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Day Four

$10,000 No-Limit Hold'em World Championship, Day Four: "The Hour of Living Dangerously"

In a society where money talks and b.s. walks, where the winners get not only to write the history books, but also to act however they please, you can’t usually point to a second place finish as the moment in time when you can say, “here is when a man defined his greatness.”

The final day of the 31st Annual World Series of Poker provided us with such a moment.

Our champion is Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, a soft-spoken, unassuming, brilliant professional poker player, a kind man with a kind heart, and he is a very deserving champion, a great player whose picture belongs with the others in the Gallery of Champions here at Binion’s Horseshoe. Even before the Big One began, I had Ferguson and Mel Judah in a dead heat for the best overall showing at this year's Series, and his win in the Championship event makes Ferguson's run this year one of the better performances in Series history.

The man who defined his greatness in defeat is TJ Cloutier, who survived several bad beats late in this tournament, came to the final table desperately short on chips, and managed to forge his way into a position to have a hammerlock on the title, only to see a nine of hearts break his. Cloutier settled for second place in this tournament and in doing so became the all-time leading money winner in the history of the World Series of Poker.

When the six survivors of three long, hard days of poker came to the final table at noon, the seats and chip counts were:

Seat 1, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, $2,853,000

Seat 2, Hasan Habib, $464,000

Seat 3, Jim McManus, $554,000

Seat 4, TJ Cloutier, $216,000

Seat 5, Roman Abinsay, $521,000

Seat 6, Steve Kaufman, $511,000

A little about our players, before my description of their performance begins. Ferguson I’ve already touched upon. He is an LA-based professional. His nickname stems not from any delusions of grandeur, but from his appearance: a kind, thin face, beard, and very long flowing brown hair. He usually plays wearing a black cowboy hat (the good guys don’t always wear white hats) and mirrored sunglasses, in a look that evokes thoughts of Richard Petty.

Habib is also an LA pro, a player who has made great strides in the last few years, in the time since he gave up his life as the owner of several video stores to play poker full-time. I’d marked him throughout the tournament as someone who moved chips fearlessly. He is also very polite and gracious; we didn’t have any bad guys at this final table.

McManus, a Chicago-based novelist and poet, is in his mid-forties, and we’d gravitated towards one another as soon as he arrived at the Series to write an article for Harper’s Magazine. He is a family man’s family man who would frequently break away from what he was doing to call his wife, and he spoke often of his children. He also used a photo album of their pictures for inspiration throughout the last couple of days. Although a recreational poker player for many years, he was completely new to the tournament poker scene, and learned most of his strategy from reading Cloutier’s book and practicing incessantly on computer software.

Cloutier is already well known, at 60 one of the youngest members of the now-aging Texas road gambler generation, and the co-author, with Tom McEvoy, of some of the best poker books ever written. A towering physical presence who used to play tight end in the Canadian football league, this was his fourth appearance at a World Series final table.

Abinsay is a friendly, engaging low-limit California player, who probably got the second spot in the superstition contest (behind McManus and his ever-changing collection of hats, photos, and jackets), as he had become convinced that the Discovery Channel people were his lucky charms. He had good reason, too: they had randomly taped a satellite for background footage and that satellite was how Abinsay had made the big dance.

Kaufman was another intellectual, a professor of international languages so well known in his field that he had been asked to work with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Based in Cincinnati, he has been playing serious poker for four years, and had made the final table of the Big One at Tunica, so although not a full time professional, was certainly not a come-from-nowhere story either. Like McManus, though, he felt that books had played a big role in his getting to where he was.

When we started the action, the blinds were $15,000-30,000, with $3,000 antes, which meant that with six players, it would cost $63,000 to watch a round go by, a pretty heavy number when you’re starting with only $216,000 like Cloutier. He had to pick up some hands right away, or commit robbery right way. He knew it, and everyone else knew it too.

The only problem was, there was a sheriff at the table, lacking a silver star perhaps, but owning 2.8 million in chips, and it was going to be hard to cause trouble in town with the sheriff packing that much ammo.

