The room is already busy when we walk through the door, the steady din that mutters ceaselessly just under the threshold of consciousness in every bar amplified by the murmuring of more voices than usual. The voices are muted and somber, the typical joy that underlies the normal conversations of friends meeting for drinks conspicuously missing. The occasional laugh rings out above the din, but the expression behind the laugh is rarely anything but hollow and pained. Memorials are like that. We give them names like “celebration of life” because we want them to be joyous events full of mirth and memories, but they so often don’t start out that way. The sadness is an undercurrent that’s present in every face, even the ones that are smiling. I nod at friends and acquaintances. Hands stretch out toward me as I pass tables. I stop to shake, fist bump, and hug, muttering “good to see you” to those who I haven’t seen in too long. So many of them are friends who float in and out of my life with varying amounts of time and importance. I know little about their current lives, and they know little about mine, and there’s a sadness in that as well. I’ve spent too little time nurturing and cultivating these relationships, and the recent deaths of so many mutual friends are a stark and stabbing reminder that I need to do better.
In addition to the normal melancholy of any wake, there’s also the underlying fear of the times in which we live, the knowledge that in any gathering as large as this, Covid is likely to be present, a stalking menace for those who are unvaccinated or have immune system issues, or those like myself who have international travel coming up and can’t test positive. The handshakes are quicker than normal, the hugs given with held breaths. Like so many of the things we do these days, the virus rules over our actions and our exuberance, to the great detriment of the purpose of our gathering.
The room is filled with personalities, poker players and industry personnel, many of whom are known mainly by their monikers. People with nicknames like Chip, Savage, Weez, World, JRB, JDN, Miami, and Erik123. We’ve gathered to mourn the passing of our friend, Layne Flack. Known as “Back-to-back” Flack, a moniker given to him when he won two poker tournaments in a row on two different occasions, Layne was a scion of the poker community. Quick to smile and slow to anger, he seemed ever-present, his huge white teeth gleaming as his laugh rang out over every gathering of players. It’s hard to fathom the death of someone who shined as brightly as Layne Flack. No matter the size of the event, you always knew when Layne was present.
We all know people who command attention every time they enter a room. Layne was one of those people. If you didn’t notice him before he noticed you, you were likely to be a victim of one of his sneak attacks or one of his jokes. His quick, sharp wit endeared him to so many, his infectious laugh and beaming personality quickly winning over those who were so often the target of that rapier-like wit.
Layne was a legend. He made a life out of reading people’s faces. If Kenny Rogers had known Layne prior to writing “The Gambler,” I have no doubt the lyrics would have been rewritten to incorporate Layne’s endearing quirks. As Matt Savage so astutely points out, Layne was the best no-limit hold’em player in the world around the turn of the century, and there wasn’t a close second.
Layne was not without fault, as none of us are. He had problems with drugs, alcohol, women, and gambling. He borrowed quickly, and too often paid back slowly. He gambled big with no ability to pay if he lost, and he left this world with some debts unpaid. There’s little doubt that he was one of those rainbow addicts who are susceptible to so many of life’s vices. Layne had an insatiable appetite for fun, and his captivating presence along with his vivacious and immutable personality led to so many of his friends unwittingly becoming his enablers. It was hard to say no to a guy like Layne. Nobody wanted to be the one to dim the bright bulb that accompanied his every appearance. There are only so many watts in a human lifetime though, and when a bulb shines as bright as Layne’s, it tends to use up its life too quickly.
The celebration of life starts with a slideshow set to music, as so many of them do. These shows are supposed to make us smile, and laugh, and remember the great times with a great friend, but so often they just make us cry. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s probably good. Tears allow us to feel more connected, to shed the bottled grief, and when we smile and laugh through the tears, we know we’ll all be okay. Maybe not today, but someday soon.
In my experience, people tend to be reticent to pick up the microphone and tell stories. Sometimes it’s because the stories aren’t appropriate to tell to a room full of strangers, although, that doesn’t seem to dissuade several of tonight’s orators. Other times it’s because the stories involve some level of embarrassment to the speaker. More often though, it’s because people just simply have a fear of public speaking. My speech is written with the goal not of telling my own stories about Layne, but rather to encourage others to come tell their stories, stories that would certainly be more interesting than the few unique times that I experienced with the legend. My speech is less about Layne and more about life and death in general. The poker world has lost a terrible number of people in the last couple of years. A painful number of deaths that have left a gaping hole in the community, and those losses have weighed on me. I recently read an article about death by a great writer named Sean Dietrich, and some of his words and thoughts have found their way into my speech. I’ve attached my speech below in the hopes that the words may give comfort, not just to the friends of Layne, but to friends of Gavin, Mike, Joy, Matt, and anybody else who has experienced loss.
