Q&A with T.J. Cloutier

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Who taught you how to play poker and when was that?

I was 17 years old, which would have been 53 years ago. But nobody taught me anything. You learned by the seat of your pants in those days. I started out I was caddying on a golf course. We’d go out on the weekends and take two doubles for the day, take our money into the caddyshack and there’s somebody in there playing poker. (laughs) We’d work all day and they’d end up with the money.

The reason I asked is you’ve done a lot of poker teaching in your lifetime, whether it’s through books, video games or seminars. Is there something that inspires you to teach others what you know?

Mainly I enjoy it. I like to see people improve their game. You can only teach so much. You can’t teach the things you’re born with. You can’t teach that feel factor that real top players have. That’s something either you’re born with or you’re not.

You’ve been associated with quite a few instructional poker outlets, but you recently joined DeepStacks University, which was founded here in Florida. How does DeepStacks differ from the others?

It’s a little different concept. We’re doing modules right now that are going to be put out (online). And they’re gonna have a (live) preview, which is for (free) where the people come in and hear some of the stuff and then can sign up for the regular course. The people involved with it ask a bunch of poker questions that a lot of people don’t ask, I mean, different situations, things you don’t read about often. And they’re getting different people like (Mike) Matusow and Tom McEvoy and myself. … They’ll ask a question … and then I give what I think is the right answer. Then they put it in the form (where) they’ll give you three or four different answers and you gotta pick the right one in these situations and scenarios. It’s really good; it’s a very good concept. The best way to know about it is to sign up on the site (deepstacks.com) and do some of the freebies to see if you like it.

You’ll be sailing on our Ante Up Poker Cruise in March and you’ll be giving a poker seminar on board. What can our cruisers expect from that experience?

I’ll have something prepared for it. But also I found out in the long run if you run an open questions-and-answers session that’s always the best because people come up with very good questions and you can give an honest answer to them.

Is there something you like teaching the most? Do you like the labs the most?

No, I like doing the labs the least … but the students seem to like them the most. The reason I like them the least is there are a lot of hands that you’ll deal out and nobody has a hand to play. So what I’ve suggested is you set up the decks. Say there are 10 people at the table. You set up the first 20 cards and leave the rest of it random. So if you have five different tables going and you dealt them out at each table, you’d have different people with the same cards … but the flops would be absolutely random. That way two or three people would have playable hands and you’d have something to teach or comment on. If everybody is getting terrible hands … there’s not much to critique.

If you had to give just one bit of advice to someone learning poker, what is the most important lesson you could give?

Be observant. That’s the A-No. 1 thing because people give you so much information by how they act and when they’re looking at their cards, and little nuances that they have that you can pick up tells on them. That’s why I don’t advocate ever having these iPods with the earphones on, because there’s so many people that tell you what’s going on just by listening to them. A perfect example was Jamie Gold. (He) and Amarillo Slim both had a way of talking when they had a hand and they had a way of talking when then didn’t have a hand. If you were sharp enough to pick it up, and thank heaven I was, I could tell you when they had when they did have a hand and when they didn’t have a hand every time.

If there’s enough interest, what game and limit would you like to see in our poker room on the ship?

I like no-limit hold’em the best. My favorite size is probably $10-$25 or $25-$50 blinds, but a lot of people prefer to play cheaper, like $2-$5 and $5-$10, and that seems to really be popular nowadays, so I guess $2-$5. I go up to WinStar (World Casino in Oklahoma) and I never played $2-$5 in my life till I went up there. But I go up and play it once in a while. … It keeps you playing pretty decent.

How do you adjust to lower limits when facing players with smaller bankrolls and lesser experience?

You can tell right off the bat who’s desperate and who’s not when they’re playing. And the desperate ones don’t really do too well at it. They’re satisfied with, when playing $5-$10, making it $25 to go, and you can’t protect a hand making it $25 to go. They make playing against them a lot easier. The people that are not desperate, they have some money and they’re playing within their bankroll, then you gotta play real poker with them. You can tell right away, and that’s the whole idea. When you first sit down in a new game, don’t get in a big hurry to play hands. Get in a big hurry to know who’s doing what and in what situation.

As a member of the Poker Hall of Fame (inducted 2006), how shocked were you that Tom McEvoy, your good friend and co-author of so many books, didn’t make the Hall of Fame in November along with Mike Sexton?

