In the end I was pretty pleased to get away from Monte Carlo. Back in London though, I barely got a chance to play poker. The Grading was really taking up lots of time, planning and running the workshop days as well as endless ‘phone conversations with our fantastic Graders, who seemed to need constant reassurance, and on top of that there were lots of meetings where we worked on our business model. It was the workshop days that worried me most though.
Our Graders showed a tremendous commitment to us by travelling far and wide to come and hear what we had to say each week and I really felt a pressure to make the days fresh and interesting. I was also using each day to try and judge which Graders would become our Brown Belts and accompany us to Vegas. Phil Laak certainly helped a lot.
Phil is someone I first met through a mutual friend in 1998 when I found myself totally skint and in Vegas, needing money for gambling. I rang my friend Elk in New York and he suggested that if I hung around the deli in Binion’s a guy would come by with $5,000. I asked him how I would know which man and he assured me that I’d know Phil, as he’d be wearing some strange clothes and would be the only loud, eccentric, East-Coast guy there. A bloke in flip-flops and red trousers handed me the money. I thought he was Father Christmas.
I reminded Phil of that day when I met him in Cardiff in 2005, on the day he won the William Hill Grand Prix. He was a foreigner all alone in a strange country (Wales can be strange), that day, and I put him onto Elk who happened to call me. He’d forgotten that it was me at the deli that day.
When Phil came into the room at the workshop to contribute to the discussion we’d been having about his big High Stakes Poker bluff against Patrik Antonious, the Graders loved it and they loved him. When he then spent the weekend presenting at Black Belt’s first Boot Camp, I loved it and I owed him big time.
It was fun having Phil and Jennifer in town for the month. We had some laughs together in Ireland and I very much enjoyed Jennifer’s play at the Royal Court, and her play at the Vic. The presence of the two of them made it way easier to get a decent game going in The Vic and I managed to win a few quid on the rare occasions that I got time to play.
The fourth and final workshop was massively enhanced by the arrival of Marty Smyth. He brought something that Phil couldn’t to the day - his bracelet. (Maybe we should have had Jennifer on Week Two.) Marty is so great. He flew in just to have a quick Guinness, show the guys the jewellery, answer a few questions, analyse a couple of hands, get his dinner and fly home. World Champion.
With all workshops and grinding done, six of us settled in to an 11am Monday meeting to start the selection process. By 3pm we had two more Brown Belts to give and six quality candidates who deserved them. By 7pm we made our decision.
At the start of the Grading some people had predicted only 15 of 50 would complete the trial, I optimistically hoped for 35 and was petrified when we were down to 41 on day 3. I think to get 31 though and to have such a high standard was fantastic, and I thank every one of the guys for their tremendous effort.
From the meeting I rushed to Essex to appear live on The Poker Show. We called each person on air to tell them they’d won a trip to Vegas and that they were one of our very first Brown Belts. It was great for us to have a three-hour advert for our company, and it was exciting for the guys that got there. In retrospect it may have been a cruel way to treat the guys who missed out, when they’d worked so hard and put their hearts and souls into the month.
The last couple of days before Vegas were spent consoling the disappointed and calming the bitter and angry. I was sad by some of the reactions, some people outside of the process made criticisms that were totally unfair, due to their lack of knowledge of events and the process. Others who were involved in the project were upset at missing out on what they hoped for. It was personally a very draining and quite difficult few days. I received some stick on forums from anonymous posters who showed ignorance, and some criticism from good friends who showed decorum. All I would say is that the decisions were very hard, and that I’m sure we all learnt a lot throughout the whole process.
I’m certain by the end that we have a strong team of eight for Vegas and that our Blue Belts who just missed out will all have the opportunity to work themselves up to Brown Belt soon. They all deserve it.
I got on the plane feeling very tired and slept the whole 10 hours.
Neil Channing jumped straight from the plane into the $40,000 No Limit Hold’em Freezeout. Nothing like making things tough for yourself.