We expected Cloutier to try the first move, but Abinsay beat him to the draw. On the second hand, Roman raised the pot to $100,000 under the gun, and Sheriff Ferguson moved all-in. Abinsay called immediately with A-Q, and Ferguson turned over pocket eights. The board came 7-2-7-5-3, Roman was gone almost before he had sat down, and Ferguson’s pile swelled to 3.4 million. His monstrous collection of 20 chip stacks was arranged neatly into two triangles, a smaller sitting on top of the larger. It evoked images of the Great Pyramid of Giza. “Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids,” goes the old Arab proverb. I think time would also fear Ferguson’s stack.

Cloutier grabbed a quick 63k with an all-in move that no one called, and almost before he had the chips in his stack, we had another empty chair.

Habib, who had lost $70,000 on the first hand of the day when Kaufman came over him for $130,000 more, decided his shortened stack needed help, and moved all-in with what turned out to be Ah-4h. McManus called him with Ac-Qc.

Habib was in big trouble, dead to one undercard or hearts, and the 6-9-K flop eliminated any heart trouble. A five hit on the turn, and as the popular Habib’s fans yelled for a four as the dealer was burning a card, WHAM, there it came, a three-outer on the river that doubled Habib through and left McManus with only about $100,000.

McManus reeled in stunned silence, and it was hard to blame him. Aside from one bad beat from a short stack who made a straight with K-10 against Jim’s K-K, Jim hadn’t suffered too many indignities at the hands of fate in the last couple of days. Most of his leading hands had held up. But now, at the worst possible moment, he’d taken a punishing blow.

With only $100,000 left, McManus knew he had to move fast, and sent his last chips in under the gun when he found an A-2. Kaufman moved in too, to keep stragglers out, and turned over… A-Q, the same hand that had treated McManus so badly only moments before. No accidents: 9-6-K-A-10, and McManus’s dream ride was over… sort of. He’ll probably be turning the whole experience into a book that will make him more than the quarter mil he took home today.

Habib suddenly had some chips, but no one wanted to let him keep them. He raised the next hand to $90,000 under the gun, but TJ immediately came over the top, and Habib mucked. Moments later he raised to $85,000 from the button, and Kaufman came over him. They wouldn’t even let him keep his big blind; the next time it came around, Ferguson shoved enough to cover Habib in from the small blind, and although Habib thought about it a long while, eventually he decided to muck. He stared and stared at Ferguson, trying to get a read, but there isn’t much to read behind those shades, that hat, and that beard.

Cloutier delivered the next blow, moving his $231,000 in with Kd-10c, and Habib called with pocket twos. The 3d-4d-10c flop was enough for TJ, but he wound up making a flush on the river. All of the chips Habib had won from McManus were gone, and a lot more, and the Sheriff finished him off when Hasan moved his last 130k in with KQ and Ferguson turned over AK. The A-5-J flop briefly evoked hope for a straight, but the Q-7 finish sent Habib out fourth. I have a feeling he’ll be back. He got game.

This had all taken the grand total of about 35 minutes. Cloutier had arrived as a short stack, had stolen one pot, made one hand, and watched three opponents vanish before he could finish three cigarettes, which is really saying something the way TJ can inhale half of one with one mighty breath. The exhalation is even more impressive.

It was like everyone had made reservations for a 1:30 lunch somewhere, and Kaufman didn’t want to leave the lunch table short. A few minutes later, Ferguson raised it to $100,000 from the button, and Kaufman called from the big blind. The flop came down 10-J-Q, and Kaufman fired all-in. Ferguson had a trivially easy call with 10-10, and all Steve could show us was Q-5 for top pair. An eight on the turn gave Kaufman an escape route for a split pot if a nine hit on the river, but a six let Kaufman meet the others for lunch.

We’d started very late, probably at 12:40, because of various television accommodations. It was now only 1:30, and all the other claimants to the throne were gone. It seemed more like an electrocution than a poker tournament. Ferguson had taken his big stack and just blown everyone out of the building with it. We were now two: Cloutier, with about $500,000, and Ferguson, with about $4,600,000.

It looked pretty easy. I’d met Ferguson at the initial Challenge Cup Trials at the Bicycle Club. The Challenge Cup, another brainchild of the Sexton-Humphrey duo who brought us the Tournament of Champions, was designed as a one-on-one match play tournament, and I’d drawn Ferguson in the first round of the Pot-Limit Omaha event.

