There were mad dashes to the bathroom. There was exhaustion after grocery shopping. And there was the question that nagged Jay Anderson before each meal: Should I eat this? These experiences, and many others, were part of Jay’s new life with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects an estimated 1.6 million Americans. In the fall of 2013, Jay withdrew from UNLV’s graduate program in kinesiology and went home to Houma, Louisiana, where he had three surgeries to remove his colon and create a “j-pouch,” an internal reservoir that acts like the large intestine. He also started playing poker full-time.
I met Jay at the poker tables in Harrah’s New Orleans. Wearing a gray hoodie and thick black glasses, the twenty-seven-year-old reminded me of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. In early May, when the World Series of Poker Circuit Event was in town, we discussed Jay’s health, the mental challenges of poker and ulcerative colitis, and adjusting to life post-surgery.
Ben Saxton: What first attracted you to poker?
Jay Anderson: The logic behind it. It’s such a mental competition. I’ve always enjoyed board games, card games, chess, Monopoly. In tenth grade geometry, I’d finish a test and take out The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky. I learned a lot about hand strengths and what to do on certain flop textures.
It sounds like you started taking poker seriously from the start.
Yeah, pretty much. I really immersed myself in the game. My first few years of college suffered because I probably — not probably, I was concentrating more on poker. It took a while for me to learn how to manage my time. When I got to the athletic training program at Nicholls [State University], it was very demanding. We’d be in class for twelve to eighteen hours a week, plus twelve to sixteen hours of clinical work, plus studying.
What’s the attraction to athletic training?
The ability to help people. I think it’s similar to poker, too. When an athlete comes to you with an injury, there’s a lot of unknown information. So we go through this process called SOAP-note, which is an acronym that means ‘Subjective-Objective-Assessment-Plan.’ The subjective part is the signs and symptoms that the athlete’s experiencing themselves. The objective part is what you’re seeing — a limp, discoloration, bleeding, etc. The assessment is when you go through different tests that narrow down what the injury could be. And then you make a plan for treatment. So I see poker in the same light, where you’re given partial information and you go through the same basic process.
Can you walk me through that process as it would play out at the poker table?
Yeah, for sure. The subjective part would be the person’s actions. Are they checking? Did they check-raise me? How are they acting? What’s their demeanor telling me? How did they react to the flop? The objective part would be what I’m holding, my relative hand strength. Assessment would involve ranging a person and anticipating how they’ll react to your bets. And, from there, you make a plan for the rest of the hand.
You started your Two Plus Two health log by writing, ‘I always thought I had dodged bullets when it came to the diseases that affected a small percentage of the population. But on December 15th, 2012, that all changed. That’s when I first started having symptoms of ulcerative colitis, and I was officially diagnosed less than a month later, in early January.’ How did you realize that you had the disease?
I remember I started having really bad stomach pains, cramps, going to the bathroom fairly often, diarrhea, bleeding, stuff like that. There was definitely something wrong. Eventually I went in for a colonoscopy, and that’s when the diagnosis was made. Other general symptoms would be fatigue, joint pain — ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease that can affect your entire body, not just your digestive system — weight loss, and a lack of appetite. You don’t want to eat because you know you’ll be in pain later, so you get into a vicious cycle: you have to eat for nutrition, but you don’t want to be in pain all night, you know?
It seems like there isn’t much consensus about a proper diet.
Yeah, I did a lot of experimenting. It was very frustrating, because I couldn’t find anything consistent. On some days I’d eat a burrito and feel great. But on other days I’d drink a glass of water and be in the bathroom for hours before I could take myself to work.
You started with meds, is that right?
Correct. I developed an allergic reaction to the first medicine they put me on. I was miserable for a month before I could get back to the doctor. They finally put me on prednisone, which was basically the only thing that kept me going for eight months. The side effects are bad — prednisone can break down your bones just like any steroid, it can make you feel bloated, and my back and chest were full of acne — but I felt that the good outweighed the bad. I went on a more serious medicine called Imuran, which just didn’t work. And then I went on another medicine called Humira, and my body didn’t respond to that at all.
Another option is surgery, which you ended up going with. How did you come to that decision?
At first, I didn’t see surgery as something I wanted to do at all. It seemed extreme, I didn’t like the idea of having an ostomy bag, and I just assumed that my body would respond to drugs and I’d go into remission. I was still on Humira when I went to Vegas for graduate school, and I started seeing a doctor out there who wanted to do a scope on me to see how my body was responding. He was a very, very conservative doctor, and said, ‘Look, I think surgery might be your best route. I didn’t want to put the scope all the way into your colon because I was afraid it would rupture and I didn’t want to hurt you even more.’ When he said that, it was very eye-opening. Eventually, after talking with my family and my girlfriend, I made the decision to put grad school on hold, go back home, have the surgery, and really focus on my health for a while.
