When bluff called TJ Cloutier, he was engaged in a particularly thorny internet tournament during the recent world championships of online poker. Halfway through the interview he managed to hit the ‘call’ button instead of ‘fold’, and with a cry of, “aw shoot!” blew off all his chips. It’s reassuring to know that even the winningest player of them all makes the same mistakes we do.
How old were you when you played your first game of poker, TJ?
I was caddying on a golf course when I was sixteen years old, and when we were done we’d play Tonk with the golfers and they would take all the money we’d worked for. One day a guy came in and he passed around what they called ‘Lucky Bucks’ from a card club in Temparilo, CA. If you went in and spent $20 with one of these things, you’d get $40 worth of chips. Anyway, I was only seventeen and I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I was a big kid, so I went down there and played. I wasn’t very good in those days, but that’s where it all started.
You were a pro football player weren’t you?
I went up to Canada and played in the pro league for five years, until my knees were gone – then I was gone too.
So you channeled that competitive instinct into poker?
Yeah. I’ve had that all my life. Heck, I was a big sportsman all my life. When I was a kid I played in the rookie league for Pittsburgh with Willie Stargell. I batted clean-up, which is supposed to be the power position, and he batted fifth. So I was the big home run hitter on that team and he hit something like 500 home runs in the Major Leagues. They wanted me to play pro baseball for a living, but they didn’t think my knees would hold up. I ended up playing college football in the Rose Bowl in ’59. And then went to the Canadian leagues and played as long as my knees held out.
You’re one of the few remaining old Texas road gamblers. Playing poker was a harsh and unforgiving life back then. Did you get into any scrapes?
Well, nothing real bad… Of course, we were robbed a couple of times, but that went with the territory. But you just had to give it up when you were held up – let it go and go get a new bankroll. But what was worse than that was that you had to learn to keep the cheat off you; you’d learn to keep the cheat off you first and then you learn how to play. You’d have to go and find someone who was pretty good at cheating himself and find out what mechanics do and what to look for, so that you could make sure you didn’t get in no situations. I once went to a game outside of Baton Rouge, LA, at this joint that closed up at 2am and then became a card club. I remember going up to this big door, and I asked the bouncer, “If I happen to win, can I get out of here with the money?” He said, “You know, no one’s ever asked me that question before, but if you want to keep your money I’d suggest you do not play.” So I just turned around and left. (Laughs) There were lots of things going on in the old days.
You must have met some colorful characters back then…
There was George McGann. Now, George used to carry two pistols. He had two shoulder holsters and he’d carry them under his suit. George was a stone-cold contract killer, but he loved to gamble. He was around the north Texas area quite a bit. I remember he was playing this guy – they called him Tippy-toe Joe Shotsman. Tippy-toe Joe was a heavy, heavy drinker, but he was a damn good poker player. Anyway, he beat George out of all his money quite a few times, and finally George got tired of it. They were heads up and George just pulled his guns out and said, “Now Joe, give me all the money you’ve beaten me out of today and give me all the money in your pocket.” Tippy-toe Joe had $10,000 in traveller’s checks in his pocket and George made him sign every single one of them. While he was signing away, Joe looked up and said, “George, this is going to leave me a little short. Do you think you can loan me about $3,000? Well, he didn’t get it, but when they were done, they walked down the stairs together and – because he’d beaten George so many times – Joe said, “We’re not going to let this little incident ruin our game are we?”
Everyone seems to have a favorite Jack Straus story. He must have been quite a character…
Yeah, he was something else. He used to like me because he used to say I was just like him: we’d have a lot of money one day, we’d be broke the next, but we’d always be in action. We went golfing one day and he was betting real high with this other guy, and he was just betting $100 here and there with me. I was shooting the best game of my life, so after four or five holes I called our bet off so that Jack could concentrate on the other guy, who he was betting $10,000 a hole with. It’s funny that I played the best game of my life and I never made a cent out of it.
The game must have changed a lot over the years…
The game hasn’t changed any; the players have changed.
