About seven years ago my sister came up with a crackpot scheme. My mother and father had been running a hotel in Bournemouth for many years and my sister, her husband and their three children had, for a few of those years joined the business as partners, with all of them living under one roof.
When the day came that my mum and dad decided they wished to retire and take it easy, there was a small problem. If they were to sell up my sister's family would not only be homeless but would also need a new way to earn a living.
Although she flirted with the idea of online poker, my sister's actual idea was even crazier. With no experience, and armed only with the internet to learn from, the whole of the Channing and Homa mob moved to Mullacott Farm in North Devon, where they look after forty sheep, some cows, pigs, ducks, alpacas and an enormous number of chickens on their thirty acres.
Having played very little poker throughout December, and with nothing keeping me in London, I got myself on a train and soon settled in to the country routine where incessant rounds of sandwiches and enormous amounts of tea are compulsory. It only needed for Fred and Bambos to be there and it would have been almost like the Vic.
I did expose myself to a little poker. I played the Marty Smyth Poker Million celebration tournament online and although it was a smaller buy-in than I'm used to I took it very seriously. The guy who got the $25 bounty for knocking me out found that A9 was a good hand against 33 on a board of A93...A. I also watched virtually a whole year's worth of TV poker tournaments on Sky+. I find it quite fun to be able to mostly answer yes to young William, Charlotte and Christopher when they ask:
"Did you win this one Uncle Neil?"
I just hope they grasp the concept of variance in time for next Christmas.
Before you could say: "Who ate the last of the Yule Log?" I was back on the train. It took only about six hours to get to Southend where a top three finish in the £500 freezeout would crown my year as number one in Europe. It would be fun to win it while Marc Goodwin is busying himself with turkey sandwiches for his tea back in Birmingham. The fact that everyone knows that Marty Smyth has obviously done best of all of us won't stop me from boasting massively about the achievement.
The casino at Southend is a bit odd. There are two casinos next door to each other and Paul Parker, RiverDave and myself have to sign in to both to use the restaurant before the tournament starts. People seem surprised that I've travelled to play this 75-runner, fairly modest tournament. I can hear people murmuring my name when I go into the room. One man points; Marc Goodwin seems as shocked to see me as I am him.
He needn't have worried.
In recent tournaments I've suffered a bad run of people calling me to try and get in a race, and then winning the race. This one was odder than usual. With the average at 12k an aggressive player made it 450, which two people called. I decided to move in with AQ causing two people to fold and the third to call for 8k from his 9k stack. I asked myself why I haven’t managed to find 9s or 10s in that situation recently. As it happens I'd have lost with aces as he flopped a set of 8s.
I was home by midnight.
After a reasonably boozy week I was delighted to spend New Year's Eve home alone with chocolate, tea and TV for company. In between movies I defrosted the freezer. Very rock 'n' roll. I started by watching Titanic and followed it by The Great Escape. It seemed that Sky Movies were telling the story of my last ten years in gambling. If I could just stay awake I'd watch Doing My Conkers Betting on Football The Sequel on UK Gold.
Arriving at Galway as the Irish Open Champion on the first day of a New Year was quite exciting for me. The tournament organisers had kindly put me in the biggest suite I've ever seen. It was about three times the size of my flat, which was quite lucky as almost all of the six guys I was backing in the tournaments for the weekend were going to be sleeping on sofas, floors, fold-up beds and even in the kitchen. They were all as amazed as I was at the size of the place. They were also glad not to be camping on the grass just opposite the hotel, in the wind and rain, as some poor fella was. I kept expecting Paul Parker to emerge from the little tent.
The tournament went about as well as any poker I've played in the last couple of months. I flopped a set of tens against AJ on a flop of A,10,9 and lost about 6000 of the 10k starting stack. I did the rest when I re-re-raised to 5500 after two players had made it 275 and 950 to go. Again I wondered how the second raiser knew I had AK rather than tens or jacks which he'd have been crushed by.
The rest of the weekend was disappointing in that the team were unable to convert from good positions while I struggled to win a pot. RiverDave went deepest in the main event, but perhaps didn't realise quite how much play there was in the latter stages, with the total chips in play continuously going up.
I busied myself in the commentary box, really enjoying myself, and giving the TV people a tough time to wrestle the microphone away from me. It was an expensive weekend, but one which I'll look back on with fondness, as a lovely chance to spend time with good friends.
Apart from a couple of PLO sessions in the Vic, which hardly count, I still haven’t really been playing much poker. I'm saving myself for tomorrow's trip to Australia.
Neil Channing will be wearing a t-shirt saying blackbeltpoker in Melbourne. Hopefully he'll know more about what that means when he gets home.