Karl Mahrenholz: The spirit of Black Belt Poker lives on!

PokeEncore.com’s Karl Mahrenholz tells the tale of Black Belt Poker’s rise and fall and explains how the community will live on

In Vegas in 2008 Neil Channing sent me a message asking if I wanted to meet up for a coffee. Neil wanted to chat about an idea he’d been working on. It was borne out of the staking arrangements he’d had over the years that had, quite frankly, gotten a bit out of hand. Neil’s approach to staking was, ‘I’ll give anyone a spin’. He had some people for whom he would buy a piece in an event every once in a while, and some with whom he had a regular arrangement. Either way, the numbers seemed to be growing as everyone turned to Neil for another ‘lifeline’. He wanted an out. A way to both formalise this process, cut down on the endless admin it involved and, I suspect, get a few people off his back. That was just the spark for an idea that was much bigger. 

Play with the pros 

Neil already had the name and basic concept for the site: ‘Black Belt Poker’. A unique grading system would see players able to ascend through the ‘belts’ from white belt through to Sensei, with the Black Belts being the ambassadors and inspiration for new players starting out in the dojo. He recognised PokerStars and Full Tilt would always be the number one choice for most players but, in his words, he wanted Black Belt to be the Fulham FC of the poker world – everyone’s favourite second team. In turn, it would provide a direction for people who approached him for staking.

As we chewed the fat over two ridiculously sized American lattes, Neil asked me what I thought and asked if I would like to be involved. The timing was poor for me – I was already a sponsored player for a big UK site – but the overall concept seemed clever and very interesting.

Where did it go wrong?

This year marked the sixth anniversary of Black Belt Poker. Neil recently took the decision to close the site, a sad day both for him and for the large group of loyal players that visited the community and played regularly in the Black Belt cardroom. But why did the site fail to become what Neil had envisaged back in 2008? There are a few notable reasons:

  1. Aiming too high 
    It’s nothing that anyone should be ashamed of, but one of the main downfalls of the site was the heights to which it aspired to and the associated levels of investment and costs that came with it.
  2. Re-investment of a huge percentage of income into live tournament backing
    Neil experienced some remarkable successes while backing players for live tournaments before Black Belt. There’s no doubt he made good money. There is also no doubting that backing players for poker tournaments, no matter how good they are, is a massively high variance area. When almost all income from your higher volume players is ploughed back into tournament entries, it can be a dangerous cocktail.
  3. Poker software
    The community site was excellent, but unfortunately they did not have their own poker software. The iPoker network was the natural choice, but the reality was it was almost impossible for Black Belt to win business from any players who didn’t aspire to play live tourneys and who didn’t want to work their way through the belts. With the same essential product available from lots of suppliers, who could offer more instantaneous cash rewards, Black Belt struggled to establish a place in the market.
  4. Network conditions
    Black Belt has always had a strong base of smaller, more recreational players, yet the iPoker network failed to differentiate them from the smaller sites who focused solely on higher rakeback. 

Although Black Belt didn’t ultimately achieve what it set out to, it is an adventure that should be applauded. It provided a great place for UK players to meet, enhance their skills and develop as players. While the site has now closed, player funds were safe at all times and I’m sure many customers will take with them new skills, friends and great memories. 

The belt lives on 

I was extremely pleased when Neil asked me once more to get involved with Black Belt as he sought a place for his players to continue playing and a way for the community to live on. While Black Belt and Poker Encore were competing in the same market, Neil and I have often discussed business ideas and problems. The two businesses shared the same basic ethos of trying to provide the best possible experience for players. All Black Belt players are able to bring their points balance to Poker Encore, along with any unused tokens or prizes. I’ve enjoyed joining in on the community boards and meeting a lot of the players in the regular Black Belt events I’ve set up now on Encore. 

So while the Karategi may be back in the wardrobe, Neil is far from saying sayonara to the poker world. He’s a great ambassador for UK poker, and one to whom many poker players have a lot to be thankful for.

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