Neil Channing: Bad Beats - A Gambler’s struggle to survive
01 May 2008
Anyone who plays tournaments long enough will eventually win some championship or other. Then three years will go by – you'll win nothing, lose all your money – and suddenly all you've got left is the delusion that you are a champion. – Neil Channing
"Oh, I've been doing my bollocks, as usual," announced Neil Channing matter-of-factly, hands in pockets, glancing at his shoes to avoid eye contact. "Marvellous!" he added ruefully.
It was sometime in 2006 during the wee hours of the morning, outside the Vic, and only the second time I'd ever met Neil, just after he'd agreed to write a regular column for this magazine, in fact.
"Did you do OK?" he asked me.
"Oh, you know, fifty quid up, or sumfink," I replied unimpressed as I was by my night's spoils.
"Well, that's good," he said, and he meant it; it was as though he was genuinely concerned that I might have got eaten alive up there. I felt like I wanted to press my newly-earned fifty pound note into his hand and tell him to go and buy some sausages to take back to his bed-sit. He looked forlorn and a little sorry for himself. As he trudged off into the early morning, towards the Edgware Road, it started to rain.
"Probably too nice to be a killer poker player," I thought. "Lacks the deadly punch."
I was wrong.
A few months later I hear that Neil Channing is one of the biggest live cash game winners in London, and therefore the UK, and therefore probably Europe. And he doesn’t live in a bed-sit. Channing, you barstard!
But Neil is the master of understatement. He’ll downplay his success and exaggerate his losses. It’s partly his natural modesty, but it’s also good for business. And he plays the part of a down-at-heel, break-even gambler to a tee. He dresses down, his glasses are habitually applied slightly wonkily; in fact, in a game of thin-skinned egos, in which there's a lot of clucking and flapping about who's the greatest, Neil has made an art of appearing unremarkable, of flying under the radar. It’s telling that he turned down the offer to appear on Late Night Poker, almost ten years ago, which could have turned him into a household name. He effortlessly achieves what Andy Black spent years locked away in a monastery trying to master: he has completely removed ego from his game.
Well, now, Neil, the cat is out of the bag. Yup, you’ve been rumbled. It’s time to accept your place as one of the truly great British poker players; an accolade that hitherto only a succession of bad beats and a fat lot of variance have prevented you from receiving (“What a load of bollocks,” I can hear Neil thinking as he reads this). But it’s no coincidence that just before his Irish Open victory, Neil was seen on TV’s Poker Den, mixing it up with some of the best cash game players in the world and turning a tidy profit. And it’s no coincidence that, last month, he helped guide the Great Britain Team to victory in the Poker Nations Cup, and closed the show himself. The UK’s best kept secret in poker has begun to creep out of the shadows, and it seems like he’s rather enjoying himself.
Winning the Irish Open has made Neil wealthy, but it’s not the first time the lad has had money in his pocket. In fact, forget the MIT blackjack team; Neil’s story is just as remarkable. It's the story of a brilliant, occasionally flawed, but thoroughly committed gambler; of bookie-breaking syndicates, of hundreds and thousands won, and lost. There’s a serious brush with death, bouts of depression, a little too much booze sometimes, and, of course, plenty of bad beats. Neil may be a champ now, but he’s taken some serious bruising along the way. And this is where the Raging Bull theme… um… loosely ties in.
Neil Channing grew up in and around West London and Berkshire. His father was a milkman who got himself promoted and promoted until he became the marketing director of the company; his mother an English teacher. Like many intelligent but bored children of the leafy suburbs, The Smiths became the soundtrack of his youth, and Morrissey, with whom he shares a self deprecating charm and a similarly luxuriant pair of eyebrows (sorry Neil), his hero.
Neil broke up the humdrum by gambling on anything he possibly could: cards, marbles – anything a ten-year-old could lay his hands on. At the age of 11, he met Keith “the Camel” Hawkins, and the two youngsters began playing poker together:
“My sister had a boyfriend who used to play with his friends. They were two years older than us and liked to drink and smoke while they played poker,” Neil recalls. “We just wanted to win their fucking money,” he adds, and I wonder why I ever doubted his ruthlessness as a poker player.
By the time he was at secondary school he was playing every day. He always chose table tennis during games lessons because he realised the table could double as a poker table. When he was 18 a game developed in the store cupboard of his friend's dad's sports shop, and his friend would reload from the till as Neil and Keith relieved him of his cash.
