Back to Black: Andy Black and the Zen of Poker

Andy Black Feature

01 April 2008

The café of the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green. Ladies in knitted hats and beads sit around breastfeeding and nibbling carrot cake. In the centre of the room, slurping a coffee with an air of blissed-out self-possession, sits Andy Black.

It seems a million miles from the smoky poker clubs of Dublin in the early nineties, where he began his love affair with the game, and it’s certainly a strange place to meet a poker player. But then Andy Black is a very strange poker player indeed. A former hard living gambler, Andy’s run at the 1997 WSOP and eventual downfall at the hands of the great Stu Ungar left him crippled with angst. He disappeared from the poker circuit for five years, seeking sanctuary in a Buddhist monastery, from which he emerged a new player and a dominant force on the international tournament scene. But for all his newfound serenity, and millions, a niggling doubt remained. Why couldn’t he win one of the bloody things? That changed last month when he took first place in the Party Poker Premier League. Bluff pulled up a chair and joined the Mad Monk over lentils and tofu to talk about him exorcising his demons once and for all.

Andy, why has it taken so long? Was it variance, a curse?

No, I wasn’t cursed. It was something within me. The dominance I had in a number of tournaments was ridiculous. But something got into my head. I remember in the early hours of the morning before the Premier League final, I just thought, “I can’t do this.” All my fears came to the surface – the fact that I’d been here so many times and messed up near the end. There was this fear of the present; that I’d mess up again, and of the future; that I’d carry on messing up forever (laughs). But sometimes to work through things you have to… I don’t know… confront them, and perhaps something broke through there. But winning is a distraction. Part of the reason people don’t improve their game is that they’re living in the future. They’re hoping and aspiring to win something more. Once you’ve won something, it’s over. You have to return to the present and concentrate on your game.

So it’s been a good thing for you, not just financially, but psychologically, too?

Well, I’m not sitting there any more feeling like the guy who doesn’t know how to finish these things off. The irony about this blow up thing is that, for the first ten years I played poker, finishing was what I was good at. Sometimes with poker, you gain one part of your game and lose another part; you develop a new part and somehow another bit goes out of the window. Then you rediscover the first bit and lose the other bit. It’s interesting the way people pretend to themselves that this is not happening to them – which I think is what most people do – and the way they con themselves is by complaining about other players instead, or about their “bad luck”. Either that, or people just carry on playing their game – which maybe pretty good – but they never seek to develop it, because they think it’s good enough. These are all mechanisms to avoid being honest with yourself about the fact that your ability in certain areas of the game comes and goes. If you look at some of the older players around the clubs, something that might typify them is that they become a bit rigid, a bit stagnant. How did they get there? Well, they got there gradually. So you get these younger guys who are in the middle of their poker careers and they’re blissfully unaware that they’re moving towards stagnation.

What I’m best at is being honest with myself, and also realising that honesty is a process. It’s not necessarily going to be pleasant to look at the fact that you’re doing the same thing again and again. It’s easy to see the mistakes others make but it’s much harder to recognise the parts of your game that you’re ignoring.

How do we recognise them?

You just have to break it down all the time. A simple example is this: a couple of years ago I realised I would lose my chips every time I moved tables. And this happens to a lot of people: they throw up their hands and say they were unlucky to be moved – any excuse, other than the fact that – hold on – maybe your decision making process is changing because you’ve moved tables. You spent a long time working on the other players, but now things have changed. I realised that – well – things might have changed for me, but they’ve also changed for everybody else. I’m the unknown factor, so they’re trying to adjust to me and I’m trying to adjust to them. Whoever adjusts first wins. It’s pretty simple. So I started working on that. I starting working on where I was making the mistakes and I came up with this system. I would tick boxes in my head. Is the guy capable of doing this? Do I have any physical read on him? There were about five boxes and I realised that when I was making a mistake I never ticked more than one box. So I focused on ticking all the boxes. Now I don’t have to do that because I do it naturally. And that’s good because it frees me up to work on something else. Although it’s possible I might forget how to do that one day and have to retrain myself all over again.

We’ve talked about your blow ups. When Stu Ungar took all your chips in the 1997 World Series, which led you to turn away from poker and embrace Buddhism, was that another blow up?

