The Redemption of Ray Henson: Chasing the Legend of T.J. Cloutier
Ray Henson faced off against a Texas legend in 2007 and lost. He spent the next seven years battling his own demons and found clarity by growing wiser defeating the legend that bested him.
Ray Henson used to chase down every juicy cash game and tournament he would hear about, leaving his family behind. He’s a guy that stirs up memories of the old Texas Road Gambler – just five decades too late, cut from the same cloth as Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Puggy Pearson.
Henson found moderate success at the start of the Poker Boom for a couple years, but had the run of a lifetime at the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event. He just missed out on the final table with a 12th place finish, but earned $476,926, which is still his largest cash to date.
While Henson was deep in his run he had other things on his mind – he just had his first child. Learning to balance the life of pro poker player and father wasn’t an easy process for him. His heart was at home, but his means to put food on the table required him to be away for long stretches of time.
Just a couple weeks before he made his Main Event run, his first daughter was born. As a result, the Main Event was the only WSOP tournament he played that year, but after the WSOP, Henson spent quite a bit of time on the road.
Henson’s bankroll was flush and almost six months after his deep run, he found himself making another deep run in a large event – the Scotty Nguyen Classic in Oklahoma.
Henson found himself elbow to elbow with some of the game’s best at the time. He made the final table, survived to heads-up play and the only person between him and a signature win was the towering Texan T.J. Cloutier.
The final table had a lasting impression on Henson and still frames his game today. “I’m not going to lie, last time, when I got heads up with him, I was very intimidated. I was like, ‘Oh, this is T.J.,’” Henson said. “Eight years ago, I was nervous the entire final table. I just didn’t feel like it was my time.”
Cloutier remembers the encounter well, “I remember he had me at about 5-1 in chips at heads up,” he said. “I think I had played Ray before that and considered him one of the top players. I just tried to play my game against him – I went up, he went down – you know how that goes. There was a mutual respect both ways.”
Cloutier overcame the chip deficit and walked away the winner – leaving Henson as the butt of jokes from his friends. While Cloutier holds six WSOP bracelets, much of the younger poker community doesn’t have the same respect for Cloutier as they do for his contemporaries like Brunson or Mike Sexton.
For those not familiar, in addition to six WSOP bracelets Cloutier has over $6.5 million in live earnings. He won his last bracelet in 2005 and boasts a resume that goes back 1985.
“I didn’t pick up on him being nervous, I thought he played real good,” Cloutier said. “He was aggressive but I just kind used that against him.”
“You can say whatever you want about him, you can say the game has passed him by – or whatever the case may be – but the guy still gets deep in tournaments,” Henson said. “He’s still a legend; he knows what he’s doing. He’s played this game a long time and he’s a legend of the game.”
Henson’s burgeoning poker career removed him from his family for long periods of time. During that time, things got rocky for him at home between him and the mother of his children, now his ex.
“We were together for a long time, we had a lot of problems, so it never really felt right,” Henson said. “I’ve always been the one that said once I get married I’m never going to get divorced, but I also said I’m going to marry the girl that ends up having my kids.”
“It just didn’t happen, but we were basically married. We actually started dating when I was 18 and then on and off for a long time,” he continued. “Then in ’07 we had a kid, ended up getting a house and everything, living together up until a couple years ago.”
Henson began to recognize that his traveling was having an effect on their relationship, “It definitely didn’t make it better. I’m not going to say it was the cause of our downfall, but if I had a regular nine-to-five job, maybe things would have been different. I don’t know – maybe I would’ve been able to be there more.”
“Honestly, it kind of helped out relationship because we did have such a bad relationship that we couldn’t stand to be around each other,” Henson said. “Then I would have to leave and I don’t want to make it sound bad, but it was kind of a relief to not have to be around her. It wasn’t always bad, but had I not traveled maybe I could have been there more for here. Then she wouldn’t have had the problems she had, which caused up to have the problems we had.”
The problems at home began affecting Henson’s results at the poker table. “At the time, I
was traveling with David “ODB” Baker and he would tell me, ‘I can see it in your face, you’re stressed and it’s putting problems on you.’”
“I told him I wasn’t playing any differently, but he said it didn’t matter, you’re playing with good players and they can see it. They’re taking advantage of the fact they know you’re stressed out,. You’re mind’s just not in the game.”
“It took until I was able to step out of it and look and see that I was just playing really awful. I went through a major downswing in cash games, tournaments and everything,” Henson continued. “I went broke a couple of different times. I had to get help from friends just to get back on my feet again, when I thought that would never happen to me.”
“It was not only the stress that she caused me, but I was putting stress on myself because I had a family to provide for,” Henson said. “I wasn’t just providing for myself anymore. Before I had a family, I would go play in the biggest games around, and if I went broke I didn’t have anybody counting on me, it wasn’t a big deal.”
