History was made last week when poker legend T.J. Cloutier won gold bracelet number six. His victory in the $5,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em championship (Event No. 13) marked his 58th major tournament win over the past 20 years.
More important, the $657,100 first prize rocketed him up into second place on the all-time World Series of Poker money-winnings list. It almost didn’t happen.
The (now) six-time champ, who has probably taken more bad beats than anyone in WSOP history (recall his disastrous bad beat heads-up versus Chris "Jesus" Ferguson in the 2000 championship), actually drew out on an opponent when play was six-handed, spiking a six-outer that effectively propelled him across the finish line four hours later.
That decisive hand took place when opponent Neal Wang had 9-9 versus Cloutier’s A-Q. With the river still to be dealt, Cloutier desperately needed to catch a pair to survive. Wham! A queen fell from the sky, an archangel of a card that exorcised the demons of World Series pasts. For an instant, the bad karma of getting all the money in with the best hand, only to lose, had been reversed.
"It sure felt good to suck out on someone for a change," Cloutier chuckled later.
Of the events held up to this point, the final table was unquestionably the most theatrical. It marked the return of the explosive 77-year-old Brooklyn-born John Bonetti to poker’s grandest stage.
It also featured a complete newcomer to tournament poker who was making his first-ever final table. Steve Zoine picked up a book by T.J. Cloutier (co-authored with Tom McEvoy), read through it, and decided to come to Las Vegas to see if he could play poker with the very best. He couldn’t possibly have imagined that just two days after getting off the plane, he would be sitting across the table from the author, battling Cloutier for a gold bracelet.
Then, there was Cloutier himself, less than two years removed from suffering a serious heart attack and now back where he belongs, sitting at a final table playing for a poker championship.
The total prize pool amounted to $2,190,200. The final table included four former gold bracelet winners: Cloutier (with five wins); John Bonetti (three wins); Tony Ma (two wins); and John "World" Hennigan (two wins). But it was 37-year-old self-employed Neal Wang, from Los Angeles, who had a dominant chip lead when play began.
With ESPN television cameras rolling, players were eliminated as follows:
10th Place: Gavin Smith suffered a disastrously short stay at the final table. The latest poker millionaire (Smith won a major tournament here in Las Vegas last month) lost most of his chips with A-Q versus A-K to John Hennigan. Then, desperately low on chips, he made one last futile attempt to get back into contention and was pummeled into defeat by TJ Cloutier. Smith, a college dropout originally from Canada, picked up $24,090 in prize money.
9th Place: Hieu "Tony" Ma, a.k.a. Tony the Tiger, has won two gold bracelets at the World Series. But he could do no better than eighth in this event. Ma moved all-in before the flop with A-K and was covered by Cloutier’s 3-3. Ma failed to catch a pair, which meant the 49-year-old poker pro originally from Vietnam was out. His take amounted to $48,805.
8th Place: Todd Brunson arrived at the final table on life support with just enough chips to post the blinds, but managed to jump two steps up the money ladder. Brunson failed to ever seriously threaten any of the larger stacks and was finally eliminated when his A-3 was topped by Steven Zoine’s K-J. A jack flopped and Brunson was out. His cut of the tournament loot amounted to $65,705.
7th Place: Dustin "Never-win" Woolf howled on his final hand when he was dealt A-7 versus Steven Zoine’s 5-5. All of Woolf’s chips went into the pot after the flop came A-4-5. Ooops. Bad timing. Zoine flopped a set of fives, turned a full-house, and ripped into Woolf like a dead carcass, devouring his chips. Woolf vanished in seventh, good for $87,610. That key pot gave Zoine the chip lead, a position he would hold for the next three hours.
6th Place: After Cloutier caught his miracle queen to avoid elimination, it was time for another player to leave the poker stage. John "World" Hennigan always makes the "toughest opponent" list any time a poll is taken as to which players pose the greatest challenges. Hennigan, a sky-high cash game player who won a gold bracelet last year, appeared to be in good position to challenge the new chip leader. But a few tough beats took away most of Hennigan’s stack. He was eliminated four hours into play when his A-10 was flattened by Cloutier’s pocket aces. Hennigan walked away quietly in sixth, which paid $109,510.