My speech starts off rocky. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken publicly. I used to be comfortable with these things, but tonight I’m a little nervous and it shows. The microphone cuts out just after I get started and I have to shout over the rumbling of the bar at large, the majority of which is open to the public who have little interest in the wake being held behind the curtains. Karina Jett finds me a new microphone and I unintentionally skip several lines of my planned speech. It’s probably unnoticed by the crowd, even though it means that one of my points isn’t driven home. I make a call for those who are hesitant to tell their stories and then I hand the microphone back to Matt Savage. Layne’s sister reaches out as I pass her booth. She has never met me, but her eyes are glimmering as she nods at me and mouths, “Thank you.” I smile through my own glimmering eyes and nod warmly to her.
There are no breaks in the action as attendees tell their stories. Nobody uses notes, speaking from their hearts, and many of the stories are great, drying up the tears as the laughter gets louder and louder. And it’s here, in this moment, when the purpose of these gatherings shines through. Smiles and laughter pervade, and people forget their grief for the moment as they listen to the stories and remember that though he may be gone, Layne left us all with a lifetime of memories that will allow him to live forever in our hearts.
I first met Layne in 2004 at a WPT event in Reno. I had just made the final table of the main event there and I won a little bit of money and I was hanging out having drinks with a few players when he walked up. He struck up a conversation and he found out I’d just won some money so he asked me if no-limit hold’em was my favorite game. I told him my favorite game was actually limit hold’em and he replied, “Step into my office, young man.” He just happened to know of a nice 75-150 limit hold’em game that was starting in the poker room. Somehow when we got there, there was a dealer sitting at an empty table with one plaque that said “75-150 limit hold’em” and another that said “reserved.” To this day I don’t know how he managed to set that up on the walk to the poker room, but we became friends right then and there. You wouldn’t be incorrect if you said that I bought my way into our friendship.
Many of you here knew Layne longer than I did, and no doubt many of you here knew him better than I did. I don’t want to take a lot of time up here to tell stories about Layne because I know that so many of you have such great stories, and I’d like to hear them. So, I just want to take a moment to talk about life and death.
As humans, it’s in our nature to try so hard to find deeper meaning in events which just simply have no meaning. We want to know why, and we want to know how, and we want answers, and those answers are just so often complicated and impure and unsatisfying. The truth is, that life is like embroidery. You know, when someone is stitching a piece of embroidery, when you watch them, it just looks like a completely tangled web of knots, an utter mess with no sense of organization. It’s only when they flip it over that you see the true beauty of their creation.
Layne Flack had a vibrancy about him, an energy and joie de vivre that were incomparable. But he showed only that beautiful side of his life to most of us. If you saw the complicated side of his life, the tangled web of knots that makes up all of our lives, then you know that you were a close friend of his, a true friend.
Most people wander through life with their eyes closed. Layne may have been the most open-eyed person I’ve ever known. He was a complete pragmatist. He was worldly. He never walked, he glided, or he strutted. He had more confidence—not false confidence but completely merited confidence—than anybody you’ve ever seen. Others, I’m sure, will come up here and tell you stories about how quick-witted he was, the quickest wit I’ve ever known. They’ll tell you stories about how fun it was to be around him. How good he was at making and nurturing friendships. Listen to those stories because they’re important. Layne made the world brighter, and we need to all strive to brighten our own lights to make up for the one that has dimmed.
Isaac Newton and Emilie du Chatelet taught us about the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy. This law says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, made nor unmade. It can only be transformed from one form to another. Water falls to Earth as rain and lands in rivers and lakes. We use that water in our swimming pools and in our showers and in our beers. The water is expelled and evaporates once more where it condenses into clouds and then falls to Earth again, in a cycle that has continued since the dawn of time.
Conservation of energy.
Life falls under these same laws. We say that Layne is dead. We gather tonight to celebrate his life and to mourn his passing, but he’s not dead. He lives here (heart) and here (head) and he lives in all of us gathered here. As long as you’re alive, Layne is alive. As long as you’re alive, he’s alive and Layne is alive. As long as I’m alive, you’re alive. We may not be able to pick up the phone and call Layne right now, but he’s here in this room with us, and he always will be. Because Layne, though he may have argued that he was above it, was indeed quite susceptible to the law of conservation of energy. He is not gone; he cannot be unmade. He can only be transformed, from one form to another. He will always live on, in our hearts, in our memories, and in our stories.
So come up here and tell your stories of Layne. Even if you think they’re stupid, because I promise you, there are no stories of Layne that don’t involve at least some level of stupidity. We all want to hear them. Come up here and tell your stories about Layne, and help him live on in all of us.