We tell the tale of Andy Black, the ‘mad monk’: “So mesmerising was Ungar’s charisma that Black turned into a calling station and off-loaded all those hard-earned chips in just two hands”

Andy Black is an enigma. He’s one of the most talented tournament players in the world and also a devout Buddhist.

PokerPlayer discovers how Stu Ungar and drugs led his life in a downward spiral and how he fought his way back to the top

May 1997, Binion’s poker room, Las Vegas

Andy Black had to pinch himself to check he wasn’t dreaming. Down to the final 18 in his first ever WSOP main event, he had survived two of the toughest days of poker in his life. He felt good though, confident behind a wall of chips. And to his left was the irrepressible Stu Ungar. That had to be a good omen. Stuey was his idol – the best no-limit hold’em player in the world – always had been, always would be. He might have been spitting curses at the dealer, chastising the other players and anyone else who passed within his considerable blast radius, but Black saw past all that.

The two laughed and joked with each other at the table, and Black saw in Ungar a kindred spirit. Both were party animals, gamblers and hungry for success – and both were on a collision course. For Black, a journeyman poker player for over a decade back in Ireland, this was his chance to make a life-changing score. Unfortunately for him, it was he who would come off crippled. For although Ungar may have been physically jaded from countless years of drug abuse, mentally he was as fierce as ever. And Black felt the full force.

So mesmerising was Ungar’s charisma that Black turned into a calling station and off-loaded all those hard-earned chips in just two hands. It was a brace of blows from which he never recovered and he limped out of the World Series in 14th place, his confidence shattered. Black’s one and only encounter with Ungar would end up being the trigger for the gradual collapse of his life.

April 2007, Andy Black’s home, Dublin

Ten years on from that fateful day, I ask a grinning Black – fresh from his final-table finish at the EPT Grand Final – to recount the cost of his exchange with Ungar. ‘Stuey made friends with me on the last two tables and I got suckerpunched,’ Black says, his tone now much greyer. ‘I was done with poker after that. I felt I could have won that World Series even though it was my very first one.’

Black has always thought that Ungar befriended him just to trap him, yet his reverence and affection for the man has never dipped – mostly because Ungar’s talent was unrivalled, but also because they shared similar character traits. ‘I was a bit of a degenerate like him,’ admits Black. ‘I would probably have liked to have seen myself a lot more like him – though there weren’t any comparisons in the sense of the amount of genius that guy had. He had astonishing ability and a great record. Considering the number of tournaments he played and the number he won, it’s incredible.’

It’s clear that getting run over by Ungar was the turning point, but ‘The Kid’ wasn’t wholly responsible for the demise of Black – the damage had been dealt years earlier. Like the man he worshipped, Black’s Achilles’ heel was his hedonistic lifestyle.

‘I was out of my mind for most of the late 80s and through the 90s,’ he says. ‘I was pretty lucky to survive. I would just make a few quid, go out and party and say, “Oh look, I need to make money again.” I’d probably had as many good results as anyone in Ireland over those years, but I wasn’t very happy.’ Black nods earnestly as I speculate whether his state of mind was the reason he turned so passive against Ungar. ‘I was sick!’ he shouts animatedly. ‘I just kind of ran out of steam. I wasn’t really improving my game in any substantial way – my career was going round in circles. It was tough.

September 1998, Buddhist retreat, Cambridge

By September of that year, Black was becoming more and more disillusioned with the game and realised his life needed a spring-clean. ‘A girlfriend of mine was doing yoga, and I starte3d meditating to reduce stress and improve my poker. I gradually got more and more into it and the poker was becoming more and more of a distraction.’ Within a few weeks, Black had his epiphany – he realised he was a Buddhist.

‘That was a shock to me because I was pretty anti-religious up till then,’ he laughs. ‘I just read a Buddhist book and it was like something I’d done before. It was kind of strange – it was all kind of familiar, kind of made sense. Looking back, a lot of my drug explorations had been inspired by interest in other states. Without realising it, I’d obviously been searching for something which had a deeper meaning.’