You also mentioned the challenge of staying positive when the disease messes with your mind. How have you dealt with the mental side of having ulcerative colitis?
There’s a lot of inconsistencies day-to-day. When I had the disease, I had to start planning with my bowels, for lack of a better term. I had to just see how I was feeling. And it wears on you. I have friends who may not understand fully — which is hard, obviously, since they haven’t gone through this — and they may say, ‘Hey, we’re going to this beer festival in New Orleans,’ or ‘Hey, want to go to a Pelicans game?’ And I’d tell them that I’d love to but that I’d really have to wait till that day to see how I’m feeling. It was very rough, mentally, not knowing how I was going to be feeling, or not knowing when I was going to be in remission. It’s…tiring.
Very, very, very, tiring — physically and mentally.
Now that the three surgeries are behind you, how are you feeling these days?
After the first surgery, day-to-day life improved right away. Since the last surgery, it’s been inconsistent. There have been some very rough days since then, but in the last few months it’s getting better. My doctors say that it can take anywhere from six months to two years for your body to adjust with not having a large intestine. So I’m having a patient outlook and will see how I feel in a year. My main goal right now is have a good quality of life day-to-day, health-wise.
The title of one of your blog entries is ‘My colon teaches life lessons. What does yours do?’ So let me ask: what life lessons has your colon taught you?
Perseverance is probably the biggest one. I never really had anything serious besides, like, the flu. Standard stuff. At some point you take for granted that you’re not going to have ulcerative colitis or any other disease that affects a small percentage of the population. After I got that, it was very eye-opening. I stopped taking things for granted, which is something that we can all apply to our lives. But, at the same time, it’s hard to apply to your life unless you’ve been through something that causes you to apply it, you know?
You’ve also written about how being a poker player has taught you about the mental side of dealing with ulcerative colitis. What has poker taught you? And what has ulcerative colitis taught you about being a poker player?
There’s a ton of variance in poker, and it’s the same with ulcerative colitis. There are days when you feel great, you can do whatever you want to do, and there are days when there’s absolutely nothing you can do. You can eat as well as possible, but you still feel like shit. And the same thing happens in poker: you can play as well as possible, but sometimes you get slapped in the face and beat up. In both instances, you still have to come back strong, keep an even keel, and stay positive.
How has the transition been from leaving graduate school to becoming a live pro?
Overall, I’ve enjoyed it. It just made sense for me to make the transition. I knew I’d be going through multiple surgeries in the course of a year, and I didn’t want to put an employer in a tough spot if I was going to have to take six weeks off work. So I figure that now is the best time to just immerse myself in the game. The transition was fairly seamless, but you have different things to worry about. When I was playing part-time, I didn’t have to worry about making money to pay the bills because I always had a steady income stream. Once you play full-time, money management and your mental game becomes so huge, because you have to deal with downswings. You have to be consistent, prepare yourself mentally, and have self-motivation to go in.
What are the poker highlights and lowlights so far?
The lowest point would probably be the last three months, where I’ve gone a downswing in cash. I haven’t been able to win at all. It makes you question whether you’re playing well. So I’ve put in double the work away from the tables, constantly working on my mental game and trying to figure out what, if anything, is wrong on my end.
And the highlights?
This past January I had a very good series in Biloxi. I finished 28th out of 2800 people in their 500K Guarantee. Then I finished 11th in the $2600 Main Event, which was the highest buy-in tournament I’ve ever played. Normally Biloxi has softer fields, but once we got down to four or five tables, the tournament was like a “who’s who” of southern pros. And here I am, just a low-stakes cash grinder, holding my own against these accomplished tournament players. I’ve always known I’ve had the skillset to hang with these guys — I just don’t have the bankroll — but going deep really solidified my belief that I do have the skill-set.
What are your goals moving forward?
My main goal is to set myself up financially. It would be neat to travel consistently to Vegas or Florida and feel comfortable and confident in 5/10 or higher limits. At this point in my poker career, I expected to be a bit further along. But I know the reason I’m not there yet isn’t for lack of effort, it’s because of my health issues during the last year-and-a-half. I realize that a lot of it’s out of my control, so I plan to do the best that I can with what I’m given.
*originally published in the July 2015 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine