We look back at Neil Channing’s biggest year and get deep with one of Britain’s biggest poker stars

2008 UK Player of the Year Neil Channing has had an incredible 12 months, and is now one of Britain’s biggest poker stars

It’s a balmy spring afternoon and I’m sitting in London’s Grosvenor Victoria Casino with UK pro Neil Channing. The venue is known to most as The Vic, but to Neil it’s affectionately called ‘the office’ due to the sheer amount of time he spends here – it’s been his regular hunting ground since the early 90s. But in the past few months he reckons he’s only been here twice due to a combination of Christmas, a trip to the Aussie Millions (where he final-tabled one of the side events) and a mild downswing. So his presence this afternoon is causing somewhat of a stir. Within minutes a cup of tea and a piece of birthday cake (not his) are thrust Neil’s way, and throughout the interview a steady stream of people including Roland de Wolfe and Nik Persaud come over to have a catch-up. Clearly The Vic is as much social club as office for the London man, and within these walls he enjoys an almost Godfather-like status – a standing not harmed by the fact that he bankrolls many of the best players in here.

With pleasantries exchanged and tea in hand Neil sits back and we discuss his amazing year, which has seen him string together a golden run of tournament cashes and final tables and earned him several UK Player of the Year accolades (including our own). It all started, of course, with his win at the Irish Open in March 2008, an event where everything finally came together for the veteran pro.

‘People say I won that tournament when there were two tables left and I’d definitely agree. My opponents didn’t play badly, they just had bad stack sizes to defend against me.’
From ten players down to the final table of six, Channing totally ran over the table and exploited those looking to scale the pay ladder. ‘I raised every pot, apart from one I think. I had so many chips with ten people left that although the average stack was about 380k, most players had between 180k and 200k. The blinds were 15k/30k. If I made it 90k, they couldn’t even raise, unless it’s all-in. And I’m calling anyway, so they had no chance really.’

At the final table the next day Neil continued where he left off, eliminating three players to get heads-up against young Irishman Donal Norton. ‘You could look at it in a vacuum and say I was a bit lucky. I knocked one guy out with Q-6 against K-J; I knocked another guy out with A-7 against A-8. But it doesn’t tell the story.’

Bloody Marvellous

‘If you win this you can’t imagine how much difference it will make to your life. There’ll be stuff that happens in the next year that won’t happen if you come second. That’s why you mustn’t do a deal. You want people to know you really won it.’

Roland de Wolfe to Neil Channing, minutes before the final table of the Irish Open

Anyone that knows Neil is aware that he’s fond of saying the word ‘marvellous’. In fact, if you call his mobile and get his answering service, you’ll hear Neil asking you to leave a message before signing off with a deadpan ‘marvellous’. Needless to say, it was his first thought when he took the title in Dublin.

‘I think I actually said it out loud after I won,’ says a chuckling Channing. ‘As the board was being dealt I thought, if I win I’m not going to leap up and down, because I don’t like it when players do that. So I just kept very quiet and then shook Donal’s hand. Then I thought “I don’t want anyone thinking I’m arrogant or something”, so I made a real effort to smile more than I would naturally.’

Channing then turned to the dealer, Dena (now a tournament director for the GUKPT), who’d been dealing to him for a number of years, and opened his arms in a ‘check me out’ gesture (see right). ‘Yeah that was a “you’d never have believed this a couple of years ago” gesture. I was quite emotional a few hours after the win, mind.’

The Aftermath

‘My guess is that I’ll still be in the Vic a lot…I’ll probably play a few extra tournaments. I’ll probably play slightly larger cash games in Vegas.’

Neil Channing, April 2008

At the time of Neil’s Irish Open win the regular big game in the Vic was £5/£10 no-limit Hold’em, with Neil estimating that the average stack would be about £12,000. Today as I interview him, there’s a £25/£50 game going and it can get as high as £50/£100 depending on the line-up. Neil was the driving force behind making the big game a whole lot bigger. ‘I made a policy decision after the Irish Open that I wasn’t going to play quite so many hours and I wasn’t going to spend as much time in the Vic, but I still wanted to make just as much money. So I decided to encourage everyone to play bigger and I got all proactive, taking people’s numbers and texting them.’

Soon Neil had managed to cajole the other Vic regulars such as Charalambos ‘Bambos’ Xanthos and Ben Roberts to play higher. ‘We got it so that Wednesday night was “big game” night. It started out at £10/£25 no-limit, but I wanted to play bigger so I suggested we switch it to £25/£50. It didn’t take much to move it up, and occasionally it hits £50/£100. The variance is higher but the hours are less.’

National Glory

‘If you win, I’ll put you in the Poker Nations Cup team.’

Roland de Wolfe, as Channing walked on to play the Irish Open final table

In 2007 Neil went to the Poker Nations Cup tournament, but not as a player. He was the guy who was doing the vox pops with players before they played their heat and then again when they busted out. Early in 2008, before the Irish Open, Neil wrote in a magazine column that he had little chance of ever making the UK team, but just a few weeks later he found himself sitting in Dublin with one foot in the door.

Referring to de Wolfe’s comment above, Neil jokes, ‘I think that was Roland’s way of spurring me on, as he had £10,000 on me to win [the event] at 10/11.’ However, with the Irish Open cheque in his back-pocket Neil found himself Cardiff-bound along with de Wolfe, Joe Beevers, Surinder Sunar, Ian Frazer and an internet qualifier. ‘I was quite proud to play for Great Britain, but I nearly f***ed the whole thing up,’ he admits. ‘In the final I had the chip lead at the end. I knew I couldn’t be substituted [in the Poker Nations Cup final captains can make two substitutions, but de Wolfe had already used his]. I knew it was down to me and there were five teams left. I got myself pot-committed with K-8 against two Jacks and could have folded with reasonable chips but gambled and lost.’ Despite Great Britain now being the short stack of the remaining five teams, Neil clawed his way back and went on to bring victory for Team GB. ‘I’ve still got my shirt at home. It was great being part of the team. Surinder was in the team and he is a player I was always in awe of.’

