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).
"I felt like Chan was trying to rob me," Seidel says, acknowledging that the king and two he had been initially dealt were marginal cards before the flop (the first three community cards dealt) gave him the pairs. "Sometimes things fall a certain way and just look funny. I thought Chan was bluffing and I already had a lot of money in the pot -- but I'm not sure what I would have done if the second deuce didn't turn up." Soon after losing first prize to Seidel (second place paid a respectable $211,210), Chan told poker reporter Andy Glazer of poker.casino.com, "Erik was an amateur [13 years ago]; now he's an expert, a professional. I wasn't playing the same guy."
Back at the Horseshoe, four days after the start of the World Series, the original field contracts to nine guys, with more than $6 million among them. Sitting at the final table is a mixed bag of seasoned professionals (Phil Hellmuth and Dewey Tomko, a former schoolteacher turned gambler, have been at this table before; Mike Matusow lives in nearby Henderson and is well-known on Vegas's high-stakes circuit) to battle-scarred players with international reputations (the dapper German Henry Nowakowski, the no- nonsense John Inashima and a trendy-looking Spaniard named Carlos Mortensen, who wears a bucket hat and looks as if he might have made a wrong turn on his way to a rave) to dark horses who managed to muscle onto the final table (a retired high-tech executive from South Lake Tahoe, Nevada, named Phil Gordon, an automobile salesman based in Omaha, Nebraska, named Stan Schrier, and an electrician from California who was born Steve Riehle but within the last 24 hours has been nicknamed Country). Speaking in an appropriately rural tone, Riehle (pronounced Really), who won his way into the World Series via a super satellite, gives off a please-pinch-me vibe. "Basically, I'm here four days longer than I thought I would be," he says, making it clear that he feels honored and pleasantly surprised to be at the final table, competing in such fast company.
The chip leader at this point is Nowakowski with $1,076,000; Inashima brings up the rear with $328,000. Early on, with his opponents playing cautiously, Gordon, the retired executive, finds himself going in on lots of hands. He wins some, he loses some, and he winds up in a showdown against Matusow, the local pro, who pushes all of his chips into the center of the table. Matusow has ace-10 to Gordon's ace-7. After the flop gives Matusow two pairs, he rakes in $800,000, clenches both fists victoriously, and declares, "OK, boys. Let's play poker."
The one who takes this suggestion to heart, in the most serious way, is Mortensen. He plays relentlessly and aggressively, making the kinds of moves that leave him looking as if he is having an extraordinarily lucky day. If he's doing a lot of bluffing, few players are willing to call him on it. He adds $140,000 to his pot when Inashima, whose chip stack has been badly battered by ever escalating blinds and antes (a single round at this stage runs $47,000) even though he's seen limited action, goes all in and loses to Mortensen's pair of nines. Following 58 hands, Mortensen ranks as the chip leader with about $1.5 million. Riehle, whose pregnant wife has flown in for the final day of play, is barely there with $200,000; he feels compelled to go all in with a pair of jacks that loses to a surprise flush for Schrier, the car salesman. Hellmuth, with a pair of jacks that holds up better than Riehle's, takes Nowakowski out for $300,000.
At this moment Mortensen seems unstoppable. This may explain why, a couple hands later, the normally unflappable and fearless Matusow, having already pushed $560,000 into the pot (a considerable chunk of his arsenal), thinks long and hard about calling Mortensen's all-in bet before the flop. Matusow ultimately folds and gives away his money. Mortensen, looking quite pleased with himself, holds up his surprisingly weak cards -- queen-8, offsuited -- and shows that he laid down a successful bluff. Seconds later, Matusow stands and corkscrews his body as if he's been stabbed in the kidney, a clear indication that he had been dealt much better cards than Mortensen. The spectators erupt with glee; Matusow never recovers and soon goes bust.
Using his enormous reserves of chips as weapons, Mortensen bullies Hellmuth out of the game after the former champ goes all in with queen-10 against Mortensen's queen-jack. Hellmuth exits quickly and silently, walking past his wife and parents in the bleachers. By this point it is down to four players: Phil Gordon (he has weathered massive swings and manages to hold second place with $1 million), Stan Schrier (the low man with $520,000), Dewey Tomko (tightly focused play with little risk taking has bolstered his stack to $700,000) and Carlos Mortensen, the leader with a monstrous $3,910,000. A couple hands after Hellmuth goes bust, Tomko goes all in with ace-10 against Mortensen's king-queen. The higher hand holds up and Tomko suddenly doubles his stack. While this does not seem to put much of a dent in Mortensen's chip supply, it suddenly turns Tomko into a force to be reckoned with. Mortensen makes up for the loss by dispatching Gordon, and Tomko soon gets some fresh chips of his own when he busts Schrier with a pair of kings. Finally, the World Series comes down to two players squaring off with $6.13 million between them.
They trade pots back and forth until the 206th hand of the day, when Mortensen makes a $100,000 bet and Tomko calls. The flop comes 3 of clubs, 10 of clubs, jack of diamonds. Mortensen bets $100,000 again. This time Tomko raises $400,000, opening the door for a bigger raise back from Mortensen. He gets it when Mortensen pushes his entire stack forward. Immediately, Tomko calls the bet and shows a pair of aces, as strong a hand as you can be dealt. But when Mortensen reveals his king and queen of clubs, well, it's not exactly a done deal for Tomko. A nine, a club or an ace will give Mortensen the winning hand (a straight or flush) and the poker championship. Anything else will make Tomko the chip leader and cause things to get, as the pros in the stands say, real interesting.
The crowd presses in. Tomko and Mortensen are on their feet. Mortensen's sexy blond wife, dressed in tight denim and black leather, leans over his vacated chair. The dealer burns and turns. He lays down a three of diamonds. It does nothing for either player. The crowd gasps. Mortensen has one more chance to either win it or face an uphill battle against a much more sure-footed player. The final card gets turned over. It's a… nine -- the straight-making card for Mortensen. All hell breaks loose. Friends and players push in, offering congratulations and hugs. Guards keep a tight watch over the $1.5 million first-place prize. Tomko knows that he's played great poker and lost to a lucky draw -- and he looks about as frustrated as he must feel. However, it's inarguable that Mortensen has also played great, hard-charging poker. Yes, he got lucky on that last card; but luck is not what brought him to this moment.
Mortensen's ecstatic wife swoops in and starts making out with him. His bucket hat flips off. Fittingly, for a man who's just earned seven figures from five days of work and a well-timed nine of diamonds, he looks like nothing less than a winner with all the spoils.
Michael Kaplan writes on gambling for Cigar Aficionado.