Meet Our Instructors
"If you can take home just two or three or four things to add to your regular game, you’re so far ahead of your opponents, it’s pitiful!"
- Most major tournament wins of any player ever
- Six World Series of Poker bracelets
- More than $10 million in tournament winnings
- Member of the Poker Hall of Fame
In fact, he won so many tournaments at the Bicycle Casino that there was actually talk of taking down the managing partner’s photograph and putting up T.J.’s instead!
Ask T.J. what he likes about poker, and you might expect him to name the millions of dollars of other people’s money that he’s brought home over the years, enabling him to support his beloved wife Joy in style.
Or you might wait for him to talk about the thrill of winning six WSOP gold bracelets—generally recognized as poker’s highest honor—or the widespread respect that the poker veteran has earned after half a century playing with Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Erik Seidel, and other poker greats. But when T.J. hears the question, he just chuckles. “I like the competition,” he says simply.
Paying His Dues
T.J. got his start as a poker player in an unlikely place—on the golf course.
“I was caddying when I was in high school,” he explains. “And we’d carry two bags around—in those days, you’d get $3.50 a bag for 18 holes. We’re talking about in the 50s, you know!"
“And when we’d come in, there’d be somebody waiting in the clubhouse to play poker with us, to take all the money that we worked all day for."
“So one day, they come in, and they passed out what they called these Lucky Bucks. If you put 20 dollars with them, you’d get 40 dollars’ worth of chips down at Artichoke Joe’s in San Bruno, which is a legal cardroom in California. So I went down there. I was 17 years old, but I was a big guy, so they never asked me for an ID. And I started playing a little bit, and then my father found out I was going down there to play, and he went down there, and he grabbed the owner by his tie. And he told him, ‘If you let my 17-year-old kid come in here and play again, I’ll be back!’”
Instead, it was T.J. who came back—the very next day. “I enjoyed it!” T.J. says with a grin.
The teenaged T.J. might have loved to play, but he soon learned that playing profitable poker takes a lot of work.
“Believe me, you pay your dues when you’re first learning,” T.J. says. “I mean, my paychecks, they all went to poker. You have your lucky days, but honestly, I wasn’t that good at it...until I really started using my brain.”
From Playing Field to Poker Table
T.J. has had a long life of competing—and winning. A star high school athlete originally from Daly City, California, he attended the University of California at Berkeley on a football and baseball scholarship, and played in the Rose Bowl in 1959. He left college to take a job to help pay his mother’s medical bills. Then he was drafted into the army, which is where he started honing his poker skills.
After military service, T.J. played tight end in the Canadian Football League, first for the Montreal Alouettes, then for the Toronto Argonauts. When a knee injury put an end to his career, he went into business with his father in San Francisco but continued playing poker on the side. After his dad’s company closed in 1976, T.J. headed for Texas, where he worked for a bit on an oil rig and played poker during off hours. Eventually, he began making more money at the green felt than in the oil field, and decided to go pro—thus kicking off a storied career.
Giving Something Back to the Game
Now, fifty years and millions of dollars later, why does T.J. want to spend any of his precious time teaching?
“I like working with groups and getting feedback from them,” T.J. explains. “I’ve been a guest speaker at just about all of them, and there’s nothing even close to the curriculum at World Poker Tour Boot Camps. So I enjoy teaching people the right stuff. And the game has been really good to me. I kind of like giving something back to it, you know?”
T.J. hasn’t only given back through teaching. He’s also shared his poker skills in several well-known books on tournament strategy, including books that focus on hand analysis and on final table play.
T.J. is quick to praise the teaching and poker skills of his fellow pro instructors. But he does believe that he has his own contribution to make.
“I’ve been very successful in poker,” he says, “and I always feel like sometimes, each player has a little different slant on it, you know? Everybody’s imparting the same knowledge, but some of us do it with a different twist.”
When T.J. gets in front of group of poker students, he likes to share the time-tested poker skill that kept him at the top of the WSOP all-time money-earners for several years. He also likes to “add a little levity to the class.” As an instructor, T.J. is well-known for his jokes and his memorable sayings. (“A bettor be, never a caller be” is one of his students’ favorites.) He also likes to tell “some of the stories of things that have happened over the years. People enjoy that stuff and you can even learn a thing or two!”
If students enjoy T.J.’s teaching, the feeling is definitely mutual. “At this last Boot Camp I taught,” T.J. recounts, “we had a guy that asked a lot of questions...and every one was a good question! Everything he asked was well thought-out and something that the whole class could use. And I love that kind of stuff!"
“Because I’ve been doing this so long, I have more spontaneity. If somebody asks a question, I can get into it.”
Committed to Improving Their Game
So what’s T.J.’s favorite part of teaching?
“If somebody’s in my class, I want to do anything I can do to improve their game,” he says. “My whole theory of these classes is that people are paying money to come to these classes, so they must really want to learn something. They want to improve their game. And if they can take home just two or three or four things from my class to add to their regular game, they’re so far ahead of their opponents, it’s pitiful!”
T.J. thinks for a moment and then throws in one parting shot, the most important poker lesson he’s learned in fifty years.
“If you’re not willing to give poker a real good effort, then you don’t have any chance in the long run,” he says. “You might just as well play for pennies and have a good time! But if you’re thinking of making money in poker, then you gotta work at it!”