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Irish News

Andrew Black - A Man on a Mission

by Roy Brindley |  Published: Mar 06, 2005


The term "living legend" is an all-too-frequent and loosely applied expression. It's a cliché that amounts to being alive and memorable for something notable, invariably brought about by sheer accident.

Possibly the phrase applies to Dubliner Andy Black, who played a starring role in the 1998 television documentary Million Dollar Deal. Narrated by John Hurt, the programme followed the fortunes of a group of English and Irish players in that year's World Series of Poker.

Those qho know Andy Black would probably best describe him as charismatic, highly educated, inoffensive, and popular. In retrospect, they would also use the words skilful and successful.

Relatively unknown on the European circuit, the Belfast-born player has been around poker for some considerable time, an amazing 19 years, to be precise.

Like many things in his life, poker came about by accident, but was soon studied with the intensity and passion of an adolescent teenager in receipt of his first pornographic publication.

"I started playing cards when I was 7 with my mum," explained Black, who is now approaching his 40th birthday. "As for poker, that began in 1986 while I was studying for a law degree at Trinity College in Dublin.

"It was at the Merrion Square Casino, then called the Griffin, where I played my first game of poker. I arrived with no money but was encouraged by the initial free entry and, more importantly, the free coffee and sandwiches. After all, I was a poor broke student."

With poker, free food, and coffee abundant, Black eventually obtained a law degree but never went on to prosecute a shoplifter or defend a pensioner accused of smoking in a public house. "With a little more study, I could still become a lawyer," he added in an incidental manor that basically confirms it is never going to happen.

Instead, his traditional work seems to have amounted to a short term as a nightclub promoter, but essentially it's been a lifetime of poker and, more recently, a devotion to Buddhism.

The announcement that the Dublin resident had joined a Buddhist commune came at the end of the Million Dollar Deal, a programme considered so factually correct and matchlessly dramatic, it remains the most popular poker documentary ever made.

Even today, its appearance amongst the televisual wasteland, for the greater part inhabited by the likes of beach volleyball, tractor pulling, and repeats of The Simpsons, never fails to excite.

In it, Black comes over as a very unstable character, indeed. He's fanatically dedicated to his chosen art-form and driven by an obsession that thrusts him to excel but also takes his mind to the edge of its workable limits – and sometimes beyond.

"Why do I put myself through this, I don't even know, I don't even like money that much!" he protested to a cameraman while packing his luggage – one suspects worldly goods – into a beach bag, which even to this day could be purchased for just 99p. It was some serious question, considering he had just forfeited $10,000 in World Series entry fees. He also reflected, "Because of my worry about what other people think of me, I think it affects my judgement a lot. [Poker] does put you aside from other people, and other people don't understand what its like to get inside someone's head."

Today, it's a very different Andy Black talking, although his analytical summary of any situation, whether in cards or life, remains massively intense.

"That programme was my idea. At the time, I would have been quite a high-profile character around Dublin, so I decided to send word around the city that I was going to Las Vegas to play in the 1998 World Series main event, and if someone could come up with a TV crew, I would be prepared to act as consultant."

The salesmanship worked. "Sure enough, an independent company, partially funded by one of U2's businesses, came up with the money. They originally wanted to do the whole film on me, but I persuaded them that it would be more interesting to focus on a number of players and follow their progress, which is what happened in the end."

Ultimately, the show featured heavily on Mike Magee's agonising 41st-place finishing position, just one place out of the money. But this heartache was not an experience alien to Black himself, as he had taken 14th and $30,000 behind the legendary Stu Ungar just a year earlier.

"Around that time [mid-1997], I'd become worn out by life, or maybe it is more accurate to say my choices had worn me out. I started looking for ways to improve myself and change the many bad habits I had developed in life and cards.

"I was bored being such a self-obsessed and often miserable person. Looking back, I often treated people and myself poorly; that needed to change.

"I stumbled along to a meditation class run by Buddhists in Dublin, and very quickly I became fascinated by the process of becoming more aware of my inner world.

"Reading a book on Buddhism I realised almost immediately that I had always been a Buddhist. This came as a great surprise, as I did not and still don't regard myself as religious."

