Irish Open winner Neil Channing talks exclusively to PokerPlayer about his victory: “On the way to the Irish Open this year, I thought, ‘I’m not going to f*** about in this tournament’.”

We joins the poker veteran and 2008 Irish Open winner Neil Channing down on his parents’ farm

It must be good to get away from the madness of the past month.

It’s been great, but it’s been mental. I must have spoken to every person I’ve ever known in my life, including my postman from 20 years ago!

Have you had many people tapping you up for money?

There’s been a bit of that but no more than normal. It’s mostly the people who used to do it in the old days before I became internationally wealthy! I’ve said I’m only going to give money to people who don’t ask – I thought that was a cunning way of doing it. I’ve given some money away to people and I’ll probably give some more away, but there are some who aren’t getting any.

Why should they?

I know! Nobody was going to give me my money back if I’d have been knocked out in Dublin after 20 minutes.

It’s that age-old comeback – how many years or months pass where you don’t win anything and no one gives you any compensation?

Exactly, and f???ing hell, especially me! I’ve played for a lot longer than most of those people. It’s an indecent amount of money to win, and you do kind of think, ‘What am I going to do with it all?’ Also, I do feel a bit guilty at having so much more money than most people.

Do you really feel guilty about it?

A little bit, but like my mum said, ‘You’ve worked really hard over years and years, so this is your wages for those times, especially the bad times.’ It’s not like a lottery win where you just wander into a shop, buy a ticket and fortune smiles on you. This is a culmination of a lot of hard work. It’s an enormous amount of money to win in a day, but it’s not WSOP Main Event money. In London it’s a three-bedroom flat; I’m not going to get a yacht.

You’ve been racking up some notable poker tournament cashes recently…

I won a tournament in December 2007 for £35k, three of us chopped a tournament in the Bellagio for $40k, and I got about $60k out of the WSOP Main Event. I’ve had lots of tournaments where I’ve won between £10k and £40k, and I’ve won loads of little tournaments in Vegas for $10k, $15k and $20k that don’t get reported on The Hendon Mob database.

I used to play between 16 and 25 tournaments a year for about five years and I won four every year. In the fifth year, I hadn’t won any by September and set my target to win four by the end of the year and I managed it. I focused and played a few more, like the Gutshot’s £30 rebuy because I wanted to keep up my record.

So when you’re really determined, you can win?

I think that’s something I can do. On the way to the Irish Open this year, I thought, ‘I’m not going to f??? about in this tournament.’ There have been times in tournaments in the past couple of years where I’ve been disinterested or I know that I’m not 100 percent on my game, and I know when that’s happening. I get this out-of-body experience where I can see myself f???ing it up but I can’t stop myself from doing it.

You sound like Andy Black…

I’ve done it before and I did it in the London GUKPT. I was chip leader with 100 players left, and I absolutely pissed my chips away. It was like I didn’t want to win. I don’t know what happened, I just had a bit of a brain fart. I played a whole bunch of pots, which I didn’t necessarily play badly, but in a slightly funny way. I could feel it just slipping away.

For the Irish Open I thought, ‘If I’m making the effort to go over there and it’s a big tournament with big prize money, I’m going to concentrate fully. When John Kabbaj, who was playing really well, got knocked out in 19th place, I looked around and said, ‘Right, that’s it.’ I thought there were only three really good players left in then.

Who was your competition?

I was worried about Pete Linton, who’s capable of very creative play, and I was always very worried about Donal Norton, who I ended up heads-up with. I’d played with him a little bit during the tournament; he’s got gamble and isn’t afraid to go broke, but I thought his inexperience could f??? it up. Padraig Parkinson had gone out by then and he’d been a big worry, while Surinder Sunar, who’s a brilliant player, was a bit low. As soon as John [Kabbaj] went out, I said, ‘I’ve got this if I keep pushing.’

