I'd always swapped pieces with people in tournaments. For a few years now I'd bought little slices of people's action. I liked to have an interest in the tourney when I could no longer win it myself, and could easily see that it was worth paying a premium for a share in a few of the better circuit regulars. If anyone I considered to be a top player swapped with me I was always enormously flattered, and when any of those people charged only a meagre premium I was even keener to buy.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I started to back anyone full-time, so that all their tournament poker was funded by me. It started with one guy, and even RiverDave thought the whole idea was slightly crazy.
Within three months I started to back Sunny Chattha and James Akenhead and after a few months more my little "stable" of three went up to eight. I was happy to increase my exposure in tournaments and to decrease the variance. I also enjoyed picking out up-and-coming talent, giving a leg-up to those that were struggling and giving back some confidence to some old mates. If I never made a penny out of it I would gain some reward from those things. The people who insisted I'd cracked-up and was finding a new way to go skint could just never see the non-fiscal benefits I enjoyed.
Those people also failed in other ways to read my mind. They weren't to know that as far back as two years ago I was formulating a plan. They weren't to know because I didn't really know what the plan was myself.
What I was realising, and had started to learn a long time ago, was that poker now meant writing, commentating, teaching, backing and betting. I also knew that each of those things involved more and more emails and phone calls and that each of those things could probably be organised way better, and that many of them could be easily monetised if I could just be more organised. In my mind the stable of players was always going to be a part of it, I just didn't know what "it" was.
It was at the start of last year's WSOP that the plan really started to develop into something that might work as a business. A long conversation about Full Tilt made me realise that the aspirational, progressional aspect to poker was something I liked and it was then that I first thought of the martial arts and the links with discipline, education and improvement. That led me to the name Black Belt Poker.
Since then I've had literally hundreds of meetings and recently I lost my voice by simply being on the phone too much. I've spoken to literally everyone who's shown an interest, answered countless Facebook messages and written thousands of words in emails. There were times when it al felt like it might be a waste of time, but now we're starting to get there.
With our office in the West End and our small but select team of staff we're more or less ready to go. The social networking site for poker players blackbeltpoker.com will be launched to the waiting public on April 27th. As well as social networking with a poker slant they'll be a few high-profile bloggers who are going to be writing exclusively for us, and some great editorial features that Snoopy's been working on.
Also on the 27th we'll be starting to build our team of professional sponsored pros. Fifty prospective new superstars will be begin our "Grading" process from which we'll pick our eight "Brown Belt" pros who will go to Vegas and play $20k worth of WSOP events including the main event.
It became obvious to me a little while ago that my original plan of simply shifting my stable to playing on the internet in order to earn their backing wasn't going to work. Some of them might not want to do it and Black Belt might not want to take them. "The Grading" gives them a perfect chance to prove themselves and earn their spot.
With that in mind this recent festival at The Vic caused me a problem. I'd announced to my players that this would mark the end of their time being sponsored by me and that I hoped they'd want to carry on being sponsored by Black Belt. It felt mean to just drop them but as their deals involve make-up which relies on the long-run to be fair to the backer, I couldn't put them in. In the end we decided that Black Belt would pay for the fourteen of them with make-up to play, and I'd have one last chance to get my money back (I've got more make-up than Max Factor).
The festival was sort of fun in the end. I certainly never felt like I had any chance of winning anything personally. My head was totally mashed-up throughout the whole thing, there were way too many distractions, the 'phone continually rang, I wasn't sleeping and I didn't once achieve the levels of concentration you need to win a tournament.
My focus was switched to the players. I was pleased to see eight of the fourteen make day two and five of the eight get to the last twenty-three. Three out of thirteen felt ok too, but to not get one into the last five was a major disappointment. It was still a good effort all round though, just not quite the last hurrah we'd all hoped for.
I can only hope that all of the guys I have backed in the last couple of years feel that it was good while it lasted, I gave them a shot and we had some fun. I certainly felt like it was worth it, I enjoyed the experience, can take away some great memories, I learned a bit and I even made a little money. If just a few of them join the new company's sponsored pros I'll be delighted, and those that don't, for whatever reason, I'll wish them well in the future.
Hopefully some of them will be in Dublin where the first drinks on me.
Neil "Bad Beat" Channing doesn't plan to hand over The Irish Open Title lightly. He'll be preparing by getting lots of sleep and ironing enough Black Belt Poker T-shirts so he'll have a clean one in the final.