19/11/2009

I was thinking about it on the plane. It could be as much as my 40th trip to Vegas, but it was definitely the only one where I wasn’t really setting out with the intention of gambling.

James had been there a few days now. I’d rung him once to ask what he was up to. He asked me to guess. I went for swimming, lazing around watching a movie in the hotel or just on his way to the gym. I was being optimistic; he was playing poker.

“You sicko.” I said, imagining he was squeezing in a quick $500 daily tournament at Bellagio a few days before the biggest poker game of his life.

It turned out I’d rung while he was on TV. It was Poker After Dark, they were three handed and he was just about to win another $100,000.

There were a few other Brits on the plane that day, but I was the only one that wasn’t planning to gamble. I was just here to see my mate.

People asked me if I’d given him any advice, whether he asks me about hands and whether I’d tried to tell him how to approach this final. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. When James first came to me for staking he was struggling a bit for confidence, he was suffering a run of bad luck and he wondered, I think, whether his sophisticated moves were wasted on some of the calling stations of the London poker scene he was running into.

He told me a few hands, I listened, I said almost nothing. It was cathartic for him, but I knew his game was way more advanced than my basic tournament strategy, and there wasn’t much I could do other than nod and mutter platitudes about variance. His time would come.

Since July I have suggested he might want to watch a bit of the ESPN coverage, possibly research a little about these guys, read any interviews they’ve done and have a look if CardRunners have any videos specific to playing a tricky 28 big blind stack. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do too many of those things.

What he did do was get himself into the WSOPE final which got him a little frustrated and disappointed, play brilliantly in his Poker Million semi to give himself something to look forward to in December and have a few holidays with poker tournaments thrown in. I guess he was organising his preparation in his way.

In the days leading-up to the final I relaxed. I went out for some nice dinners at night and spent time by the pool in the sunshine during the days. The November weather in London, The Vic, gambling, the game - they all seemed so far away.

“Hi Neil, what you up to?”

It was Nick Gold from the Vic. I wandered around the pool area and he wondered if we could get a good game going that night. If I wanted to escape from poker I may have picked the wrong town.

Nick would have to be disappointed though. There were no games. I was glad. I didn’t want to spend the week stuck in my chair in the Bellagio. The town was busy enough in certain places, on certain days and at certain times, but the only real bits I notice, when I’m judging the volume of business in town, are certain areas of Bellagio’s card room and the room at The Wynn. Both of these had tumbleweeds blowing through them.

I ran into Ben Akiva. He hadn’t made it home from the summer yet. The table he was on is normally reserved for $5/10. He was playing $2/5. It looked worse than a quiet week at The Vic. There are more pros for the room to support at Bellagio and they were trying to live off each other.

I went to The Secret Gardens of Siegfried and Roy and watched the lions and tigers pacing up and down, hungrily, watching to see, just in case a stray tourist popped by.

By the time Saturday came by I was excited. Up until now my feelings about the whole November Nine thing were all just about being excited for my mate. I now started to realise that 25 percent of $8.5 million was not a bad day’s work and I started to get a bit excited for myself. As James struggled with an enormous plate of pancakes with syrup and strawberries on it, I found myself waffling-on about A-K, I couldn’t stop myself. I immediately regretted it and shut myself up. James was eating with his ‘normal friends’. The poker players arrived a little later and I ate breakfast with them.

The other eight players all had large groups of fans. The French wore football jerseys and had foghorns, the others had T-shirts with puns and slogans containing their man’s name. We had nothing.

Going into the 1,200-seater Penn and Teller Theatre people were singing as they queued up. I was proud to push past with my red wristband. James had 10 to give to his closest friends who’d be on the stage with him.

We were mixed in with the Ivey group. I sat next to Jeff Kimber and Sam Trickett. Of course the Hit Squad were there, as well as Paul Jackson, Martens and JP. The prelims went on forever and we settled down for some fun people watching. James was relaxed and got involved in banter and side betting with the best player on the planet.

It was more than an hour before James won a hand. He’d only played one before that when he’d raised under the gun with A-Q and folded to Darvin Moon’s three-bet. He seemed to be letting his head drop. We decided to sing.

It’s quite hard to rhyme things with Akenhead and our national anthem is a bit rubbish, so we went for adaptations of football chants. The best bit was when he shyly gave us a wave.

When he got it in with K-Q and the first guy called, his body language told me all I needed to know. As the second guy reraised I was planning what I would say and how to react. It was impossible, in my mind, to win that pot.

When the queen came down I was stunned. My heart was beating out of my chest and it was, by a wide margin, the most excited I’ve ever been by a poker hand. I nearly cried.

When he turned over the kings I wasn’t surprised. It looked like he had a massive hand. I hadn’t reckoned on the other guy having aces. After that it seemed to just go. He started the last hand with more chips than our new World Champion, who at that stage had a sixth of the average, but it just wasn’t his day.

The six interviews took less than ten minutes and Karl and I led him through a staff entrance to the front of the casino. I left them there and they planned a quiet night of room service and a movie.

Two days later I heard they’d been out until 8am and that James was dancing on the table they had at Body English.

The boys also had nights at XS and one night watching the TV coverage, but I couldn’t face that.

Somebody said to me, “At least you didn’t lose anything,” and another person asked, “What’s it like to nearly have $2 million?”

I obviously wasn’t thinking in that way. On July 15, I assessed that his chips were worth $2 million in his hands, so I now had $500,000, and on November 7, I learned I would get $315,900 for my share. Therefore I lost $184,100 that afternoon. I’ve had better days, financially speaking, but never worse.

It was a fun dream while it lasted though and I was proud of him and honoured to be part of it. I spent the rest of the week eating, drinking and laughing. I hung out with lots of really great people and had a fun holiday. I even did some gambling. Pretty much everyone who was on that stage sat down to play $1/2 No Limit Hold’em with $200 each. I’m pleased to say the old geezer managed to win a sweet $700.

It went in the diary as a plus.

Neil Channing rushed back from Vegas just in time for Blackpool.