He beat me, and we started talking about subtleties of heads-up poker. Chris also explained that he had spent a lot of time playing heads up, one reason why he was attracted to the event. I confirmed this with him on the break, while we were waiting for Binion’s security to bring the 1.5 million in cash onto the table in the traditional cardboard box.

“Yeah, a lot of heads-up pot limit, and a lot of no-limit too, which is pretty similar,” Ferguson explained. “I play a lot with a friend who is a top pro.”

For what stakes, I inquired.

“Usually not for any money at all, actually,” he said. “We just play the freezeouts as practice.”

I also asked Chris if the money—be it first or second—was going to change his life.

“No, it won’t,” he said. “Not because I’m hugely wealthy, but just because I don’t spend a lot of money, so I don’t need a lot, and I already have enough to cover what I need.”

Two comments that seemed to balance each other out: no money pressure on Chris here, no money pressure in the no-cash simulations. Of course, the no-cash simulations weren’t for the title of World Champion, and they weren’t against a title-hungry TJ Cloutier.

It took a long time to get all the cash onto the table, and after it was there, it took still longer to get everyone settled down again. I watched Cloutier for a lot of this time, and for a while, I thought he was locked in on the 1.5 million. He was staring at the cash so hard and long, I thought he wanted to devour it. Then I realized I had it all wrong.

Cloutier hadn’t been staring at the money. He had been staring at the gold bracelet they’d draped across the middle of the pile of bills.

Of desire and experience are born great moments, and we were in for a few.

In heads-up poker, a small blind goes on the button, and that player has to act first before the flop, but then acts second on and after the flop (I’ll use “SBB” to stand for “Small Blind on the Button” hereafter). We still had about 40 minutes left at the $15,000-30,000 level. With $3,000 antes, it was costing $51,000 to play every two hands, a point Tournament Director Bob Thompson made on the public address system after TJ let the first two hands go.

“Sounds like I got about nine hands left,” TJ said with a smile. It was actually more like nine rounds, but the point was clear enough. He couldn’t be passive.

Hand six of the duel gave Cloutier a chance. Chris raised it to $75,000 from the SBB, and TJ called. The flop came 10-7-10, as I heard a voice from the Discovery Channel production booth: “Camera Two, give me Jesus.”

There’s no business like show business.

TJ checked the flop, Chris bet $200,000, and TJ moved all-in. Chris called after a relatively short pause. He had 5s-7s for two pair, and TJ could certainly be making a move. Chris called. TJ turned over 10-9 for a set of tens, and a nine on the turn ended any suspense. TJ now had $900,000 to Chris’s $4,300,000: he was in position to get into position. If he could double though once more, he’d be close enough to take over the lead with another double.

Ferguson didn’t want to let Cloutier make any double-doubles, and perhaps just as importantly, Cloutier knew that. Over the next 20 hands or so, each of the players won pots, but every single pot Ferguson won just took down the blinds, while Cloutier aggressively collected three big pots.

On the first one, having bet $85,000 pre-flop and gotten called, he fired 200k at the turn, and Chris folded. TJ showed a K-10 with a board of 10-9-4-4.

On the second, Chris raised to 85k pre-flop, and TJ came back for 250k more. No call.

On the third, TJ raised to 75k pre-flop, Chris raised 200k more, and TJ moved all-in, a raise of almost a million. Chris thought quite a while and let the hand go.

Aside from the K-10 hand, we couldn’t know if Cloutier was holding or was stealing, but Ferguson couldn't call his re-raises, and TJ’s stack was growing rapidly, just as we finally completed the 80 minutes we’d had left at the $15,000-30,000 level. They took the lowly $1,000 chips off the table, and we started playing $25,000-50,000 (no ante).

During the break, as I watched various reporters interview McManus, I wandered over and asked him if he felt like a rock star now.

“Nah,” he said. “If I’d made A-Q stand up, I’d be in there now and I’d be a rock star. As it is, I feel like a back-up band.”

The stars were indeed about to rock, as we entered the tournament’s final hour. Cloutier had 1.4 mil to Ferguson’s 3.7. That’s a crushing difference in limit, but in no-limit, TJ was potentially one hand away from the lead.