Neil graduated to the casino in Reading when he was 20 ("We were the only young people there,” he says) and, at the age of 22, he first entered the Victoria Casino in London:
"We used to go for the tenner rebuy on a Sunday,” he recalls, “and we'd usually have between about 25 and 40 quid, depending on how rich we were, so we couldn't even afford to play the cash games. We'd play the comp, try not to make any rebuys, and if we got knocked out we'd play two-pound blackjack to try and get enough money together to play in the cash games.
“We'd pool our resources so one of us would play one week and another the next week. It was a real treat when we got to play because it probably only happened once every six weeks and you had to make sure you won. You wouldn't fuck about. And it was hard. It was a good lesson.”
Keith gave up his crappy job after a while to play full time, visiting casinos all over the south of England, playing tournaments. But while Neil would still enter a couple of tournaments a week, the main focus of his life had become horseracing. After graduating from university with a degree in Economics, he spent the next seven years at the racetrack. He did some private bookmaking, was occasionally a tic-tac man – and just generally "bummed around the track" placing and taking bets.
Neil was doing OK, managing to pay the rent on a flat in London, as the crumpled 50 pound notes of the city’s gamblers passed back and forth through his hands. Then, at the age of 27, for the first but, alas, not the last time in his gambling career, Neil went broke.
He retreated to his parents, who were now running a guest house in Bournemouth. It was here he received some unsettling news: "Grow up and get a proper job," they snapped.
Dutifully, Neil spent two years pen pushing in an office in Poole. But it wasn’t long before his mind wandered and eventually latched onto a new online gambling phenomenon – sports spread betting. Neil found he had a knack and soon he was betting the equivalent of his annual salary on a weekly basis.
He quit his desk job and found work setting prices and working out odds for the spreadbetting company City Index. “Long before computers and spreadsheets, I was good at this because I could just "see" a wrong price, and I was good at thinking on my feet and adapting to changing conditions,” he says. He was also known as a fearless, maverick trader who helped pioneer the industry.
It was around this time that he came second at a big tournament at the Russell Square Casino. The tournament was full of British pros, many now household names, and many of whom he'd seen on a new TV phenomenon called Late Night Poker. It was a pleasing revelation that he could more than hold his own against these new celebrities of the game, yet he still resisted the urge to take up poker full time. He felt there was more money to be made elsewhere, and besides, he was now busy travelling the casinos of the UK, making a lot of money counting cards at the blackjack tables.
"I got a bit carried away one night and won a bit too much money at one of the Grosvenor casinos. I just got a bit greedy and wasn't very smart about it. I'd won a lot of money at the Vic during the preceding six months and someone must have added up the figures because I was banned from all Grosvenor casinos overnight."
Ironically, Neil was barred from The Vic; the place that had been his training ground as a poker player and would later become his office, social club and home from home.
He retreated to the Russell Square Casino, where he started playing tournaments regularly because he realised he was the best player there: "It was ridiculous; I'd turn up - sixty players, and I'd be in the final every time. I realised I could do this poker thing, but I was still doing a million other things: horses, spreadbetting, blackjack...
"I'd been winning a lot on spread betting and had begun to be a lot more focused and disciplined. When I left City Index, I opened an account with them and won £140,000 in nine months. They closed the account. The only reason I'd done it was out of spite; I was annoyed they'd made me redundant. In fact, every month I'd phone up the accounts department and get them to transfer, from my winning account, the exact equivalent of what my salary had been, after tax, when I worked there.
“Eventually it got to the point where everyone closed my account and I couldn’t do spread betting anymore.”
Barred from the Vic and every spread betting company in cyberspace, Neil was forced to focus his attention on something else. Fortunately, it was around this time that he hooked up with a couple of gents who were near geniuses in the use of computer ratings to study horseracing results.
"We formed a syndicate and had a whole team putting on bets for us. We became the most influential effect on the horseracing market at the time. These guys were computer whiz kids who were trying to make a model that would work out how the financial markets reacted at any one time by just changing one variable and seeing how it affected everything else. They found that the financial markets were just too complicated; there were too many variables. They'd worked for about ten years with no success, and then someone suggested to them that horseracing would be a bit more of a crack-able puzzle because there were fewer variables. They soon worked out that there were 172 variables that affected the outcome of a horserace, and then they gave each one a weighted average, and every day they'd produce these figures. We had a way of analysing the figures that no one else really had, and it was in this way of analysing that the skill and genius lay. That was mostly down to this guy Chris.
