Karl Mahrenholz: Staking rarely ends happily!

Many of you will have been staked for a poker game in some form or another. Some may still be, either part-time or full-time, and others may never have been but quite like the sound of it. What is clear is that when it comes to staking in poker, the honeymoon period is definitely over.

When I first started to play poker this wasn’t really a concept that existed, and definitely wasn’t mainstream. Sure, your friend might put you in a tournament to help you out if you were struggling but that’s more like any friend lending another some money or helping them out in times of need.

Channing’s chances

The first real backer in the UK I was aware of was Neil Channing. We became friends early in my poker career and I learned of his past as a bookmaker. He was a very astute guy and would buy pieces of people in various tournaments. At this stage he was buying pieces on an ad hoc basis rather than anything permanent. I remember Neil saying, ‘I’ll give anyone a spin’.
You’d struggle to see Neil at a poker event without a folded up bit of paper and a worn out biro. He had some great results – the most high profile was James Akenhead’s WSOP Main Event final table – but soon after he decided that either the admin and hassle of the whole operation was too much or it wasn’t going to be as profitable to continue in the future, and so he curtailed the live staking operation.

New kids on the punt

Once Channing was off the scene a few other well-known pros got increasingly involved. Chris Moorman took over the mantle of the UK’s biggest backer of tournament players, although his team all played mainly online and were all on long-term make-up deals. Moorman had some mammoth scores but not enough to sustain the massive regular outgoings that he would be spending on a weekly basis. He too has now wound down his staking operation.
In August of 2010 Toby Lewis won EPT Vilamoura for €468k. He ramped up his staking interests but approached things slightly differently. Toby only took on people he knew  very well. This approach has paid huge dividends and it is probably safe to say he has been by far and away the most successful tournament backer in UK poker. It says something then that even Toby Lewis has decided to cut his ties with the staking business.
So why are even successful backers getting out of the business?I think the overriding reason is the huge amount of variance involved. These backers are enduring almost unimaginable swings and even for the deepest of pockets the fear of losing it all is too great. The fact that games are getting tougher and people’s edges are smaller only serves to increase the volatility of it all. Then there are the stories of players scamming their backer in various ways too. Staking is a logistical nightmare – the admin involved requires a whole team and not just one individual.

Staking the future 

Several staking companies now operate in the UK, but I think it was telling that the original online staking company, Badbeat, recently stopped all sponsorship of their players. Even for a company with a lot of backing and support it wasn’t possible for them to make the staking business model work.
So what for today’s UK players who want to be backed? First of all, you need to be looking for backing for the right reasons. I think anyone with very little of their own funds shouldn’t turn to full-time backing as a means of reliable income. For me, a sponsored player needs to have a modest bankroll of their own that they can use to cover their expenses during lean times.
Most things in poker move in cycles. As games get tougher and less people begin to play full-time will poker get easier and spark another staking boom? It’s possible, but unlikely. If they do, let’s hope backers and players have learned the lessons of the past few years.
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