With six WSOP bracelets TJ Cloutier is a legend of the game. But some suggest that he’s lost more playing craps than he ever made from poker…
In a game that thrives on fresh-thinking newcomers and ever-evolving technology, TJ Cloutier is an old-school survivor. The 69-year-old Texan is a self-proclaimed ‘dinosaur’, and explains how he got into the game when he was just a kid, playing poker in the caddy shack of a Northern California golf course.
Over the years, cards emerged as the single constant in Cloutier’s life. Along the way he managed a stint as a Canadian football pro, wrecked his first marriage and tried to make it in the business world. Trailed by less-than-stellar outcomes, Cloutier eventually landed a job that had him labouring in the Texas oil fields. Before long, though, he found himself making more money playing hold’em than handling derricks. In 1976, he ditched the day job and started to focus exclusively on poker. Thirty-three years later, and Cloutier is an elder statesman of the game, a happily married granddad and a guy notorious for having no small amount of gamble in him. He proves it when we meet at Foxwoods, where he seems to be spending every spare minute at the craps table.
INSIDE POKER: You grew up in California, a state that had loads of poker clubs at a time when legal gambling in America was pretty much restricted to Nevada. Do you remember your first time in a California card room?
TJ CLOUTIER: I was 17 years old and a guy was passing out lucky bucks for a club called Artichoke Joe’s. You used the bucks to buy in for $ 20 and got $ 40 worth of chips. I played no-limit lowball and lost my money but then got real good at draw poker, played the owner heads-up, and beat him. My father found out and went down to the club, grabbed Artichoke Joe by the necktie and threatened to kill him if he let me play down there again. Of course, I was back the next day.
IP: You loved poker too much to give it up?
TJC: I loved gambling. Poker was just one of the outlets. I went to the horses, shot dice, played tonk [a variant of rummy] and blackjack. I was one of the top card counters in the country at one point. Then I got put in the book and that was the end of that. Back in the mid-70s, I’d play poker all night and spend all afternoon at the track.
IP: Moving forward a little bit, once you turned pro, where did you play poker?
TJC: The big game was in Shreveport. I won there and then went to Dallas where I played at the home of a guy named Charlie Bissell. He was the biggest asshole, but he ran the best poker game ever. I beat the game a bunch of times and Charlie said he was dropping the latch on me.
IP: What does that mean?
TJC: Unless I give him half, I can’t go there anymore. I did it. I made $ 200,000 a year out of that game. Then Charlie told me that he wants to be out of our partnership for just one day. There were a couple strangers in the game, and I was, like, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going to happen now?’ I bought in for $ 500, played for half an hour and left. After that, I was running with a crew and he couldn’t just drop a latch on me.
IP: When did you start playing in Las Vegas?
TJC: 1983. Not long after, Charlie Bissell’s game got raided and the cops broke it up. Ever since then, I’ve had two losing years at the World Series – 1993 and this year.
IP: What happened?
TJC: I had bad years. It goes that way sometimes. And I only played, like, eight tournaments this year. I used to play every one.
IP: How much luck do you think there is in poker?
TJC: Quite a bit. After I lost to Chris Ferguson [in the 2000 WSOP] when he made a 9 on me, I finished second in the next two tournaments – all to nines. So I wasn’t very lucky there.
IP: What’s pretty amazing, and clearly more than just luck, is that you managed to win World Series bracelets in all three variations of Omaha. How great did that feel?
TJC: I don’t think of it in that way. For me, they were just tournaments, and I had never played limit Omaha in my life before playing it in the event that I wound up winning. I’ve read about it being a big deal in other people’s eyes, but I’m not full of myself. I leave that to Phil Hellmuth and those guys.
IP: Is there something particularly effective about the way you play Omaha?
TJC: I probably play a little more conservatively than other people. I don’t make a big thing of raising before the flop. Omaha is so volatile that if you make the pot big before the flop, you put your whole stack in jeopardy. You don’t want to be the first raiser with Aces in Omaha. It’s correct to re-raise, because that might narrow the field, but you have to remember that one big pair in Omaha can cost you a lot of money.
IP: How do you like playing against the online kids?
TJC: They don’t bother me one iota. A lot of these young kids are very aggressive, but I can play more aggressively than they do. Some of them are so cocky, but mostly they’re good guys. The kid who won Caesars recently [Hevad Khan], he put on a horrible show at the World Series. But I had a personal talk with him about it. It turns out that he was doing it for the cameras. He wanted to get himself established and figured that being on TV was one way to do it.
IP: Still, regardless of the rationale, that behaviour wouldn’t have flown back in the day
TJC: It would have gotten you buried in the middle of the desert. If Phil Hellmuth played in Texas, back in the 1970s, and acted the way he does now, he wouldn’t be alive for the week. I played in a poker game with four stone killers at the table. They packed heat and didn’t care for out-of-line remarks. Kids today have it easy. I used to worry about being robbed from the front and cheated from the back. And if I went to church with my wife, I’d tell people that I work for a company called Cloutier Investments. That wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t what they thought it was either.
IP: When you’re not playing poker, you don’t shy away from the pit. How’s that gone for you over the years?
TJC: Everybody knows that I like to play craps and that I really gamble with it sometimes. I’ve been playing for years but I haven’t lost anywhere near what people think. They see me betting black chips and think I’m a big loser. But the fact is that, by then, I’m playing with the house’s money, not my own.
IP: Nevertheless, do you wish that you had never discovered the game?
TJC: I regret that I’m so into it. But there’s a fix for everyone in these Vegas casinos. People get into blackjack or high-stakes slots. When I want to get away, I get away with the craps.
IP: Do you have a special strategy for beating it?
TJC: No I don’t. It’s a house game, so you have the worst of it. And craps is masochistic. You can bet the opposite of what another guy has bet and get broke five minutes apart. I’ve beaten craps zillions of times. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is walking away with your money.