Yeah, I guess it was. I’ve read a lot of nonsense in the press saying that Stuey got lucky against me. This is not the case. He outplayed me. He was so magical; it was as though when I was putting in the chips, he was putting in the chips. I can’t explain that. It’s almost as though people found themselves in a mesmerised state and he had them on a string. You had this sense that he could do anything, so it was almost impossible to work out what he was going to do. I think I’ve learnt to do that sometimes now. I mean, I’ll stick a fourth raise in on the river if I think I’m right. I don’t give a shag about what cards I have. And that’s what Ungar did. He was a genius. He mesmerised people. He certainly mesmerised me.

Was there a sense that, “Well, I’ll never be able to play like him so what’s the sodding point?”

Yes…probably. I’ve never been asked about that before… but yeah… when I think about it. There was this sense that I was just fair game and I couldn’t see myself ever being that good. I mean, I don’t think that now, but certainly I did then.

Have you ever seen anyone play like him since?

Yes, I’ve probably seen people play better than him. But you have to judge things in their time. I think if Ungar was around now, he’d play better than he did then. He’d have better resources and he’d adapt. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t. You have to remember that, as good as he was, he was unsuccessful for a lot of his life. He struggled a lot of the time. He lost a lot in No Limit cash games because once he went behind, that was it – that’s the fatal flaw of a lot of the most creative players.

What else prompted the need to escape the game? Did you think that poker was inherently wicked in some way?

Most of the people who are actually interviewed for magazines are successes. Most of the people that I now meet at the higher level are successes. One of the most interesting things – and this happens in every sport – is that it’s easy to forget that there are millions of people out there, and our success is built on everybody else’s failure. The aspects of success are always the focus, but that’s just one part of the story.

There aren’t any games big enough for me in Ireland anymore, so I don’t play there much, but occasionally I’ll go into some of the clubs, and it’s sobering. You see some people there, and they’re obviously struggling, and they’re not working on their game in any way, and it’s obvious that that’s where they’re going to stay.

Another sobering thought, and one that keeps me going, is that I don’t want to go back there.

People find it very hard to evaluate their own game, don’t they? They overestimate themselves…

You overestimate some aspects of your game and underestimate others. In fact, the whole game is designed to just confuse the hell out of you. It’s a typical situation: a guy comes along and it seems like he’s got a pretty good game and a good head on his shoulders, but one day he plays really badly and he wins a tournament. His mates come up and they say, “Aren’t you great? Aren’t you brilliant?” Now he think that’s the way to win a tournament, but actually, when you break down his game, he got lucky. I know people who are regarded as being amongst the top players in the world who will not be regarded as such in a few years, because I know how they played, and they played badly. The history of poker is littered with that kind of person. This happens at every level of the game. It happens at the lower limits, too, and I know that because I was at the lower levels for ages.

So, what you have at the end of the day is this mass of information which just keeps changing. It makes chaos theory look straightforward. The solution to finding your way through all this can only begin when you start to look at yourself and see where you’re at.

You have to realise that all of the criticisms I make when I talk about other people’s games, I make them because I was like them for the first ten years I played poker. I say it from a depth of experience. I was just this guy who had a bit of a talent and just turned up; I didn’t work on my game, my lifestyle was shite… I was confused as to why I didn’t do better, but deep down I knew.

So many people say to me, I always get far in tournaments but I never have any chips. The reasons for this are complex and come down to a person to person thing, but the bottom line is this: you’re missing loads and loads of chips. You can have a list as long as your arm as to why that is, but if this is happening to you all the time, why aren’t you doing anything about it? Why don’t you want to face up to it? The answer is that looking at yourself critically and saying, “I need to change something,” is painful, because you have to let go of who you were before, and you don’t want to do that. We want to hold on to whoever the hell we are.

How do you reconcile poker, which is a particularly ego-driven game devoted to the pursuit of filthy lucre, with Buddhism?

I’ve gone through all sorts of different phases in terms of my relation to poker and Buddhism and how I reconcile the two. You could say that, back in 1999, it got to the point where I couldn’t reconcile the two, so I spent five years doing something else. I then reached a point where I could reconcile them a bit, so I began to play again. There were also practical reasons – I had a young son that I needed to support.

I asked this very question to a Buddhist teacher and he said, “Pray for the people that you fleece.” Many of the decisions we make in the world cause other people harm, and what I’m trying to do is to bring that more into my awareness. Maintaining the connection between the fact that when I win, other people lose – that’s my goal.

People call you the “Mad Monk”. They think you’re mad. Do you think you’re mad?