5th Place: Jason "Doc" Berilgen was another remarkable success story at this final table. The 27-year-old medical doctor who specializes in treating cancer (currently on staff at world-renowned M.D. Anderson in Houston) was playing at the WSOP for the first time. He managed to finish ahead of 461 of the world’s toughest players. Berilgen was dealt 6-6 against John Bonetti’s K-K. Berilgen failed to catch a six, which meant the good doctor was discharged. Fifth paid $131,410.
4th Place: Coming to the final table with the chip lead has been a bad omen. Remarkably, through 13 events only two players had gone on to capture victory thus far, after arriving with the big stack. Neal Wang added to the curse by coming in with nearly a 2-to-1 advantage, losing the lead about midway through, and then finally going out. He was eliminated by Steven Zoine, who was starting to become the table bully. Wang’s payout amounted to $153,315.
3rd Place: Each of the last two events here have featured "all gold" when play became three-handed. In the previous two events, each final trio included players who had previously won titles at the World Series. That was almost the case in this event, too, except that Steve Zoine wouldn’t cooperate. Cloutier and Bonetti had eight bracelets between them. Meanwhile, Zoine had stepped off a plane 48 hours earlier, read one poker book (Cloutier’s) and was now showing the old masters a thing two about tournament poker.
Cantankerous curmudgeon John Bonetti tinkered on the verge of elimination all night and managed to stay in the game with a few well-timed big hands. Muttering profanities under his breath during the cold spells, Bonetti gave the audience the drama it was expecting, playing off his alter-ego and longtime rival, Cloutier. The two Texans (Cloutier from Dallas and Bonetti from Houston, by way of his native New York) bantered back and forth while Zoine kept quiet mostly, protecting the chip lead.
Then, a big hand broke out. With both players very close to even in chips, Cloutier was a dealt Q-Q and Bonetti was dealt A-K. It was a classic confrontation in every sense of the word, as both poker legends faced-off to see who would get a chance to play heads-up for another gold bracelet. Cloutier won that privilege when Bonetti failed to pair his overcards. Bonetti, normally one of poker’s most combustible personalities when defeated, managed to put on a smile for the television cameras and congratulated his two opponents. It was a great scene to watch Bonetti make it to the finale, and walk away with a big prize ($175,215) only a few days following his 77th birthday.
2nd Place: A final table that was filled with theatrics was about to get a few encores. One of the biggest hands of the tournament took place when Zoine, with a slight chip lead, was dealt 6-6. Cloutier was dealt J-9. The flop came 10-8-7 and Cloutier had to re-focus his eyes. He flopped the nut straight. Zoine was prepared to be done with the underpair, then after both players checked the flop, a six landed on the turn, giving Zoine trips. That lit a fuse under both players as a flurry of raises broke out and Cloutier was all-in. Zoine was one card away from pairing the board, which would have given him a remarkable full house and the upset victory. It wasn’t to be. A blank fell on the river and Cloutier seized a massive chip lead.
Whatever Cloutier wrote in his book, it must have worked. Most players might have given up at that point after losing such a heartbreaker, but Zoine made Cloutier earn every cent of his $657,000. First, he doubled up with A-J against Cloutier’s pocket kings (catching an ace on the turn). Then, a while later down by a margin of 1,400,000 to 900,000, he had a golden opportunity to re-gain the chip lead. On the final hand of the night, Zoine opened for 50,000, which was re-raised to 300,000 by Cloutier. Zoine moved all-in and Cloutier called instantly. Zoine showed A-K against Cloutier’s A-5. The flop came 9-8-6, giving Cloutier a straight draw. Miraculously, a seven spiked on the turn, which gave Cloutier the inside straight and his sixth gold bracelet.
The runner up, Zoine, played as well as anyone in history for a first-time effort. He was quick to acknowledge Cloutier’s influence on improving his game and experienced a surreal two days in Las Vegas. Not many tourists can say they played with the very best, appeared on national television, and made $352,620 while on vacation.
This was T.J. Cloutier’s 47th time in-the-money at the World Series of Poker (one finish behind Berry Johnston and Phil Hellmuth) and 37th final table appearance (he holds the all-time record). Cloutier has now won over $3.7 million at the WSOP in lifetime earnings and is second only to last year’s $5 million winner, Greg Raymer. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that Cloutier has now cashed 19 consecutive years at the WSOP, dating all the way back to 1986.
"It always feels good to win," Cloutier said afterward. "I’m not ready for the pasture just yet. I still have a few more wins left in me. (John) Bonetti was here tonight and he’s 12 years older than me. So, maybe I can still be doing it when I’m his age. Compared to him, I’m still a kid."