I'm sitting in a room surrounded by poker players going at it during the Borgata Poker Open 2005 in Atlantic City, N.J. Yelps and wails of agony and success seem to occur every three seconds or so, players are busting out of satellites and the day's featured tournament everywhere I look.
One man, however, seems unfazed by the events and sounds at the other tables. He is focused on the game at hand, which happens to be the final table of the previous day's No Limit Hold'em tournament. Laughter and chatter at the table seem to be led by this Irish pro and it appears as though everyone at the table not only respects his game, but also fears it. He seems to have this effect on players at the tables, but this is nothing new for this highly intellectual individual who only earlier this year, finished fifth in the World Series of Poker main event.
When I started asking other players about Andy Black, there was a lot of talk about him being one of the deadliest players in the game. Having played against the likes of Stu Ungar years before the game exploded into the world's subconscious, Black made his bones in the game while many of today's newcomers weren't born yet. But then, in 1997 something happened to him after losing to Ungar in the WSOP.
For Black, life began spinning out of control so he left the game. People wondered what happened to this young star but few knew the reasons why he quit. For Black, quitting was a difficult choice, but it was a path he needed to take to find peace both in life and on the felt.
According to Black, he hit rock bottom soon after losing to one of the game's future stars who ironically was also no stranger to the cold empty life that was staring Black in the face. "After the World Series in 1997, I was very miserable. I was leading a disillusioned life doing lots of drinking and drugs and I was just unhappy. I was doing nothing positive, just playing poker, and even that had become a miserable experience. I was just really unhappy. The pinnacle was messing up the WSOP, when I basically gave Ungar my chips and finished fourteenth."
Black had hit a wall and his struggles with more than just his game had caught up with him. But then one day things began to change and he started down the path that would change his life.
"I started trying to improve myselfgoing to the gym, drinking less, giving up drugs. But it wasn't completely working. My girlfriend at the time was doing yoga and somehow I came across one of her meditation leaflets that said, 'There are no higher teachings, only deeper understandings.' I knew right away that I liked that statement, so I went along and started doing a couple of simple meditations that I've been doing ever since."
Still trying to find peace with his life and his poker game, Black was playing professionally in Paris when he had an epiphany that would bring about dramatic change for this once angst-ridden star. "I read a book on Buddhism in late '97 and realized I was a Buddhist. This was quite a surprise to me because I wasn't particularly religious at the time. I'm not particularly religious now," Black explained with a big smile.
Black knew that the game wasn't the only thing in life and that if he didn't make some dramatic changes he was going to spiral out of control. With this in mind, he set out on an even bigger challenge than winning the WSOPunderstanding himself.
His travels took him to a place far from the smoky gambling venues of his past life. Something clicked with Black almost immediately and instead of seeing life through the eyes of a poker player, he came to understand life from a different perspective.
"After spending six months living and working with Buddhists, I knew things had changed. This went on for five years. I lived in Buddhist communities, meditated every day, went on retreats, and studied."
For Black, Buddhism quickly offered discipline and a philosophical and spiritual base. "I suppose the Buddhist thing is really that you've got the widest perspective. I think that's the difference between it and other religions and philosophies. I think there are a lot of people with the right angle on the truth, but Buddhism has the broadest map. Buddhism is more of a collection of tools that you can use, many of which are now commonplace in many different types of therapy today."
For a long time, it didn't look as though the two opposites, poker and Buddhism, would mesh. "I was thinking poker was evil; it was terrible and I didn't want to hurt people. I think there is a difference between honest and fair competition and some kind of war. Stu Ungar was one of those extremes. He would say that he would look at somebody and find something to hate about them while at the table and that is how he won so much. If I had to do that, I would want to give up."
However, after years of soul searching that included a period of solitary in the middle of winter with next to nothing, Black decided to model himself after one of Buddhism's legendary figures, Vyn Lekerti.
"Supposedly, over 1,800 years ago, there lived a guy named Vyn Lekerti. He was a bit of a joker and the kind of guy that was regarded highly in all circles. With princes, he was princely, but in a cool way. Among organizers he was a leader of organizers. Among ordinary, non-religious people, he would appreciate the value of being ordinary. In gaming establishments and casinos, he would go in with the intent of trying to help people grow. No matter what kind of character he met, he would meet them on their own terms.
I'm not saying I can do what Lekerti did, but this is the aspect I try to work on. Poker is that kind of environment where you meet lots of different people and this comes into play. When it's at its worst, it's a war and it's like f*** you. It's depressing. But when it's at its best, it's a melting pot of all sorts of characters."
Now that he is back on the poker scene and making his presence felt with a number of final table appearances, I couldn't help but ask how becoming a Buddhist has helped his game.
Black responded quite adamantly, "For a while it didn't. But since I've come back, I've continued meditating. I can reset myself. I would have been the guy who would get more upset than the average player. I would get real mad. Now I'm much cooler. I know some of this comes with age, but a lot of it has to do with the meditation. I know myself quite well now and have learned my tendencies. I still do the same things, but I have learned to recognize them faster and make the necessary changes."
When asked for an example, Black quickly noted that there is a lot to be said for self control. "I used to be real anxious, but now I have a way of looking at this and I watch it happening. Now I know a bunch of different ways to calm myself. Ultimately, I'm taking action to improve the situation."
Black explained that there is a meeting ground between poker and Buddhism. "In life, you're dealing with tough beats and great success. Sometimes that success is the worst thing because you then think you're something special and your ego grows dramatically. But the thing that unites us all is that we're going to get sick and we're all going to die. In the West, we try to hide this or we try to glorify life. I think something in the middle is the truth. Always try and find the middle path, even though the middle path is sometimes so subtle and obvious that it's difficult to find. I miss it all the time, but I try to cross over it as much as I can. Occasionally, I get a bit wiser."
The dramatic changes in Black's life have taken him full circle and brought him back to poker, but he hasn't forgotten his Buddhist teachings. "I'm still now trying to be ordained, which I have been for the last seven years. I'm a bit of a Buddhist deacon and eventually I want to be a priest, but I'm a bit of a naughty boy, so it hasn't happened yet."
In the end, for Black, life is more than a struggle at the poker table. It is successfully living up to one of his mantras like developing love and kindness. This mantra teaches its users to wish themselves and other people well at all times, quite the challenge for a poker player since the goal is take everything another player has.
Black offers one critical piece of advice that is applicable to life for all people, not just poker players. "Poker is a difficult game to learn and those that do tend to understand the game, I find stop learning. It's even worse than realizing you are going wrong. You're doing something for so long and then one day it stops working. My sense is that people stop learning, because they're not working on their game anymore."
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