Six-time WSOP bracelet winner Layne Flack is one of poker’s most natural talents, but also one of the most notoriously troubled
If you want to meet Layne Flack for a chat, remember to bring matches and a cigar cutter. His primary vice of the moment is stogies, and he suggests we meet at Havana Club, a cigar shop-cum-smoking lounge. Situated on the west side of Las Vegas, it resides far from the bright lights and poker tables.
Stepping inside, I see Flack sitting front and centre, fresh from a workout, appearing fit and healthy, and looking better than he has in years. Clenched between his teeth is a big, fat cigar and, judging by the speed at which he smokes it down, ‘Back to Back’ Flack has not lost his taste for excesses. These days, though, they tend to be of the legal variety. In fact, when I suggest that he’s stopped drinking, he makes it clear that has yet to happen and sends me to the Havana Room’s walk-in humidor for a smoke of my own.
Properly kitted out and puffing away, I look at Flack and see him as a guy who fell in love with old Las Vegas, less than a decade before the poker scene would become dominated by internet play and kids who make millions at poker without ever playing outside of their bedrooms. He reminisces a bit about hanging out in the Horseshoe, palling around with Benny Binion Jr, raising hell at the old Cheetah strip club, and maintaining his regular crash-pad suite at Binion’s. He thinks back to his early days in Vegas, having recently dropped out of college and fresh from a dealer’s job in his home state of Montana. ‘When I came to town, I slept in my vehicle and sought out games,’ he says. ‘I spent one month building my bankroll.’
That last bit may be true, but Flack is not the kind of player who started small and cautiously inched his way up. In his first Vegas tournament, played in 1997, he won $67,800. Word quickly spread that the kid from Montana had serious skills. He remembers introducing himself to David Grey, at a time when Flack still viewed himself as an unknown. However, Grey made it clear that he knew all about Flack. ‘Rumour has it,’ Grey told the young man, ‘that you’re the most feared no-limit player in the world right now.’
Flack puffs his cigar, looks around a bit, and shifts back to the present. Following a hiatus from the game, Flack won his sixth World Series of Poker event last year. As this is being written, the 2009 WSOP looms and Flack clearly hopes to be in the thick of things. ‘I feel that I worked hard and earned my way,’ he says. ‘I’m the last of the old-school gamblers.’
Flack has an addictive personality, a photographic memory, and transcendental card sense. A floor manager in Los Angeles once declared him ‘the most competent drunk I’ve ever seen’. After allowing that he’s probably played more hands of poker drunk than sober, Flack remembers the morning after a long night of ‘partying’ – he would rather not specify precisely what he means by the term – when he was down $75,000 cash and preparing to play a celebrity event. ‘I asked John Hennigan if I should take a nap or have a drink. He said I should do what I had to do. I ordered a couple beers to drink before playing.’
Of the WSOP tournaments that resulted in 12 final tables and six bracelets for Flack, most were played under the influence of something or other. Illustrating the point, he remembers a WSOP Hold’em event back in 2001. It was noon on day two, play was ready to start, and Flack was on the daylight end of an all-night bender inside a strip club. When Ted Forrest, who was backing Flack at the time, called and told him to get down to the Horseshoe, Flack stumbled in and played heroically. The next day he couldn’t understand why Forrest and Phil Hellmuth were rousting him out of bed. ‘I was a mess,’ he remembers. ‘And they had to tell me that I made the final table. I didn’t even remember doing that. But I asked who the chip leader was, and I busted him on the third hand.’
Winning at poker came easy to Flack, and maybe that was the problem. Like a lot of young phenoms, he burned brightly but ran the serious risk of burning out. Money slipped through his fingers like water. Whatever he made at the poker table he blew in the pit, at the bars, and on girls. He didn’t value money because it was so easy to make. That said, Flack points out that his leaks come with the territory. ‘If I didn’t have it in me to gamble big, I wouldn’t play poker the way I do,’ he says. ‘There are people you can give $10,000 to and they will quit after they win $25,000. Other people, like me, we can run that sum up to a million because we love action and are willing to take risks.’