“I got to the point to where, for a long time, I was playing not to lose. You can’t play not to lose, when you play not to lose, you’re going to lose,” he said. “If somebody would three-bet me I would think, ‘How am I going to lose this pot today?’”
“You just can’t have that negative attitude. I had one for a long time,” Henson added. Henson’s negative attitude followed him everywhere and it wasn’t something that just Baker noticed – J.C. Tran noticed as well.
Tran and Henson used to travel together and, at a recent event, Greg Mueller approached Henson and told him that Tran wanted to bet while there was still 40-50 players remaining that Henson would win. It was affirmation for Henson that he had his game back.
“It was good to see because it had been so long since I had that confidence and hunger,” he said. “I was probably one of the shortest stacks in the room. I lost almost all my chips and I was down to five big blinds. I just counted out the chips and slid it to the guy.”
“Two or three years ago, I might’ve said something … Basically, this is to say my tournament’s over. At that point, I was like, ‘All right, good. I still have chips. Let’s build this back up.’”
The change in Henson didn’t happen overnight and it’s something he’s aware of. “There were several times that I would build up my bankroll and I would go to the Bellagio. The first thing I would do was sit in a cash game and feel this game’s too small for me now and go shoot craps and lose $10,000 – $20,000.”
Henson is in a different place in his life – he has two more children and is in a new relationship. He shares custody with his ex and spends much of his time away from the game as a full-time dad.
“Now, I know I have to continue to move forward because bills don’t stop coming in,” Henson said. “I know the huge downswings that occur in poker, you have to be prepared for it.”
Whether it was fate, an anomaly or just plain luck, Henson found himself sitting across the table from Cloutier again this year with big money on the line. The WSOP Circuit rolled into Durant, Oklahoma and ran a record-setting event with over 4,000 entrants – a Circuit record.
Tournament Director Bill Bruce and his staff ran the event and oversaw the $1.2 million prize pool. “We thought we could beat the all-time record of a little over 3,000,” Bruce said. “But to raise the bar all the way up to 4,000 – that is an incredible jump.”
As Henson got closer and closer to the final table his confidence grew. “I have a lot more experience with closing tournaments out – knowing situations and coasting for final tables, especially with heads up,” he said.
“Once they made it to the final table, there was talk of the potential of a rematch from a heads-up battle from many years ago between TJ and Ray. The topic kept resurfacing with each elimination and this historic final table seemed to be headed to towards a historic rematch,” Bruce added. “Both players played well heads-up, but Ray seemed destined to make up for the previous loss.”
“I said to Ray when we got down to three tables, ’Wouldn’t it be fun if we met up again?’” Cloutier said. He recognized the change in Henson from 2007, “He’s eight years older, has that much more experience and it came out in certain plays.”
Cloutier acknowledged that, while Henson is a product of the modern poker boom, he reminds him of the old school Texas gambler. “I think he falls right in the middle (of the old school and new school), he’s very adaptable to the new style. You have so many people with a solid foundation from playing online, but it’s not the same as looking a man in the eye.”
“I would feel comfortable (heads up) if it was Ivey,” Henson said. “I’m not going to say he wouldn’t intimidate me, because, anybody, if the cards go to somebody’s favor, they’re going to win, anytime. I look at it now as, no matter who I play I feel like I’m just as good as anybody else once they get the heads up.”
“He (Cloutier) still knows what he’s doing. I hear people laugh about it all the time. I was getting texts from guys saying, ‘Oh you better not lose to this guy, he’s 100 years old.’ I’m like, ‘the guy outlasted over 4,000 people.’ Obviously he’s doing something right.”
Most in attendance were ready for a long, drawn out heads-up battle with the two players rewriting a page of their history. But the final hand came only about 30 minutes in to heads up play when Henson flopped trip jacks and Cloutier shoved into him holding pocket kings. Henson made the easy call, his hand held and Henson defeated Cloutier to take home just under $200,000 and win his fourth WSOPC ring.
The score put him at a Toyota Camry shy of $1 million in WSOP earnings alone. “Obviously, it felt freaking good,” Henson said about winning. “I was really just hoping to put myself in a good spot.”
Henson’s poker schedule now revolves around his kids’ schedule. He’s used to the late night hours of a poker player, but doesn’t mind the change at home. “I’m used to not going to bed until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, so it’s quite a change.”
“I’m proud to say that, of all the days I’ve had them this year, I’ve not had them late to school one time,” he added. “I have to wake up at 6:15 to get them bathed, dressed and off to school in time. It’s not easy, especially with having girls.”
“I know poker’s going to be there forever and my kids aren’t going to be kids forever. I have joint custody now, so I get to see them,” Henson said. “I have them about 15 days a month. I enjoy taking them to go do fun things, going to the park or just about anything. It’s fun, but I’m not going to say I don’t miss poker, because I do – I love poker, but poker will always be there.”