Thomas James “T.J.” Cloutier may not be as well known to a lot of younger poker players as the more famous names of today’s poker scene are, but his poker career is one of the most storied of all time, as well as one of the most successful, and he certainly deserves a place among the all-time greats of the game.
Among Cloutier’s lifetime achievements is his being considered the all-time leading money winner among Texans, which is quite an accomplishment given how many great poker players have come out of Texas, including some true greats like Doyle Brunson, but Cloutier actually is originally from California.
Born in Albany, CA, on October 13, 1939, a very small city on San Francisco Bay within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, it wasn’t until later in life that he ended up moving to Texas, and for reasons other than to play poker.
Cloutier’s original career aspirations were certainly not to become a professional poker player, and professional poker players were quite rare in those days anyway, apart from the so-called road gamblers such as Brunson and others who in spite of their colorful tales and their efforts to stay one step ahead of the law, weren’t really that known much at all back then.
T.J. was a gifted athlete though and that was the direction he originally was looking to pursue career-wise, and Albany is right next door to Berkeley, so he didn’t have far to travel when they offered him a scholarship to attend the University of California, one of the nation’s largest schools and particularly known for their strong athletics program.
Cloutier excelled at both football and baseball and was awarded a scholarship at Cal for both sports. Cal and Cloutier made it to the Rose Bowl in 1959, losing to Iowa, who became a national champion. However, in spite of doing well on the field, being of very modest means at the time, he ended up having to make the difficult decision to leave school early due to financial reasons.
Leaving school though left him subject to being drafted, but at least that was a regular job with pay, and sure enough, he was selected to serve time in the Army, after which he resumed his quest to establish himself as a professional athlete.
T.J. is better known for his skills on the football field than as a baseball player, and while not finishing school kept him from attracting any interest from NFL teams, he was good enough to play in the Canadian Football League for a time, until an unfortunate injury ended his career prematurely.
Cloutier was also a pretty good baseball player as well though, and at one time played in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system, who also had future Pirate slugger and MLB Hall of Famer Willie Stargell on the team, and it was Cloutier, not Stargell, that hit cleanup.
Like so many athletes, seeing their playing career come to an abrupt end often leaves them wondering what they are going to be doing for the rest of their life, and T.J. Cloutier certainly struggled with this as well. He dabbled in the food business for a while but that ended up failing. He then moved to Texas to work on the oil rigs there and this is where his poker career was born.
Poker is not a profession that one often just chooses, it more often just falls upon oneself, and Cloutier would also caddy in addition to his regular job in the oil fields and got introduced to the game of poker that way. Soon, he was making more money playing poker on the side than in the oil fields and made the decision to play poker full time, and the rest is history.
The World Series of Poker, held every year in Las Vegas, remains the pinnacle of poker, but it was even bigger a few decades back when Cloutier was looking to make his bones. This was well before other poker tournament series such as the World Poker Tour came on the scene, and poker greatness was judged almost solely upon how you did at the WSOP, and Cloutier sought and achieved greatness there.
Up until Phil Hellmuth passed him fairly recently, T.J. Cloutier held the distinction of having the most final table finishes in WSOP history, with 39. He has won a total of 6 WSOP bracelets over the years, picking up his first one in 1987 at the age of 47 and his most recent one almost 2 decades later in 2005 at the age of 65, an impressive feat.
He is also particularly known to have a very well rounded game and has played all of the major forms of poker at a very high level, winning each of his 6 WSOP bracelets in different formats, which include no limit Texas Holdem, Limit Omaha Hi, Limit Omaha 8 or Better, Pot Limit Omaha, Pot Limit Omaha Hi, and 7 Card Razz.
All told, Cloutier has amassed career earnings of over $10 million, which is even more impressive considering that much of his career was at a time where big money tournaments were much more sparse and the prize pools were much smaller.
With all this tournament success though, he wasn’t quite able to achieve the big one, the WSOP main event bracelet, although he did finish second not once but twice, in 1985 and in 2000.
While this would have been a crowning achievement on what was still one of the best and enduring poker careers we’ve ever seen, his successes at the WSOP combined with his significant list of achievements at other events are certainly deserving of him being one of the inductees in the Poker Hall of Fame, and this was all recognized in his being elected to the hall in 2006 and taking his rightful place among the game’s all-time greats.
He may be best known though not for his success at the table but for his teaming up with fellow champion poker player Tom McEvoy to write some of the most popular books on poker ever written. This was during a time where there weren’t that many good poker books out there, and while the set of books they produced together may be considered rather lightweight today in terms of their depth, they served to introduce and educate a great many poker players at a time where poker and online poker, in particular, was really starting to catch on.
Known as a real gentleman at the poker table, in a way that hearkens of earlier times when poker playing had far fewer antics, he still gets annoyed when people reference and make fun of his love of the game of craps, which he is well known for and which he has lost millions at over the years. It’s his money though, and if he likes to play craps once in a while, what’s it to them. “To hell with them,” quips Cloutier.
This elder statesman, now in his mid 70’s, still plays the game avidly, “it‘s an addictive game for Christ sake,” although “not for any kind of money anymore.” In a career playing for that kind of money, that has spanned several decades, he certainly has left his mark upon the poker world.