Although Black played in the WSOP 1998, it was obvious to him that his heart had all but stopped beating for the game. The only thing he recalls worrying about that year was the absence of Stu Ungar. ‘One of the saddest moments of my career was when I came down in 1998 to play the World Series and the announcement was made that Stuey wasn’t playing. Quite quickly, it came through the grapevine that he was up in his room whacked out on drugs. That was very sad and I almost felt that I couldn’t be bothered playing because I wanted to beat him! And I was just sad anyway, because someone with that much talent was hurting himself so much.’

Flying back to Ireland without a single cash finish, Black took the massive step of completely cutting off the only source of income he had ever known. He turned his back on poker and decided he wanted to follow his recent forays into Buddhism to their natural end – by embarking on a life as a Buddhist monk. In doing so, he set the ball rolling for one of the most colourful stories in poker history. ‘I decided to investigate Buddhism more deeply,’ he says.

‘So I spent two and a half years lifting boxes around, living and working with other Buddhists.’ As Black recalls his daily rituals, the studying, the meditation, it’s easy to envisage him trekking barefoot through the mountains of a far-flung clime with only his thoughts for company – but the reality is much more sober, if no less surprising. ‘That was in England – that well-known heartland of Buddhism,’ he continues with a wry smile. ‘One of the biggest communities or “right livelihoods” is in Cambridge.’

The next two-and-a-half years were spent going from door-to-door, stopping people in the street to raise funds for impoverished communities in India. Black says this was the most contact he had with the outside world. ‘It was semi-monastic,’ he says, blowing a long plume of cigarette smoke into the fresh Dublin air. ‘It was very intense – living, working and eating with other people who were working on themselves and considered themselves Buddhists.’ As for poker, Black claims he never planned to go back.

‘When I first went into retreat, I thought I was done with the game. I really felt that I’d never play poker again,’ he says. But inch-by-inch, poker began to edge back into his psyche. ‘I went through periods of not thinking about it at all, but then in the latter years I could feel there was part of me that hadn’t finished with it yet. Part of me knew that it’s in my heart so much that I’m a poker player.’

June 2005, Rio casino, Las Vegas

Black began making stabs at the circuit from September 2004 onwards. He cashed in the Barcelona Open, and then came third a few months later at the Irish Poker Festival. Encouraging, for sure, but at this point he was merely fulfilling the brief he had set for himself: play a bit and make a living. Black’s true capabilities would be tested at the WSOP 2005. Since he had left the game, poker had exploded and its entire landscape had changed. Fields weren’t counted in hundreds, they were counted in thousands.

In the first event Black played in – a $2,500 no-limit hold’em event – he came tenth. It wasn’t quite the phoenix-from-the-flames moment he might have hoped for, but it was a boost to his confidence. The litmus test would of course be the main event. Poker’s Big Dance was unrecognisable from the intimate event that had taken place behind the walls of Binion’s in 1997. But Black’s biggest challenge wasn’t the size of the occasion, it was the constant reminder that this was where it had all gone wrong. Did he have it in him to exorcise the demons? Considering that he ended up coming fifth and cashed for $1.75m, you’d think the answer would be a resounding ‘yes’, but for Black, only a win was ever going to have the cathartic effect he was looking for.

‘I had that tournament dominated,’ he says defiantly. With five players left, he was a massive chip leader, and were it not for a horrific bad beat against eventual second-place finisher Steve Dannenmann, it would have taken a miracle for anyone to catch him. Nonetheless, Black is circumspect about it. ‘Looking back, I just wasn’t quite there yet. After that I spent a year deciding that my game wasn’t good enough and completely messed with it for a whole year. That was a very painful year. I kept getting deep in tournaments and still made money, but I realised that my game wasn’t good enough and almost like a golfer, changed my swing.’