TJ won some more chips with aggressive playbacks at Chris, and Chris finally took a stand. He raised to $175,000 out of the SBB, and TJ came back for $700,000 more. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from this big Texan.

Chris moved all-in, which put about another $800,000 of TJ’s money at risk, and he called. If Chris won, the tournament was over; if TJ, he’d have a commanding lead. They turned ‘em over: A-K off for TJ, Ah-7h for Chris. The commanding lead seemed near. The flop came 2-5-2, and a jack on the turn left Chris dead to a seven… or another pair on the board.

Jack on the river, and we chopped the gigantic pot.

Chris started playing a little faster, moving all-in when TJ raised the next one to $175,000 out of the SBB, and TJ folded. This was the first hand since heads-up play began where Chris had won more than the blinds.

After a few inconclusive clashes, we suddenly hit a surge of giant, hold-your-breath hands.

On the first, Chris made it $175,000 from the SBB, and TJ called. The flop came Ks-Kh-6s, TJ checked, Chris bet $200,000 and TJ called. 800 grand in this one now, kind of hard to let go. The 3h hit on the turn and both players checked. The Jd fell on the river, TJ bet $600,000, and after a suitably long time considering it, Chris called.

TJ turned over K-10 again, and Chris flashed the costly jack he’d caught on the river. After swallowing $1,000,000 of Chris’s stack in one big hand, TJ had the lead, narrowly, at 2.6 mil to 2.5.

Three hands later we stopped breathing again. Chris raised to $175,000 from the SBB, TJ raised a kind of funny-looking $500,000 (his prior raises had been bigger), and Chris moved all-in. TJ called without a lot of hesitation. Ah-7h for TJ, As-2s for Chris. If the undercard or spades didn’t make it, we had us a new champion.

The flop came 3s-10s-Qh, and suddenly TJ couldn’t like his hand. A spade would win for Chris, or more high cards could result in another chop. The turn brought a little good news and a little bad, the Kh. TJ now had a flush draw too, but another high card… like the 10d… would, and did, result in another huge chopped pot.

Twice TJ had taken a better ace against Ferguson for big bucks, and twice Chris had slipped the noose.

TJ won two more medium pots, and moved to a 2.9-2.2 lead. But Chris struck right back, winning a $400,000 pot with a $200,000 bet on the turn. Almost incredibly, it was the first big pot Chris had been able to win without all-in bet since heads-up play had started. Heads-up is one lousy time to go card dead.

Chris re-took the lead when in a limped pot, the flop came Kh-3h-8c, Chris checked, TJ bet $100,000, and Chris called. The 7s hit the turn, Chris bet out $150,000, and TJ called. The 4c hit the river, both checked, and Chris turned over K-6 for a $500,000 winner and a small chip lead.

Buckle up.

TJ made the next one $175,000 from the SBB, and Chris raised $600,000 more. TJ moved all-in, pretty quickly, and Chris’s hat and sunglasses came off as he tried to decide what to do. He thought a long time.

After studying the two players for a while, I whispered to Mike Paulle. “TJ likes his hand,” I muttered (thank god for witnesses), “and I think Chris has A-9.”

Chris thought, and thought, and thought. A couple of times he lifted his cards up, and I thought he was going to muck them, but they went back down. Finally he called.

Ad-Qc for Cloutier, As-9c for Chris. If Chris won it would be over, but he was dead to one undercard, and if TJ won, Chris would have practically no chips.

The flop came 2h-Kc-4h. Nobody had a heart in his hand (although there were two giant ones in their chests), so backdoor flushes dropped out of the equation. The Kh fell on the turn. “Not again,” whispered Paulle, alluding to the possibility of a two or a four resulting in yet a third chopped pot.

The nine of hearts fell on the river, and Chris leapt into the air. Cloutier, who had come so close so many times, had to stand just outside the door to the promised land one more time.

Ferguson leaned across the table, shook TJ’s hand, and in a classy gesture said, “You outplayed me.” Meanwhile friends and family assaulted the jubilant Ferguson, who exchanged hug after hug with the many people who had come from out of town to support him, some at the start of the finale, some on Day Three.