A Series Of Small Victories

‘I cashed seven times at the WSOP and didn’t make a profit as I never got a big finish.’

Neil Channing, February 2009

With today’s young players all clamouring for that ‘one big score’, it’s refreshing to hear Neil talk about his history with the WSOP. He tells me how he first went to the WSOP in 1997 and that before 2000 he didn’t even play a WSOP event, bar one super satellite to the Main Event each year. He would just grind out his wages playing cash for eight hours a day. Since 2006, however, Neil has been going for the long haul, playing the entire festival. The closest he has come to a bracelet was in London in September 2008 when he finished fourth in the £1,500 no-limit Hold’em event. ‘I’d love to win a WSOP bracelet,’ states Neil. ‘It was a bit frustrating having seven cashes but not turning a profit at the Series in 2008.’

But while Neil may have come home from Vegas with a lighter wallet, his seven cashes still made for an impressive haul. And when he added two further cashes at the WSOPE in September, his run started to take on record-breaking proportions.

Prior to 2008, the record number of cashes in one WSOP was eight, a record jointly held by five players and indeed tied by three others in 2008. Though split across two festivals, Channing’s nine WSOP cashes in 2008 would arguably have represented a new record – but for one small problem. ‘Nikolay Evdakov had to go and cash ten times in Las Vegas, didn’t he,’ says Channing ruefully.

While certainly not bitter, Channing alleges that the Russian record-breaker plays to creep into the money, stalling as the bubble approaches and playing survival poker. ‘I guarantee you I never ever played with that mentality at any point in the World Series,’ he exclaims. ‘I just never got that really deep run. It wasn’t because I played to cash. I gambled on the bubble, and I was aggressive, but it just didn’t work out. I think I played very well.’

While failing to land a big score, Channing went deep in some of the biggest fields at the Series, with many of his cashes coming in the $1,500 events where there were 2,500 or more runners. ‘When you’re 112th out of 2,700 it sounds like an achievement but it’s $1,500 to enter and you get back $4,300. Yeah, you beat 90% of the field but it’s no big deal – flop two sets in the first four hours and that’s probably enough! It doesn’t mean you played well.’

Despite Harrah’s’ controversial decision to delay the final table of the WSOP Main Event there was no way Neil wasn’t going to take his seat along with 6,843 others. ‘The Main Event of the WSOP is the best value tournament of the year. It’s a tournament where people are terrified to get knocked out, but winning it has became a bit of an impossible dream for most pros. You can’t really picture yourself winning it any more. But then I couldn’t really picture myself winning the Irish Open when I entered it.’

Staking The Nation

‘I’ll probably be way too generous in staking people and giving money away. One thing is for sure though. I’ll only ever give it to people who don’t ask.’

Neil Channing, April 2008

It’s well known that Neil stakes a number of UK players in a wide variety of tournaments. Neil explains that there are broadly three types of player he stakes: young kids who want to play bigger, total sickos who are broke but have the skills to win tournaments, and old grinders who are a bit short of cash. He also takes his backing abroad. ‘A deal I did last year at the WSOP was that I just paid 10% of all tournament buy-ins for a whole bunch of people and they gave me 8% of all their profits over the whole World Series.’

One of the players that he had a piece of was James Akenhead, who finished second in a $1,500 no-limit event for $520,219. ‘The good thing for me was that I pretty much knew that if any half decent English player won I was going to have a piece of it,’ says Channing. ‘I get so annoyed when I miss out; I don’t mind if I overpay a little bit as long as I don’t put myself on life tilt!’
At the opposite end of the scale to missing out is scooping first and second prize money in the same tournament. This situation occurred when Neil found himself heads-up against one of his horses – Dave Penly – in a £500 side event at the London GUKPT festival in March 2008. ‘I think I’d put nine people into the event in total,’ recalls Channing. ‘I had about eight left in with only 18 people left, but Dave knocked four of them out! Dave’s great, he’s definitely in the “total sickos” bracket, but he was so far behind on make-up and borrowed money that we worked out if he won he’d have about £800 or so left, even though it was £27k to the winner. So I basically got first and second prize.’

A Very Good Year?

‘I’m never going to be anonymous any more.’

Neil Channing, February 2009

So with a major title, the glory of representing his country at poker and nine WSOP cashes, surely Channing must class 2008 as a vintage year? ‘It was a weird year. It’s nice to have a bit of fame and adoration, it’s quite good fun. I’ve signed a few autographs and had a lot of phone pictures taken of me.’

He’s also had a few strange incidents such as a guy following him into the gents in a pub and shaking his hand, and being fast-tracked into a club at the Crown Casino in Melbourne based on the fact he was the Irish Open champion. But does he have any regrets?

‘I missed out on a spot in the PartyPoker Premier League – the filming clashed with a festival here at the Vic and the GUKPT Grand Final. Everybody else was phoning [PPL organiser] Eddie Hearn to suck up. I was phoning him up to moan!’

For now Channing says he isn’t planning on doing much travelling as he’s focusing on his new project, Black Belt Poker. But of course he will be going to the WSOP, with his Black Belt Poker team in tow. ‘I’ve already booked my flights – I can’t wait.’

And with that we shake hands and Neil heads to a seat at the biggest game in the room. Despite everything that’s happened in the last 12 months, if you really need to find him, that’s the first place you should look.

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