And those changes are clearly having the desired effect. In January he ran over almost everyone at the Aussie Millions, coming second in the pot-limit Omaha event and then third in the main event; three months later he final-tabled in the biggest European tournament of all time – the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. ‘These two were my best results,’ a clearly proud Black says. ‘In Australia, I wasn’t all-in until the last three players. In Monte Carlo, I wasn’t all-in until the fourth day. That’s some kind of benchmark for me.’

Black attributes much of his success to his meticulous preparation. ‘I’ve found a routine which took me about a year to get to,’ he says. ‘I chill out for an hour after the game, meditate for one and a half to two hours, do Buddhist study for an hour. Then I’ll do 45 minutes of exercise.’ One feature of this routine is that for the duration of a tournament, breaks included, Black prefers to be on his own.

‘I’ll not talk to people much and I won’t stay up late at night even though I’m tempted to. That allows me to keep my concentration a lot longer than other players.’ Black also uses a sports psychologist to help him talk over the moves he made. You have to admire the irony of his nickname – the Mad Monk. He’s anything but mad; he’s intense, intelligent and bristling with energy. But when he applies that to poker he’s the epitome of diligence and efficiency, and he knows it.

‘I do find myself looking around and seeing that people’s preparation is just not good enough. They’ll arrive off a plane in Vegas and they’ll be shattered. They won’t be eating right, they’ll be distracted by the cocktail waitresses, gambling, a million other things. Their preparation? What preparation?’

April 2007, the Burlington Hotel, Dublin

If good preparation was the only defining factor of Black’s success, it wouldn’t be too hard to replicate. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there’s much more to it. There’s his ability to accumulate chips for starters. ‘If you were trying to describe me as far as poker players go, “chip monster” would be it,’ he snarls. ‘In 80% of tournaments I’m in, I grab the chip lead or get pretty bloody close to it at some point.’

So how does he do it? ‘You have to look honestly at where you give away chips and how you get chips,’ he says, bursting into laughter as he recognises the simplistic nature of his statement. ‘At the most basic level, the most basic card player just waits for good cards. That is one aspect for gaining chips. Then you’ve got the whole area of not losing so much when you have a really good hand and someone has a better hand; then you’ve got winning as much as possible with your marginal hands; then – and this is by far the most crucial area in poker – there’s winning all the hands where nobody has a hand or you’re not going to get called.’

Black is also relentlessly critical of his own game. He knows that his chip-gathering style has yet to translate to that one big win, and it bothers him. He points to Monte Carlo as a case in point, calling it an ‘abject failure’ – despite coming seventh and cashing for over $300,000. ‘I keep making mistakes. But it’s like, each improvement you make allows you to look for other improvements. The funny thing is, every kind of improvement is to some extent a leap of faith. But the only way you find that out is by doing it.’

We’re now over an hour into our conversation, and it’s clear Black is becoming restless, with his thoughts turning to the Irish Open starting in two hours time. But there’s still one question I have to ask. What does he think would have happened if he hadn’t been taken to the cleaners by Ungar and instead gone on to take the World Championship title? ‘I’d probably be dead now,’ he says unflinchingly. He stops for a minute, and thinks back to the moment. ‘Looking back, I hadn’t put in the work to earn it. I even think that about the World Series in 2005.’

And now, I ask? ‘There are still loads of weaknesses in my game,’ he says. ‘But I’m close to being the most consistent player in terms of amassing chips and going really deep in tournaments. Increasingly, I think I’m moving a distance ahead of most people. I’m a kind of mess in progress. ‘I would just like to arrive consistently at the end of tournaments – having won them – and just go, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and move smoothly into whatever the next activity is. That’s my goal. It’s not just to win and be successful, it’s to be incredibly successful at poker and successful in all the other bits of my life as well. I want to be a spiritual practitioner who’s also a poker player.’

Fast facts

BORN Belfast, Northern Ireland

LIVES Dublin, Ireland

FAVOURITE GAME No-limit hold’em






HOBBIES Meditation

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