“Chris, my flatmate Murray, plus another guy called Andy and I were the main driving forces behind it. My role, as was Murray's, was to know about betting and horses and people, while Chris knew the maths and the numbers. Chris and Murray made millions and millions out of it. I wasn't quite as dedicated as them; I made something like 600 grand. I made some bad judgements too: I had some people helping me put bets on and they'd never put the bets on; they let me down over money and they'd owe me 20 grand and I'd let them off. Then I made some bets with a bookmaker who went broke; another one ran of to Australia... Chris and Murray were probably a bit harder than me and chased their money, whereas I had too many things going on in my life.
“I still made myself very wealthy for a 33-year-old, but I never spent the money on a house or anything like that. I'd never have less than a few hundred grand in my current account and 50 grand in cash lying around under my bed. I was rich, but I wouldn't take a day off gambling to go and look at a property. I think if someone had said, 'Look, give me some money and I'll go and buy a house for you,' I'd have paid them. But I was too lazy and I was too dedicated to gambling.”
Since his youth, Neil had dreamt of being an on-course bookmaker, and so, when the government changed the legislation enabling racecourse pitches to be bought and sold at auction, he decided to invest. He bought pitches at about 20 different courses, investing, with a partner, something in the region of £600,000.
His new business got off to a flying start and Neil was well on his way to millionaire status; that is, until the bottom fell out of the entire industry. The tax came off off-course racing, which had previously been the incentive to gamble on course, and, with the advent of remote gaming, people began betting on the internet and via their mobile phones instead of going to the racetrack. The business fell apart.
Faced with cash flow problems, Neil began playing poker a lot more, hoping he could prop up his ailing business by playing at night. “I started playing in the biggest Omaha games in the country. I was now allowed back in the Vic, but only as Willie Tann's guest – I wasn't allowed to be a member. I was sitting down with eight grand a night, which was a shortstack. Those games were tough because I had to play really hard. I was playing with money I couldn't afford to lose.”
Then the computer ratings syndicate had its first bad year and he lost yet more money. In fact, everything conspired to cripple poor Neil: He’d also had a very big punt on the stock market, and then the crash came.
"I was wanking money off left right and centre. I'd gone from having close to a million to just owing lots of people - people at the races, close friends, the other people in the syndicate, the bank... I had a list of 35 people I owed money to and it came to £365,000. This was the summer of 2003. I was fucked. I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a job - I mean, I could have got a job, but it would have taken me 20 years to pay back all the money. Maybe I should tell people I just couldn't pay them back. Maybe I should negotiate. Maybe I should change my name and do a runner, I just didn't know.”
Despite his calamitous circumstances, Neil was still going to Vegas: “I'd go to the World Series every year, even if I was stoney broke. I remember I went with 800 quid, stayed for two and a half weeks – and I just had to win. I had to sit in a cash game and grind, grind, grind. I remember I managed to play two WSOP events that year and made the last two tables in both of them. I was very proud of that. The fields were smaller in those days but everybody was a good player.”
Meanwhile, a couple of Neil’s friends were plotting his glorious comeback. “We have to have a testimonial for Neil,” said one. “It's like in football, when someone is a brilliant striker and their legs go, they give them some money to look after their retirement.”
“What the fuck are talking about, you moron?” replied the other.
“I'm suggesting that you give him a load of money to go to the races and gamble with.”
“Well, first of all, I'm not a gazillionaire. I can't just give him a load of money, and second… you're fucking mad!”
After a little discussion (“Fortunately, they’re both fucking mad, which helps,” says Neil), Neil’s friend Kelvin agreed to give him £20,000: "You're going to go to the races,” he explained. “Everything you win you keep, and if you lose you can pay me anytime.”
And this is where the story gets really good.
Neil remembers: “I said I didn't want to do it like that. I wanted to get the money back steadily and professionally. I said, ‘Put the money in a Betfair account. We'll have it in an independent name, I'll do all the gambling and we'll split the winnings 50/50.’ He gave me £10,000 and we opened an account in his wife's name.”
Neil retreated to his flat, switched on his computer and settled in for a long haul. After the first weekend, he’d lost seven grand. “Do you want to give me the other ten now or shall we just keep going?” he asked.
“Give the other three a bit of a gamble and see what happens,” came the reply.
At the end of the second week Neil had £17,000. Twenty months later, he had £380,000.
