The epiphany hit Tony Cousineau like a one-outer on the river to save his tournament life. His eyes widened and an almost impish smile decorated his face as he said, “I’m the Dan Marino of poker!”
Cousineau, 41, is a Daytona Beach poker pro who relates well to the Miami Dolphins’ Hall of Fame quarterback, and not just because he played football in college. Cousineau, born and raised in Miami, is the most prolific casher in the World Series of Poker … without a bracelet. With 42 cashes, including seven at this year’s WSOP, Cousineau knows all too well the feeling of making the money, but never having all of the chips.
“I may have all these ridiculous cash records, like (Marino’s) passing records, but you know, maybe it’s just not in the cards,” he said. “Nobody is entitled to anything. You keep thinking, ‘Oh, I’m due. I’m due for a win, or I deserve this.’ The cards don’t remember anything. Every situation you think ‘I can’t lose this again,’ (but) you can. There’s random luck in poker and there’s a lot of skill. … When I do get there it’ll just be all the sweeter, and if I don’t I’ll just know that I gave it my all and I always competed and did enough to keep me above water.”
Like a lot of veteran players, poker wasn’t his first choice in life. He attended Pace High in Opa-locka before moving on to the University of Arizona, where he made the football team as a walk-on defensive back. But just like Doyle Brunson had to give up his basketball career after a leg injury, so, too, did Cousineau, who blew out his knee in spring practice during his first semester.
“First time away from home I said, ‘This is great; I’m playing football, life is awesome, the girls are everywhere and I’m 19 years old.’ Next thing I know I blow out my knee playing football and was like ‘Whoa! That was a mistake.’ So I had to take up some other hobbies.”
Cousineau admits to being a gambler his whole life, but it was different when he discovered poker.
“Some of my friends said ‘Hey, we’re going to Vegas,’ and the ride isn’t too bad from Tucson, so we’d go and I’d be playing $5-$10 limit hold’em. I really kinda liked the game and I started going to various bookstores where I could get information. You know how they have those plush little seats? I’d sit there all day and they were like, ‘You gonna buy a book there, Buddy?’ I’d read every book in the store on poker just to try to understand what people do well. I wanted to get an advantage over my opponents and eventually that worked out.
“There was a time while I was in college where they passed a law where you could play blackjack and poker in bars and restaurants. It was really weird. So I went into New Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant, and we’re in the back, mamasan and everybody. We’re playing poker and I’m like ‘Is this game legit? Are we gonna get raided?’ And I’d have good nights and was thinking what a great way to make money. So I kinda did that throughout college.”
But he needed a more steady game to test his skills. After college, he went home to run a billiards place for his family in Melbourne. But when that grind proved too much to stomach he moved to Daytona Beach with a girlfriend and started playing in really soft home games.
“Nice people,” he said. “Good people who liked to give their money away.”
He often wonders had he kept playing those games (making $500-$1,000 a night) if he’d actually be more financially successful today, but his first trip to the WSOP made that a question to which he’d never find the answer.
“I didn’t even know what tournament poker was till the day I stepped into the World Series of Poker and I cashed in my first event.”
It was 1999 (pre-poker boom) and the event was a $3K limit hold’em tournament.
Cousineau said he looked around the room and saw the Howard Lederers and Annie Dukes of the poker world and knew he had found his place. And as he has done just about every year since, he cashed more than once in that Series, earning more money than he paid out (finishing 17th for $5,575 and then 20th in a $1,500 Omaha/8 event four days later for $2,185). It wasn’t a stellar WSOP, but it was enough to give him the itch and confidence to eventually turn pro.
“There are a lot tougher careers people can do to make a living,” he said.
Now, 10 years later, Cousineau is Ante Up’s 2009 WSOP Player of the Year. No, he didn’t win a bracelet, and he wasn’t the Floridian with the most money won (heck, he didn’t even make a final table). But Tony Cousineau was the most consistently successful Florida poker player in Las Vegas this year, cashing seven times in a variety of events, from a $1,500 NLHE tournament that had nearly 3,000 entrants to the $10K World Championship of Pot-Limit Omaha with 295 of the best players on the planet.
“It should easily be 10 (cashes),” said Cousineau, who continues to be one of the most upbeat and positive players on the circuit. “I’ve had multiple one-table bubbles where I’ve been one table away. My goal is kinda to hit that 10 mark, which would tie the record. It was amazing how I came up just short a few times. As happy as I am with the results and the consistency, I’ll walk away from this Series thinking, ‘What if?’ based on two tournaments in particular where I played pots for the chip lead. One was in the $10,000 pot-limit hold’em, late, almost in the money, we were down to like 45 players and, of course, I had aces and the guy had kings. We got it all-in and I was thinking ‘Oh, there’s the chip lead for me’ and as soon as they turned the cards over that first card was that beautiful king. That one felt like a kick in the stomach. You see it all the time, but that one hurt.
“The other one was the event right before the main event, the $5,000 short-handed. Almost at the end of Day 1 I played a pot for near the chip lead with an open-end straight and flush draw against a pair. I went home and quickly on the computer verified I was a 57 percent favorite. It wasn’t like the aces, which were 82 percent, so I wasn’t as shocked by the outcome, but in those two, you win those key pots, you get the chip lead, the money’s a foregone conclusion, and now you’re thinking final table. So like I said, I’ll walk away thinking what could have been, and then looking forward to the next World Series.”
When you consider he’s never cashed for more than $190K (and he only has two six-figure cashes overall) yet he has nearly $2 million in career earnings, you can appreciate how much Cousineau has had to grind to make a living. Cashing in tournaments day-in and day-out is no easy task, but there’s no one better at it than Tony.
“I think my style will get you to the money a large portion of the time,” the former CardPlayer PLO Player of the Year said. “It seems like I’m always able to hang in there enough until I find a certain situation where I may be able to accumulate chips, and 90 percent of the time that situation comes to me. It takes a lot of patience, and along the way you pick your spots to keep yourself in the chips. … Mostly I think it’s my style of waiting for the right opportunity, and if I do get it, I push it. So that gets me to the money more often than not.”
But being labeled the Dan Marino, Colin Montgomery, Ernie Banks and/or Charles Barkley of poker has to hurt a little, no?
“I was talking to Howard Lederer the other day and he was telling me it took him 20 final tables before he won his first bracelet and I was thinking ‘Wow, that’s a lot of final tables to get to.’ I have (six) final tables that I’ve gotten to at the World Series without winning … and if it took Howard that many times I guess I can’t cry too much. At first it annoyed me a little bit. Is this an honor or a stab in the back? But now I’ve kinda embraced it as like my little badge of honor. People like it; my friends like it. They’re like ‘Hey, don’t win, man. Keep the streak alive!’ ”
Since Cousineau has remained under the radar for most of his career, it’s tough to point to one moment as his greatest poker achievement, but he definitely knows what he’s most proud of in poker.
“I’d have to say my reputation throughout the years as being somebody that’s going to be there as a contender and not give anything away,” he said. “For now I’ll take that as what I feel as one of my better accomplishments. Hopefully in the future it’ll be a couple of top-notch first-place finishes instead of fourth or third. I’ll be the bridesmaid for a while. I’ve got plenty of years, don’t I? I hope. I keep saying to everybody as long as I don’t get hit by a bus we’ll be OK.”