I like Chris a lot, and was very happy for him in victory, but somehow, I couldn’t get my focus off of what Cloutier must have felt like, with an arrow shot through his heart right at the finish like that. I’m sure he was disappointed, but he took the defeat better than a lot of people would, at least outwardly.

“There is luck in poker, and if you’re going to play this game, you better get used to that,” TJ said. “I felt the nine coming off at the end. When I get in a real zone, I can feel the cards coming. You should be talking to Chris, he’s the champion, he’s the one who should be getting the attention.”

Chris was still the center of a mob scene, so I stayed where I was. Phil Hellmuth came by and handed a cell phone to TJ, so that he could talk on the live Internet broadcast.

“Who’s this?” TJ asked, either unaware that the Internet broadcast was happening or that it was being done by cell phone.

“It’s the whole world,” I said, “It’s the Internet broadcast, say hello to the world.”

“Hello, World,” said TJ with a smile, and he discussed, for a while, his feelings about the event. One of the points I caught was the TJ has always wanted to go into poker’s Hall of Fame.

“I don’t think you needed anything else on your resume, but if you did, I think today clinches it for you, buddy,” said Hellmuth. Mike Sexton was standing nearby and jumped into the broadcast, explaining that TJ wasn’t merely the leading money winner in World Series history, he had been for a long time the leader in overall total tournament money, because he plays the whole circuit, and noted that “nobody else is even close.”

I finally managed to get near Ferguson, and asked him about the final hand.

“I could see TJ’s confidence was building,” Chris said. “I thought it might be time to gamble.”

Had his own self-confidence been drained by TJ’s relentless assault, I asked. “Maybe a little, because it had been quite a display,” he said, “but not much, because I have a lot of confidence in my own game. I just understood that I wasn’t going to be able to steal a lot of pots from TJ 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.’ I knew he had some sort of hand. I figured I’d have to hit my nine or my ace, I didn’t know which one, but probably one of them, and I caught it when I needed it.”

The omnipresent Discovery Channel people came by and asked Chris if he would join them for a drink or a small gathering they were having.

“I’d like to,” he said, “but a lot of friends and family have come here to support me, and I want to be with them.” Nice guy finishes first.

Did Cloutier outplay Ferguson? Probably, although without knowing their hole cards, it’s hard to know how much ammo TJ had or how little Chris did. But Chris Ferguson earned his title today. He walloped all the little stacks when he was supposed to, and played cautious when he was supposed to, when he didn’t just want to give TJ an easy double up. He got more aggressive when the stacks got closer, and when it was finally time to gamble, he picked the right moment.

I wish there were two bracelets to give out, but such is not the nature of the game we play. But even though there’s only one bracelet, we had two winners here today, and poker is lucky to have both of them.

By the Numbers

Total Entries: 512. In an interesting anomaly, this number was higher than the number of entrants (496) for the opening Limit Hold’em event, something no one could ever recall having happened before.

Total Prize Pool: $5,120,000

First, Chris Ferguson, $1,500,000

Second, TJ Cloutier, $896,500

Third, Steve Kaufman, $570,500

Fourth, Hasan Habib, $326,000

Fifth, Jim McManus, $247,760

Sixth, Roman Abinsay, $195,600

Decided the day before:

7th, Jeff Shulman, $146,700

8th, Captain Tom Franklin, $97,800

9th, Mickey Appleman, $74,980

10-12th, $52,160: Annie Duke, Anastassi Lazarou, Mike Sexton.

13-15th, $45,640: Mark Rose, Angelo Besnaimo, Buddy Pitcock.

16-18th, $39,120: Barney Boatman, Kathy Liebert, Mehud Chaudhari.

19th-27th, $32,600: Tom Jacobs, Ron Stanley, Glen Beebe, Cary Long, Sam Arzoin, Bruce Yamron, Humberto Brenes, Marvin Lang, Larry Bellfuss.

28th-36th, $25,000: Greg Alston, Meng La, Day Kim, Barry Greenstein, Alan Boston, Paul McKinney, Ty Bayne, Stan Goldstein, Roger Hellums.

37th-45th, $15,000: Steve Meyerson, Mel Judah, Steve Beam, Lee Salem, Mark Edwards, John Shipley, Ramon Adams, Eric Schulz, Michael Davis.