So the style of play hasn’t changed?
Not really. There’s only so many different ways you can play: aggressive, loose-aggressive, tight… You’re not seeing anything new – you’re just seeing more of it.
What do think of these young whippersnappers these days (be honest)?
I think there are some very good players. But I don’t see any of the old guys who’ve been around a long time ready to throw in the towel yet (laughs).
They call you poker’s all-time winningest player. Which was the most important win to you?
I guess it was winning the Diamond Jim Brady at the Bicycle (which is now the Legends of Poker) three years in a row. No one’s ever done that. The kicker to that was that the same guy, Hal Kant, finished third all three years in a row too.
You travel the world playing poker. Where’s your favorite place in the world?
Right here. Richardson, Texas…
Ah, home on the range. What do you do when you’re not playing poker?
I play a little golf. I haven’t played too much in the last few years because I’ve had some health problems. I had a heart attack in 2003, which kinda slowed me down a little bit, but I’m getting back into it now. I went out and played nine holes – that’s the first time I’ve done that in a long time. Next week I’ll go out and play eighteen holes. Everything’s good right now.
In all your years, what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen at the poker table?
Worst beat ever: I was playing in a live game years ago at the Bicycle club with Al Krux. He’s a good player, but he was running bad that day. He had something like $490, and he moved all in. The guy two seats to his left was getting a massage. He held up his hand showed it to the masseuse and mucked it. It got around to me on the button with two tens and I called. The dealer made a mistake; he didn’t see I’d called and he dropped the deck on the muck, so they had to reshuffle it all. When they reshuffled, the flop came K-10-4. Al had two kings in the hole, and the turn came another ten – so I made four tens to beat him. But that’s not the kicker. The kicker was that the guy that had held his hand up to the masseuse had had the other two tens. That’s the worst beat in history. You can’t get a worse beat than that.
Do you have any superstitions at the table?
None per say, although I did offer a dealer money not to deal in a tournament one time – every time he dealt to me I’d lose.
What’s the most money you’ve ever lost on a single hand?
At the 2000 WSOP, I had A-Q against Chris Ferguson’s A-9. I had 20,000 chips in the pot, which, I guess, equates to $2.6 million.
Tell us about this game you’ve got out…
It’s called World Class Poker with TJ. It’s been getting fantastic reviews. I think it’s the best software out there for people who want to really work on their game – and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it! It’s just that there are so many different things you can do with it. You can play these tournaments against amazing artificial intelligence and there’s a replay button, so you can go back and see what everybody had on a certain hand and exactly how they played it and where you went wrong – it’s just a great teaching tool. It gives you all the percentages, and if you click on a button, there’s a little graphic of me that pops up to tell you what I would most likely do in each situation. It seems to be the best one on the market and hopefully it will do real good.
What’s the greatest bluff you’ve ever made? We hear you actually won a pot with no cards once…
I was playing in Treeport, LA, with a guy called Wayne Edmonds. Every time Wayne made a bet, he’d always put his head down. In those days, we used to deal for ourselves. I remember I made a bet on fourth street and I had the nuts, and he called me for $2,000. I turned around to get a Coke and the guy who was dealing grabbed my cards. I thought, “Heck. What am I gonna do? I got money in there and now I’ve got no cards?” But I knew Wayne had had his head down and hadn’t seen any thing, so I just put my hands on the table to make it look like I was covering my cards. They burned and turned, and I just bet the rest of my chips, and he threw his hand away. Everybody at the table except Wayne knew I didn’t have a hand, but they never said anything. That was the way it went in those days.
What gets on your nerves?
I don’t like people acting up at the poker table. Phil Hellmuth and I are very good friends, but he’s the biggest actor ever. I don’t like to see that. Someone’s being playing real hard in a poker tournament all day and they go broke on a bad beat or something, and you get guys going, “Seat open” before he’s even left the table. I don’t think there’s any call for that.
You’ve done quite well playing poker, and earned a few bucks along the way. What’s your greatest extravagance?