Buddha said we are all mad. Everybody’s mad. I associate myself emotionally and psychologically with the idea of the court jester. In literature, the court jester was traditionally the wisest person, but he was also a bit mad. Certainly, the common approach to poker – that of the poker face and holding everything in – I can’t live like that. The truth is that, if you play poker, that’s your life. You’re sitting there for hours on end. For me to actually restrain myself all of that time would drive me even madder. So really, behaviour that others might perceive as mad is really just a ruse to retain my own sanity.

Are you political?

It’s funny… when you go to America – and I’m sure it’s the same when the Americans come here – you find yourself in a very different culture. It’s quite jarring – the different attitudes and viewpoints. I started getting very interested in the American elections and this guy Obama. He’s really interesting. He seems to me to be the real deal, which I think is a great thing for America. At the moment Phil Hellmuth is like the poster boy for America – the ego’s gone a bit mad, everything’s gone a bit crazy. Maybe Mike Matusow is, like, Donald Rumsfeld (laughs). But there’s that attitude of ego and “I am the winner”. The way that’s manifested in their foreign policy is that, we’re the good guys, so someone else has to be the evil guy. And even the Democratic candidates have bought into that recently, but Obama seems to have this view that, whoever these guys are – even the worst people you can think of – there’s that part of them that’s good. You need to negotiate. Northern Ireland, where I come from, that’s what’s happened there.

Why that’s important in relation to poker and me is that that’s the way I’m trying to see things. You’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; you’re trying to look outwards, you’re trying to look inwards, you’re trying to be honest with yourself, yet you realise you have to work on your game, but most importantly you have to realise your game works in connection with your understanding of other people. That way of working out poker has a different flavour to it and I think that’s how people can move it to a different level. It’s a way of working on yourself and your poker game that will increasingly make poker a positive force in society. We’re creating the ethos in poker, me as a player, and you as the media and it can be whatever we choose to make it.

In America at the moment, there’s a tide of opinion. It’s almost like people’s hearts are worn and broken. They want something that’s got a bit of hope to it, and part of that hope is seeing the humanity in everyone – even the alleged evil leaders of foreign countries. Likewise, at the poker table, if you see the humanity of everybody you’re playing against, then from a point of view of connection, you actually make wiser decisions. The more I see that kind of approach, the more I want to associate with poker as a sport.

What now, Andy?

I’m resting and preparing for the Series. The Series is designed to melt people’s brains. Not that many players play the whole thing. Mainly what you’ve got are your weekend warriors and your satellite qualifiers, but if you decide to splash out and play more than just a No Limit Hold’em tournament – which not that many European players do – you’re faced with a very difficult situation. You’re playing the whole thing and you go from playing a $5,000 Deuce-7 Rebuy with 70 of the best players in the world to a $1,500 No Limit Hold’em event against 3,000 people, and that can do your head in. Then you’ve got all the Vegas stuff – the fact that you might be behind for the trip, that your head’s being fried by the hotel system; you probably haven’t seen daylight in days, and when you do it’s 116 degrees outside. And all the time, all around you, you’re surrounded by other people whose heads are pretty wrecked too. There are people who are on serious tilt everywhere and all the conversations are just bizarre. So to negotiate all that – well, it’s like playing an incredibly whippy links course with really, really heavy rough and you’re not allowed a big driver in your bag. It’s really difficult, and this isn’t talked about a lot. People talk about how to play poker and the theory involved, but what really does for people at the World Series is the fact that their brains are melting.

The ability to meditate must be useful…

It’s a start, you know. I mean, it’s not enough, I’ve realised that.

It’s better than drinking Red Bull all day for a month, though, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, it is. But the problem is that someone who drinks Red Bull all day for a month might win the event. But in the long term, that on its own is not enough. It’s the difference between wanting to play your best and just hoping that everything falls into place by accident. I mean, I’ve already got the schedule; I’ve divided it into six weeks and I know roughly the transitions I have to make from tournament to tournament, depending on how I do in each, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve always just gone in and got confused by the blizzard of tournaments, but this time I’ve mapped it out.

Last year I played as many events as I could. I made a couple of final tables and I broke even, but I was burnt out. This year, I’m not staying in a hotel – I’ve hired a villa, and I’ve got a camper van, which I’m parking around the back of the RIO, so I’m going to go there on all the breaks, and I’ll have a Buddhist friend with me to help me out. I’m just not going to enter into the madness. Not that I’m scared of the madness, of course…