One saving grace in all this was that Flack maintained a virulent anti-drug stance. He may have been a drunk but he wasn’t a druggy. Then, in his early 30s, in 2001, Flack looked around and saw many of the players he admired dabbling in drugs. Someone handed him an ecstasy tablet and he ingested it. What could the harm be? Everybody else did drugs and still managed to play well. In short order, Flack evolved into a garbage head supreme. He took most drugs but still managed to be a reasonably successful poker player. He also did a good job of hiding this use from his family. ‘When my brother called, my girlfriend would tell him that I had a drug problem,’ remembers Flack. ‘But I was always able to convince him she was just saying it, that it wasn’t true.’
No doubt his believability was helped along by the fact that Flack won over a million dollars during 2001 and 2002 (he got the nickname ‘Back to Back’ Flack for winning two bracelets in quick succession at the 2002 World Series). Once Flack graduated to crystal meth, though, there was no looking back. He remembers waking up one morning and being uncertain as to whether or not his life was real. Then there was the time he tried to kick the habit on his own and lay in bed with a telephone and a loaded 9mm handgun. The former was to call a dealer if he got desperate; the latter was there for reasons that his friends would just as soon not speculate about.
At this point it was clear to everybody, including Flack himself, that he needed help. But, tragically, he had frittered away his millions in poker winnings. He had no dough for a rehab facility. A sum that once felt like pocket change was as elusive as the clarity he sought. He told as much to his girlfriend and brother when they double-teamed him and suggested he needed to dry out. He wanted to have his old life back, but he just couldn’t swing it right now. Instead of letting Flack slowly kill himself, they turned to his long-time friend Daniel Negreanu. ‘Danny gave us the $50,000 or $70,000 that was needed for rehab,’ remembers Flack. ‘He’s the one who stepped up to the plate and did it for me. I thank Danny a lot.’
Back From The Dark Side
Last year Layne Flack won around $700,000 in tournaments. He also took down his sixth WSOP bracelet, this one in an Omaha rebuy event. ‘Winning it was a bigger deal than you think,’ he says. ‘If you try to make a transition in your life, and don’t get rewarded, you think it wasn’t worth the effort.’
Further confirmation came in the midst of Flack’s bracelet-winning match last year. Erik Seidel stood and commended Flack on a particularly good read. The usually tight-lipped Seidel simply said, ‘Flack is back.’
Though Flack still drinks, he says he has made efforts to avoid alcohol at the poker table. On the surface this sounds like an obviously good idea. But it’s harder to convince heavy imbibers of that fact. Famously hard-drinking Gavin Smith has opined that everybody plays better no-limit Hold’em when they have a couple of cocktails in them. Flack offered the same advice one night to Jennifer Harman. She was losing in the Big Game, had a couple of beers at Flack’s suggestion, and, he says, her game improved.
So, for Flack, who was used to playing ‘under the influence’, going straight at the table was a scary proposition. ‘I had to learn the game under two states of mind,’ he says. ‘At first it left me wondering whether I would play better drunk or sober. Obviously, I’m better sober, even though you play with less fear when you are drunk.’
Despite Flack’s best efforts, it has been a challenge. For instance, there was the time earlier this year when Flack got pulled over by Las Vegas police, spent a night in the local lockup, and missed his slot at the 2009 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Reports stated that he was pulled over for drink-driving; Flack issued a press release maintaining that he had not been drinking.
On the Defensive
Whatever the case, it is clear that Flack is working hard to rein in his life. One thing that’s come with sobriety has been a tweaking of his poker game. Now that everybody’s read all the poker books and understands the rewards of aggression, Flack says he is finding success in going the other way. ‘My general rule is that you can have good results by playing defensively,’ says Flack, even as he insists that he is sick of telling people how to play poker and having them use that knowledge against him. ‘But it’s a harder way to win and less fun. You need to mix it up enough so opponents don’t run over you.’
As he explains his approach to the game, however grudgingly, Flack seems happy to be back in the limelight. He also seems to realise that he’s fortunate to have come through the drugs and drink relatively unscathed. ‘The racket I’m in, a lot of people go to the dark side and they never come back,’ he says. ‘It’s tough here. Vegas attracts the best hustlers, the best strippers, the best drug dealers. Hit this town as a kid and you’ve just jumped into the shark tank – without even realising it.’
Layne Flack hopes to be among those who emerge from the tank alive.
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