Less than a year after going to his first meditation class, Black decided to try living and working full time with other Buddhists. For five of the next six years, that is precisely what he did. That sabbatical included two years spent raising funds for a Buddhist-run charity (the Karuna Trust), which raises money for the ex-untouchable community at the bottom of the caste system in India.

"It is quite a thing to live and work with others who consider there is no limit to how much one can transform oneself, people who believe trying to develop kindness and wisdom is the purpose of life, and that ultimately we are all interconnected. Wow, that's a pretty positive outlook on how things actually are!"

When questioned on his religion's standpoint on poker, Black said Buddhism does not have anything against it. "In my opinion, it is a personal question. As a Buddhist, I am suffused in principles such as actions have consequences, hatred breeds only hatred, and love breeds only love.

"Therefore, I try to act only in a kind and friendly manner while playing; sometimes I succeed better than others. Also, I don't want to forget that when I win, someone else will lose, and losing isn't easy."

Andrew Black has been back in the poker fold for around a year now, and it comes as no surprise that he has had a winning 12 months. And why not? After all, he has won every other year that he has played.

"The $30,000 for the World Series 14th place was my best payday in a tournament, although there have been plenty of cash game wins around this figure."

His preference is for tournaments. "Maybe they suit my temperament more than cash games," he explained. "I enjoy trying to adapt to the ever-changing conditions and the necessity to make more marginal decisions.

"Also, there is the sheer magical aspect that, somehow, after many hours or sometimes days, one person has all the chips and everyone else is broke."

Surprisingly, for one who appears so methodical, Andy talks of a struggle with steadiness, discipline, and restraint, "qualities that are more suited to cash games, although ideally you need to develop both."

In a rare moment of modesty, he confirmed his strengths are flexibility, intuition, reading players, and heart, while confessing, "When things are going well or I'm playing with panache and skill, especially in tournaments, it's great."

Then comes a counterquote, something many would consider as ironic contradiction: "I am a man with a great deal of emotion, so like most people, and despite so much experience playing poker, I find it difficult to enjoy losing. This is something that I am aiming to improve upon."

Yet, while the new Andrew Black is becoming more and more at peace with himself, seemingly improved like Steve Austin (the six million dollar man, for those old enough to remember), ambitions remain.

"One of my aims is to become more of an ambassador in the poker world, acting thoughtfully and respectfully amongst others, and certainly less egotistically. I don't find that easy, and hopefully when I act against these principles, which happens often, I will be brave enough to apologise to anyone I've offended. It's a resolve to try harder in the future, to act in a manner that is in line with my own deepest ideals."

There is also unfinished business in Las Vegas at the World Series of Poker.

"I plan to play 10 tournaments at the World Series this year, including the big one. The flights and accommodations are already booked, so that's what all my energy is focused on at the moment, and it will be for months to come.

"However, if I win a lot of money there, much of it will be given away. Maybe I am a bit wiser than in 1998, when I think that part of me had a subtle view that money was somehow a bit sordid."

But the real question is: Should it all go agonisingly wrong in Vegas, will Black go on the missing list for weeks, months, and possibly years once again?

"No, not as far as taking another sabbatical goes. Nowadays, I regularly go on retreats and I meditate every day; these to me are like minisabbaticals. For the foreseeable future, I have decided to continue my spiritual practise in the midst of my great passion, the love of poker.

"You see, at the moment I am experiencing a second honeymoon with cards. I'm working hard on my game and enjoying myself most of the time.

"I am pretty confident that I have the breadth and depth of game to make a substantial impact on the international tournament scene, and until I do that, I couldn't imagine taking another long break."

So, Andrew Black is back for the long haul, on a mission to enjoy card playing, whilst liberally respecting, even loving, his fellow players and preparing to announce his arrival on the fickle world of tournament poker beyond the City of Dublin.

His beliefs and outlook on life have not prevented him from being a winner thus far. But, ultimately, will his antidote to the pervasive cynicism of our age be a help or a hindrance?

For certain, should he reach the zenith of the mountain he seeks to climb, no sensibly minded person would be begrudging toward Andy Black. ´

Serial tournament winner Roy "The Boy" Brindley is sponsored by and writes courtesy of