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Poker World Series

The Last Draw Poker's Most Distinguished Prize Lures Players to Las Vegas
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

T.J. Cloutier is an aggressive survivor. A barrel-chested, former Canadian Football League pro, who has the thick, muscular build of a gracefully aging lineman, Cloutier also happens to be poker's winningest tournament player, with $10 million from 51 major tournaments.

But for all that, Cloutier has never been able to see his poker-playing dream come true by winning the big game at the World Series of Poker.

Held each year at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, the tournament features poker players from around the world who compete for the $1.5 million first-place prize. Whoever corrals all the chips is the winner; the next 45 finishers split the rest of the money.

Last year the big game came down to Cloutier and a bearded, lank-haired mathematician named Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. Ferguson had accumulated more than $4.5 million in chips, and Cloutier (who had "$400,000 and change") had his work cut out for him.

"I won the first pot I played with Chris," Cloutier remembers. "In fact, I won the first 20 I played with him. I didn't play a pot unless I had the best hand. He was looking at his cards and his hands started shaking. After that he started looking at his cards from behind his chips" -- so as to hide the jitters. "My hands are not gonna shake. I don't get rattled. Finally, though, I went all in with ace-queen and he called the bet with ace-9. Being a mathematician, he shouldn't have been in with that hand. But, Chris said afterwards, he realized he couldn't beat me heads up. He had to gamble on a hand. And he caught a nine on the river to win the series." Cloutier shrugs. "But that's poker. If you know that you played pretty good cards, then losing shouldn't bother you at all."

Just a few hours into the first day of the 2001 World Series, this kind of thinking is put to the test for Cloutier, Annie Duke and Erik Seidel -- all front-runners. This year, 613 poker players each ponied up $10,000 to play no-limit Texas Hold'em. The game was structured as a freeze-out: once your $10,000 was gone, you were out.

Duke and Cloutier are busted by a heretofore unknown player named Diego Cordovez, who gets dealt pocket aces two out of three hands. Seidel never manages to get his chip stack above $18,000 and fails to attract the kinds of cards that are necessary for even a great player to become a World Series contender. Huck Seed, the 1996 champ, is another early knockout; apparently busted, he prowls the tournament periphery, looking for somebody to put him into side action. Ferguson, last year's winner, drops out by the end of the first day, and, after day two closes, every former World Series of Poker champion, except for Phil Hellmuth and Jim Bechtel, has bitten the dust.

The morning after the big guns have been knocked out, Cloutier is heading up a table of high-stakes Hold'em at the Bellagio hotel. Sitting beside him, having apparently found his backer, is Seed. Seidel, who initially made a name in Las Vegas by finishing second to Johnny Chan in his first World Series of Poker, in 1988, is hanging out near the two-step entrance of the high-stakes room, as if contemplating whether to enter one of the big games.

Several months before this year's World Series, Seidel was trading stock for a brokerage firm in Southern California. He did not feel he was anywhere near his peak level. "What I do is try to get the most out of every marginal hand," says Seidel, who did precisely that to the tune of $411,300 in a preliminary Hold'em tournament. "So I need to make a lot of finesse decisions and rely a lot on my judgment for evaluating players and hands. Unless I am in practice, it is hard to count on that because things can get a little rusty."

By the time Seidel squared off against Chan for the final hand of that Hold'em tournament, however, the gears were grinding smoothly. He watched Chan push all his chips into the pot and read the move to be a straight-out bluff (Chan's hand contained rags, while Seidel had kings and deuces).

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