I just felt as though I was going to win. I’d come from so far behind as well. When there were about 35 people left, I only had four big blinds. At that stage I thought, ‘This is just f???ing typical.’ I’d played really well, got a bit cold-decked in a couple of hands, but I knuckled down and got on with it.

For someone entering the event with such determination, were you concerned you may not be focused after playing cash games all night for the first couple of nights?

I’ve played enough tournaments in my life to know that generally you enter a tournament, you do your money, and then you go home. These trips are all very nice but you’ve got to make them pay. It’s all very well for those people who fart around with sponsorship deals, going to lots of parties and popping into the tournament for half an hour, but I’m there to play poker. I don’t normally go to bed until 6am anyway and the tournament didn’t start until 2pm. I slept all day on the Thursday then played all night until 6.30am, which is fine – I got seven hours sleep before the tournament.

What has the reaction to your tournament win been like?

I used to be a horse racing punter and was probably one of the most successful in the country. And when I went racing people didn’t come up to me, shake my hand and say, ‘Congratulations on winning money last week!’ It’s kind of weird – if you win money in cash games every day you can do it quietly, but if you win money in big tournaments or on TV then everybody knows your business and exactly how much you’ve won.

Where did your passion for horses come from?

I went to school with Keith ‘The Camel’ Hawkins (a British poker pro) and every Saturday we went to the races with my dad and used to bet. I’ve always loved it. I lived near Ascot and Windsor and used to travel everywhere.

Were you always in profit?

I kept myself together and had fun, then I went broke and had an office job for a couple of years.

What were you doing?

I was head of information for a government Quango. I was quite good and got three promotions and pay rises, but I was gambling my annual salary on a weekly basis. I then went to work for spread betting companies for nine years. During that time I bought a race course pitch with a mate for £600,000. We had to pay rent on the day on top so it was pretty expensive. We did well for a while, but then the wheels came off and the business collapsed. The internet came in and people got mobile phones and Sky TV, so they could watch the racing at home.

What did you do then?

I had a complete gambling breakdown. I was gambling on everything and lost an enormous amount on the stock market, which I knew nothing about. Suddenly, I went from £600k to minus £360k. I had about £200 cash, owed NatWest bank about £54k, and was in debt to just about every single person in gambling. It was terrible.

How did you get yourself out of such a huge hole?

A guy I’d known for years said out of the £50k he had left in the world, he was going to give me £20k so I could gamble it and try and get myself back into shape. It took 20 months to turn his £20k into £380k. It wasn’t fun but it was rewarding. We abandoned the project after about 20 months, mainly because my mental health was suffering. Sitting in front of a computer every day drove me mental, so I gave it up three or four years ago.

It wasn’t just mental though, your physical health was suffering too wasn’t it?

I got very seriously ill with pancreatitis and nearly died. I’d gained a lot of weight, lost a lot, then fell to nine stone and was in bad physical shape. I’d never saved any of the £360k as I’d just paid people back, so when I got out of hospital and was convalescing I only had about £2k and still owed £100k.

Is that when you turned your attention to poker?

One of them said to me, ‘Do you want to borrow some more money?’ He gave me £5k. I went back to poker because it’s not as swingy and I could do it with a relatively small bankroll. I went back to playing small comps, like £80 freezeouts and £50 rebuys at the Vic literally every day. I was by far the best player and was winning a couple a week, but I was getting tired by 8pm and taking lots of painkillers. I couldn’t stay up and was sleeping 15 hours a day. It was a bit of a weird time; I got into the habit of going to the Vic every day and I’ve never really gotten out of it.

Are your days of grinding away at the Vic behind you now?

I like doing it still and it’s a good game. Once I buy my flat there won’t be a fortune left over, and I still need to earn money, so I’ll be there. I’ll play against anyone that turns up. I’m in the Vic most days with £20k to £50k in front of me. It’s a public place, so anyone can wander in; if you really think I’m that bad, come and have a go.

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