For me, the classic image of the old-school poker player includes a Stetson, cowboy boots and a dusty trail. The Marlboro Man puts his roll on the line, takes all the money, then the real game begins; first one out of town wins. When you've played with your life, it's easier to bet all your money.
T.J. Cloutier is a huge man; 6-foot-4, thick chest, broad shoulders, straight back. That's a powerful frame for a 25-year old -- T.J. is 67. Others might be louder or more flamboyant, but Cloutier helped lay the foundation upon which the poker world is built today. When you're an institution, you don't have to yell over the mob for TV time.
Cloutier has won just about everything worth winning in the poker world, everything other than the World Series of Poker World Championship, and he came tantalizingly close to that goal more than once: second in 1985, fifth in 1988, third in 1998. Those were the easy ones. The real tease came in 2000, when he found Jesus -- in the form of Chris Ferguson.
Jesus Ferguson isn't to be confused with his Nazarene namesake. So named for his wiry frame, long hair and beard, Ferguson is an amicable enough guy, although a professed atheist. The roles faith and prayer play in so many people's lives are usurped by data, computers and math in his. That's not to say he's not a good man, but when he gets to the felt, he's a machine.
Ferguson entered the six-player final table with more than half of the 5 million-plus chips in play, thanks largely to the three-way hand that ended the fight for final table seats. His pocket aces knocked Jeff Shulman and his kings out in seventh. Jim McManus, eventual writer of "Positively Fifth Street," entered the final day's play in second place with $554,000. Jesus had $2,853,000.
As Ferguson bullied the table, Cloutier was hanging on for dear life. He had bet 60 percent of his chips into that final hand and had just $216,000 left after making a tough fold with pocket jacks. While Cloutier searched for a hand to play at the start of that final day, Ferguson dispatched Roman Abinsay in sixth place. Hasan Habib knocked out McManus, then got knocked out himself. As Andy Glazer noted in his report, T.J. "had stolen one pot, made one hand, and watched three opponents vanish before he could finish three cigarettes." It was an incredible first half hour of play. Steve Kaufman went down 20 minutes later, leaving only the two guys everyone had come to see.
Cloutier started the final with $500,000, less than 10 percent of the chips in play. He doubled up on the sixth hand, when his Td-9s hit trips on the flop. After taking a few moderate pots, he thought he'd seized control when he went all-in with Ad-Kc against Ferguson's Ah-7h, but the board paired twice and the pot was chopped. Still, it wasn't long before the stacks drew even. They again got all-in with an ace each, and again, Ferguson's inferior kicker was nullified by the board.
Jesus was unnerved. He'd entered the day with the bracelet nearly around his wrist, then accumulated more than 90 percent of the chips. Now, fazed, he was locking horns with one of the great tournament players in the game's annals and losing the battle. The glasses were off, the hat removed, his thin hands moving without their customary direction. He held a slight chip lead after taking a half-million-dollar pot when T.J. raised the $25,000-$50,000 blinds to $175,000.
Jesus raised his As-9c to $600,000, a bet designed to take the pot immediately. When Cloutier re-raised all-in, Ferguson gave up in a way, admitting afterward, "I just understood that I wasn't going to be able to steal a lot of pots from T.J. Cloutier; I wasn't going to be able to outplay him, so when we had a big pot like that going, I figured, maybe it's time to gamble." He rocked on his elbows and ran his hands through his hair as he considered the options. Finally, he shrugged and admitted, "I'll gamble." Again, Cloutier turned over the better ace, a diamond, to go with the queen of clubs.
The flop came 2h-Kc-4h, laying most of Ferguson's hopes to waste. The king of hearts on the turn made for another possible chop, but Ferguson had to be preparing himself for everything that comes with being the victim of the biggest comeback in poker history. Then the nine of hearts hit the river.
The suddenly lighter-than-air Ferguson leapt from his comatose pose. The championship he almost had given away was his, the results now the only thing that mattered. He leaned across the table and shook Cloutier's hand, saying, "You outplayed me." Chris has gone on to accumulate five WSOP bracelets and more than $5 million in tournament winnings.
Cloutier took the beat in stride: "There is luck in poker, and if you're going to play this game, you better get used to that." To date, he still hasn't won what players have always called "The Big One," but really, he doesn't have anything left to prove. T.J. will go down as one of the best ever to grace the felt and as a tournament pioneer. A bridge from the past to the present. An institution.