The reason he didn’t make it … none of us knew that they had to get 75 percent of the vote to get in. I pushed hard for Tom because I think he deserves to be in there. There’s a lot of guys there, like Phil Ivey and Daniel (Negreanu) and that kind of ilk, that will probably get in someday anyway. But “Hall of Fame” means you’ve put in a lot of years into it. And these people are too young. I thought the only ones who deserved to be on the ballot were Dan Harrington and Tom and maybe Barry Greenstein and Erik Seidel. The rest of them I couldn’t see where they’d put in enough time into it. … (Mike) Sexton was a given. We all voted for Sexton. As far as I was concerned he was the most deserving of them all. Then Tom was the next, because he did a lot outside of poker outside actual playing with his books and his work on keeping smoke-free and playing in lots and lots of charity tournaments that people never hear about. He paid his dues and he was very, very disappointed when he didn’t get in. … He’ll probably get in (in 2010).

You turned 70 in October, and I had mentioned your books. Doyle Brunson just released his autobiography. Do you have any plans to write yours?

They’ve been trying to get me to do one for 10 years. I don’t know if I want to do one or not. … I don’t think so, I mean, what the heck? When you get right down to it what are we but poker players? (laughs) That’s why I never understood some of these autograph hunters and all this stuff. I mean, it’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just our profession, that’s what we do. (laughs)

I can understand their side of it, though. You inspire a lot of people by the way you play. They see you on TV; they hear the stories; they read your books. You do have a level of fame that they appreciate.

I can understand where they’re coming from but, I mean, look at all the years that we played poker that it was considered pretty bad stuff. Ya know? When we used to go to church, I’d go with my wife (Joy) on Easter and everybody would come up and ask what kind of work do you do and we’d say “Cloutier Investments.” (laughs) And then all this stuff comes out on TV and they are seeking you down and wanting your autograph, that’s the difference.

In Doyle’s book he told so many stories from his past. Do you have a favorite story you’d like to tell?

The favorite one is the one with Al Krux. We were playing at the Bicycle Club (in L.A.) while the Diamond Jim Brady Tournament was on, and we were in a cash game on the side. He hadn’t won a pot all day and he was down to $465 and we were playing no-limit hold’em. Anyway he brought it in for his whole $465 and the person two seats to his left held his hand up in front of his face and he was getting a massage at the time. He looked like he was going to call but he decided not to and threw his hand away. When it got around to me on the button and I had two 10s and I says, “Hell, I might have the best hand here,” so I called it. And the dealer didn’t see that I had called it and dropped the deck on the muck. So that means they had to reshuffle everything back in. And when it came out it came out K-10-4. Well, he had two kings and I had two 10s. Well, on fourth street comes the fourth 10. He was having such a bad day he even lost this pot when he flopped top set. But the thing that’s funny about it was, the guy that looked at his hand when he was getting massage, he had the other two 10s in his hand. (laughs) The massage therapist confirmed it that he threw away two 10s. That’s how (much) bad luck Al Krux was having. There had to be a dealer mistake and (have the cards) shuffled back in for me to even have a chance to catch a 10. And I caught both of his 10s. If you can beat that bad beat you’re Houdini. (laughs)

Speaking of bad beats, how disappointed were you when you were shut out of the 2009 WSOP Main Event’s final day?

To tell you the truth I was there 35 days. It was nobody’s fault but my own. When I went down there … on the fourth day to sign up, I never even got in to where the cage was. People had come out and said it’s shut out. … I could have worked around it and got in, but I thought it would show favoritism, so I didn’t even attempt to. It’s not their fault; it’s my fault. I coulda signed up any of those days. … But I didn’t. … I was there for 35 days and I was burned out anyway. That’s the first time I missed it since 1983. But I don’t care. You know, right now, the Big One is very nice for notoriety and the money, but you gotta be so lucky to win it.

Some people may not realize that you were a talented football player who was in the CFL. You played for Toronto and Montreal. Did it bring a smile to your face when you heard Montreal won the Grey Cup in November?

To tell you the truth I didn’t know until December that they’d won it. (laughs) They used to cover it on TV down here all the time. Now you see little bits and pieces of it. I was a good player in my day. I played tight end and I played on a couple of real nice teams.

And finally, one totally random question. I read somewhere you like Barbra Streisand. What’s your favorite Babs song?

Memories. I liked Purple People Eater by her, too, believe it or not. She did a rendition that was fantastic. But I think Memories was the best one.