutier, who lives with his wife Joy in Texas, is still a travelin' man, hitting the highways and airways to play major tournaments across the nation. With Tom McEvoy, he also is the author of a new poker book, Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold'em. In addition to extensive chapters on no-limit and pot-limit ring game and tournament strategy, the book contains several of Cloutier's famous road stories. Sitting at an unused poker table during the recent L. A. Poker Classic at the Commerce Club, I listened and laughed as the master of poker tales spun off one yarn after the other from a seemingly endless skeen of memories.
T. J. Cloutier: "Little Red" Ashee (who's bigger than I am at about 6'5" tall and 300 pounds) and I were staying at the Anthony Motel down in Hot Springs, Arkansas, back in the '70s while we were going to the horse races. "Let's go next door," he says. "Jack Straus is there." So we start talking with Jack and pretty soon we hear a pounding on the door. Jack opened the door and let a guy in. You had to know Jack to understand this story. He borrowed and loaned a lot of money in his time, and it was always on what we called "principle." Principle meant that Jack set up a certain day to pay back his loan, and he only paid it on that exact day. Seems that Jack had borrowed $5,000 from this fellow and the guy had come over to dun him for the money. "I've still got 30 days to pay that off," Jack said, "so quit dunning me." So, the guy left, but as he was going down the stairs, a second man was coming up them. "I'm down on my luck," the man tells Jack. "Could you loan me "10,000?" And Jack peeled the $10 grand right out of his pocket and gave it to him! One time when we were on the golf course, Jack told me that he liked me because I was like him. "I'm broke one day and have a fortune the next day," he said. "And I don't give a damn."
Dana Smith: You played with some colorful characters in those days, didn't you?
TJC: Yes. One of them was George McGann. George loved to play poker, but he was a stone killer. He stood about five feet eight inches tall, and weighed about 145 pounds, and he always wore a suit and tie. Always carried two guns with him, too. One day, George was playing in Dallas and he got broke. So he pulled out his gun and robbed everybody at the game, took every dime they had. "Boys, I'm short," he said. But the kicker to this story is that the very next day, he came back into the game, sat down, and played with these same guys ... and nobody said a word! Some years later, George and his wife were murdered at the same time. The rumor was that he had been collecting money for somebody and they had set him up.
DS: Tell me about you and Bill Smith.
TJC: He was one of the greatest players of all time, Bill Smith was. He was the tightest player you'd ever played in your life when he was sober. And when he was halfway drunk, he was the best player I'd ever played with. But when he got past that halfway mark, he was the worst player I'd ever played. And you could always tell when he was past the halfway point because he started calling the flop. Say a flop came 7-4-10 -- he'd say, "21!" When he got up to take a walk, he would have a little hop in his step, a "git-up in his gittalong" we used to call it. And then you knew he was gone. You never worried about Bill when he was sober because you knew that he played A-B-C -- tight -- and you knew where he was all the time. The only time you worried about him was when he was about halfway drunk, and then he'd play all the way to "H." But he had such great timing on his hands when he was younger and wasn't drunk ... he'd make some fabulous plays, plays you couldn't believe. Bill was a truly great player.
DS: What happened in the 1985 title match at the WSOP?
TJC: When it got to two-handed, I had the lead against Bill, but the key hand of the whole match happened when I had two nines and he had two kings. He moved in and I called him. Bill won the pot and doubled up. Then he had a big lead, and so I started chopping back at him. There were 140 players that year, with $1,400,000 in chips in play, and I got back up to $350,000. Then Bill came in with a little raise, and I was looking down at an ace in my hand ... didn't even look at the other card, just made it look like I had. I went over the top of him with the whole $350,000. I knew he had to make a decision and that if he made the wrong one, I'd be back even with him again. He had started drinking, and he gave away money when he was drinking. He called. When I looked back at my hand, my kicker was a three ... and Bill had two threes in the pocket. They held up and he won the title.
DS: What about your famous "mystery hand?"
TJC: I was playing pot-limit hold'em down in Shreveport. We'd been playing for quite a few hours and there was a lot of money on the table. A hand came up in which I had the stone nuts on fourth street. I had $5,000 in front of me and made a $2,000 bet. Wayne Edmunds was in the game and he had a habit of putting his head down after he called a bet, so that he never saw what was going on anywhere else. As I was making my bet, the dealer grabbed my cards and threw them in the muck. Of course, Wayne didn't see it happen. "What do I do now?!" I was wondering. I have big hands and so I just kept them out in front of me like I was protecting my cards. The dealer burned and then turned the river card. I bet my last $3,000 and Wayne threw his hand away. I won the pot without any cards! Everybody at the table except Wayne saw what had happened, but nobody said a thing. So, this is what I call my "mystery hand" play.
DS: You seem to remember everything that has ever happened in the games you've played. Do you keep a book on your opponents?
TJC: No, it's nothing that formal. It's more like pages opening up in a book in my mind. I've been very observant throughout my entire life and I've always had a sort of photographic memory for how people play their hands in certain situations. If you and I had played poker together five years ago, I wouldn't necessarily recall your name today, but I would remember your face and how you played your hands in different spots, your tendencies. I think that knowing your opponents is the most important thing in big-bet poker. To do that, you have to be alert at all times, even when you're not in a hand, because you can learn something valuable. If a wing fell off a gnat at the end of the table, I'd see it.
DS: Is that how you get a line on the other players?
TJC: The main thing is being very observant and watching what players do in different situations. A fella' who used to play with us in Texas years ago would play as good a poker game as anybody I'd ever seen play ... for the first two hours. Then he'd hit a sone wall and his whole game would revert back to the way he always played. You could've put a stop watch on him. He'd start bluffing in bad spots and would start giving his money away. With a player like that, you know that he's going to crumble in two hours, so you just wait him out and win the money.
DS: You call that kind of knowledge "being the recipient of their generosity." How so? TJC: We're just like leopards -- we can't change our spots. For example, I know a player who always brings it in for a small raise when everybody has passed to him on the button; he never comes in flat. But he's also a good enough player that he doesn't stand a reraise unless he has a big hand. Knowing how he plays the button, you can make a lot of money off this man when you're in the big or little blind by just popping him back three or four times in a session. Obviously, you can't do it every time or you'll get killed ... but you can tell when to do it. The thing about hold'em is that if you're playing nine-handed and six players have passed to you on the button, there's a pretty good chance that somebody behind you might have a hand since nobody in front you does. It's what Tom McEvoy, the co-author of our new book, calls "the bunching factor."
DS: Besides skill and observation, does luck play a part in poker?
TJC: Of course, but it's not as big a factor as novice players think it is. Speaking of luck, I'll tell you about the unluckiest player in the world. There was this big card game years ago in a house down in Odessa or Midland ... don't remember which. Nobody except a few notorious men from the area could play in that game, and they were all what we called "packing" in Texas ... they were armed. Seems that one guy accused another one of cheating (which they were all doing) and the guns started blazing. Two men were killed right there in the game, and another guy was shot going out the front door. All of the houses were right next to each other, and the people next door heard all the gun shots and called for the cops. So the man that was shot in the doorway started pounding on the neighbors' door to ask for help, standing there just bleeding to death. The guy opened up the door and killed him with a shotgun, thinking that he was trying to break in. Next time you think you're having an unlucky day in poker, just think about this guy!
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