“For 20 months I spent 12 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. I'd start with the dogs in the morning, the racing in the afternoon, football in the evening, and lastly the basketball from the US. I kept 90% of the winnings - I thought Kelvin should have had more, but he was happy. I would take £4,500 every week, pay off £500 to eight different people and keep £500 to live on. Gradually, I began to cross people off the list.”
Neil had paid off most of his debts, but he was severely burnt out: “I'd ballooned from 12 stone to well over 17. I'd been existing on takeaway curry and pizza because I couldn't be away from the computer for more than 20 minutes. Every sporting event that was taking place anywhere, I was having a bet on it. I was absolutely consumed and obsessed by the whole thing.
“Then I went to Vegas and suddenly thought, ‘Fuck! What a fat bastard I am!’ I’d never really noticed it, but someone took a photo and I saw it on the internet and I was just disgusted with myself.”
Neil came back from Vegas and went on a crash diet. He went down to 13 stone in three months, but then developed crippling stomach pains. He also began drinking a lot: "The betting was now going so well that I would employ someone to do it for me. I taught him how and he'd just put bets on for me while I went out to the Vic to play poker and get drunk. I was just playing pissed all the time, so I wasn't doing that well. I could win pissed, but not as much as I ought to have done. But it was a release. I just wanted to get out of the house.”
Meanwhile, the stomach pains persisted and continued to mystify the doctors. Eventually Neil collapsed. Rushed to hospital, it was found that his heart rate was down to just 45 BPM. He had internal bleeding and kidney problems; 10% of his pancreas had been burnt away by acid. He was eventually diagnosed with acute pancreatitis.
"I was two days away from being diabetic and a week away from being dead," he says.
After a lengthy stay in hospital and numerous operations, Neil had was down to nine stone. When he came out, he was broke again and at a very low ebb. He was taking 12 pain killers and sleeping 20 hours a day. Physically and mentally, he was a mess. He spent six months unable to leave the house; unwilling to speak to anyone, overwhelmingly depressed that he had worked so hard for nothing.
One day, one of his former creditors called to enquire about his wellbeing and agreed to lend him £5,000, which he gratefully accepted. This wasn't enough to go back to sportsbetting - he needed to be gambling that in one day just to pay the rent. But Neil realised he had to save himself from oblivion. Gingerly, he hauled himself out of bed, hailed a cab and went down the Vic. He's barely left since. Finally, Neil Channing had become a full-time professional poker player.
Neil doesn’t do the sportsbetting too much anymore – it’s still lucrative, he says, but now it’s mainly for fun. Although, knowing his propensity for understatement, this probably means he has the equivalent of our annual salaries on the line every week. He built his poker bankroll up by playing afternoon tournaments – £50 rebuy or £80 freezeouts. He was playing so early because the painkillers he was on were knocking him out by 8pm.
These days, much recovered, he prefers to play in the toughest game in Europe, down at the Vic. He sits with thousands in front of him – serious deepstack poker, allowing the unwary to chip small chunks off his stack before he moves in for the kill when the pot gets big. He plays a ruthless game, which belies his amiable, talkative nature at the table, relentlessly isolating the weak players, looking for a spot to take their chips. He doesn’t sound too nice now, does he?
But today, he’s not playing poker. It’s two days since his victory at the Irish Open. He’s sitting at an unused poker table at the back of the poker room in the Vic, glass of champagne in hand, looking happy but thoroughly bewildered. He’s laid on champagne for everyone in the cardroom, too. He hasn’t slept, but he has time for every single well-wisher that stumbles past, and the stream is constant, which reminds you just how popular he is here.
“I suppose I was kind of pissed off about it,” he says, when we discuss his lack of tournament recognition in the past in comparison to those of his peers – some of whom, let’s face it, he could nonchalantly gobble up for breakfast. “I don’t know why I should care. I’m just a professional gambler – you don’t get this kind of thing if you’re a professional horse gambler. I’m happy to tell my story, though. I don’t want people to think I’m a flash barstard who’s won all this money for nothing. I wouldn’t ever want people to say, ‘Oh, you think he’s great now, but he owed me 18 grand for two years and he never paid me.’ But I think I can hold my head up. I paid every single person back every penny. That was important to me and I’m proud of that.”
He’s aware of the contradiction: his niggling desire for recognition is at odds with his vague cynicism about “poker celebrity”. But today he’s happy to accept the accolades. And we’re happy to bestow them. Congratulations, mate. You deserve it.