31/08/2010

Yellow Jersey

Neil Channing 'Bad Beat'

When John Duthie told me about his idea to start up the European Poker Tour I wasn't particularly excited. It's no massive surprise. I was a high-staking professional sports gambler but I didn't open a Betfair account until they'd been going about two years. I have a natural scepticism and a slightly conservative attitude to change. We were living in the aftermath of Moneymaker, through a poker revolution. I was also someone who thought the launch of Full Tilt seemed a good way for some rich players to blow a lot of money. Good tax write-off.

I'm not really that smart.

Towards the end of 2006 Grosvenor held a press conference at the Vic. I got asked to play in the media event which was a freeroll. I can't remember what you won, but I know I didn't win it. They were announcing the launch of the Grosvenor Poker Tour.

In the days before the GUKPT the UK poker calendar consisted of a bunch of individual 'festivals', mostly at Grosvenor casinos. The Vic had four a year and some of the main events had names like the European Open, the British Open and the Christmas Cracker. Some of the events carried great prestige, you got a trophy if you won. The Vic festivals would have people jumping on 'planes from France, Italy and Ireland.

The problem was that there was no calendar. There was no aim, no reason, no point... apart from watching one guy get rich at the expense of around a hundred other guys. There was also a total lack of consistency. Some places gave you 5,000 chips, some 10,000, some had a half an hour clock, some 45 minutes, occasionally you got an hour. The idea of the floor giving a ruling at some of them was laughable. Most places would have a buffet, some wouldn't, some would always start in the afternoon and finish early, others would play late. In most places the dealing standards were crap. In some places they were even worse.

What John had proved with the EPT, was that a schedule of well organised, well structured events, with consistency of standards, and uniformity over the Grosvenor chain could work. It could really boost the numbers, get the prize pools up and increase the overall standards in terms of the way UK poker was run.

Jonathan Raab and Russell Tamplin were the men at Grosvenor who got it over the line. They got the company to spend money on televising the events and to add money in the form of free seats to the Grand Final

I was so impressed by the way things were done that I went to every leg that first year. I wouldn't normally pay out on hotels or travel to Bolton, Manchester, Newcastle or Plymouth, but I was so keen to support this new innovation. I felt the £1,000 buy-in was just about right and they did the job of attracting the local players out in number as well as satisfying the travelling pros who could justify the expenses due to the large fields and payouts.

The tour was fun and there was a great sense of camaraderie. I was still enjoying myself by Leg 9 even though I had failed to cash every time. Maybe I would have gotten bored with it if I hadn't made a final in Leg 10. I was disappointed not to win that day, but encouraged enough to play 15 of these events, travelling away for the weekend each time. It was the longest unbroken attendance streak of any player.

After 15 months I started to lose my enthusiasm. I hadn't repeated my final table feat, but worst of all the tour wasn't quite the same. The average person didn't play every event, there were just too many of them. The sense of fun seemed to have gone, the TV cameras weren't there, causing the numbers to suffer and my hopes for uniformity, a tour where excellence of dealing standards and procedures were the norm hadn't come to fruition. Too many times I was playing in places where, "We do it our way here."

I stopped going.

In 2009 I just played five legs of the tour. I didn't cash in a main event, but I spent £20,000 a month putting horses in to the tour. I also did OK in the side events.

This year I've just been too busy. I played the London leg because it is on my door step and the £1,500 buy-in would mean a good prize. After my second place there I thought I'd try and play a couple more events but I didn't squeeze one in until Luton came round.

This might be my least favourite place to play but it seemed a shame to ignore it when it is so close.

In the end it worked out well. Three times I won races when 80 percent of my chips were in the pot. I dominated my tables on Day 2 and had fun wielding the big stack. The final was quite hard work and the runner-up was a bit of a nuisance, but it was generally all good. I've won much bigger amounts than the £64,000 first prize, but it always feels good to win anything and I've finally got the GUKPT monkey off my back.

Grosvenor have generously pumped a fortune into the GUKPT Leaderboard. I'll have to play some more events now because I'm lying third and it's £20,000 to the winner. I also have a seat in the £100,000 Tournament of Champions Freeroll. My trip to Blackpool in November is planned.

In many ways the PokerStars UKIPT is a total contrast to the GUKPT. This tour has the might of PokerStars behind it, which means that 40 percent of players in each event are online qualifiers. Big fields are always guaranteed and that attracts direct buy-ins. The £500 buy-in to some of the events has stopped a few travelling pros so the events are made up of the younger Internet crowd. The average age of the players might be 10 years younger.

Toby Stone has taken his years of experience in Irish tournaments and at the EPT and makes an excellent tournament director. Dealing standards are very high and procedures are consistent between legs. PokerStars are very concerned about attention to detail and that is reflected throughout the events.

Black Belt Poker have sent players to every event and we've had some success. Jamie Burland won the last one in Brighton, while Owen Robinson is second on the UKIPT leaderboard, after two final tables. I recently updated my Facebook status to say that we're owning pretty hard on the provincial tours. It's fun.

It was with this idea in mind that I went to Edinburgh for the UKIPT. I don't normally travel for £500 events, especially when there are lots of expenses to cover. I'd won a seat for this one in a £55 satellite in Brighton. It meant that the £900 min-cash represented a decent profit and it added the St. Andrews flag to my Hendon Mob. It was nice to meet a lot of new, younger players and it probably does the business some good.

The rest of the trip was spent watching comedy, hanging out with the Black Belt crew, (we've got a great team now and I'm very proud to have all of them on board), eating some good food in some great restaurants and bubbling the side event (FML).

I probably can't make the last regular leg of the tour in Dublin, but will obviously play "their" Grand Final the EPT in London. Next year I intend to play as many of these as I possibnly can.

As for the poor old GUKPT. I'm not sure that I'm anticipating a dozen trips to various Grosvenors to play with 100 of the same grizzled regulars. I've told Russell my opinion. I don't think they can compete with Stars on this one. In Italy, Stars have a poker tour where the events are 2,000 Euro and Full Tilt have a similar thing in Spain. I think Grosvenor should cut back to five or six £1,500 events at their busiest venues. Each one would carry way more prestige and there would be a greater lead time to qualify people online and live. Overseas players might think the events are now big enough to travel to and the UK pros would now go to each one as a "must play event". Some might say that local, recreational players would be priced out. I think that these people have stopped "travelling the tour" anyway. I think they'll make the effort to get in "their" one big event.

If they don't make a big change I think they'll really start to suffer. The Stars juggernaut will not stop rolling. Grosvenor would be wise to get out of its way.

Neil Channing will soon be moaning to you about how much he is losing in TV poker events, and the WPT.