The Beat With Neil Channing

The Beat With Neil Channing

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Bad Beat on the coming closure of Black Belt Poker.


Over the last six years a few of you have probably eagerly opened your excellent new copy of Bluff Europe, immediately skipped past the Editor’s letter and the pictures of young ladies pouting, and turned to "The Beat" with some sense of excitement.

Occasionally you'll have been pretty miffed, and you'll have said to yourself..." Oh no, he's droning on about Black Belt Poker again, I'm sick of hearing about that."

If you fit into that tiny niche then you'll be delighted to hear that the poker project which has so dominated my life for six years is no longer, and this will be the last time you'll have to hear about it. The Dojo is a Dodo, it has shut its doors.

Six years ago, we created a community which I had hoped would change the landscape of UK poker. I felt that the UK had no significant brand in poker that people actually liked or aspired to be part of, with the exception of Stars and Full Tilt – and I hoped we could build something that would challenge them.

After a year of spending money with no income, we decided to get an iPoker skin to give our community somewhere to play and to bring in some income. Five years later, it is that skin which we are closing.

Just to emphasise, we are simply a company that was trading which no longer trades; we are not going bankrupt, and there is certainly no issue with any of the players receiving their funds. Our cashiers’ cage was always run by Boyles in Ireland and they are holding all the balances in a separate ring-fenced bank account. You can still log-on to the skin as of now and withdraw, but in a few weeks that will disappear and you'll have to contact Boyles directly and ask for your money if you haven't done it yet.

Obviously it's been a sad time. However, since making the decision and giving our notice to instruct the network to turn off the machine things have run pretty smoothly.



Looking back over the six years of the project I can reflect and smile at a lot of happy times and milestones that continue to make me proud. Many of these involve trips to Vegas.
As a way of launching the project, we asked 50 players to go through a four-week test of playing on the Internet in smallish cash games while we monitored them. They also were invited to come to training days in London to discuss poker hands and strategies, show off their talents and bond.

We called this ambitious project The Grading.

The 50 players soon dropped to 37 after just a few days. It seemed many "pros" just don't win and when it came down to it they couldn't cut the mustard. We managed to extract about $35,000 in rake from these guys while they were playing, and then we spent $50,000 on flying the best 8 to Vegas and putting them in one of the most amazing houses I've ever seen for a month. We paid for each of them to play the $10,000 Main Event of the WSOP, and another $10,000 in side events.

It was a $250,000 gamble for us.

Still, we got criticised. People said we were cleaning up on the whole thing, as people were easily raking all the money we were spending (37 people played 50NL for a the math, as the Yanks might say). People said I'd picked the players I wanted before the whole thing started. People couldn't understand how I didn't care one jot if they were winning MTT players. My theory, which I still stand by, was that if you could beat online cash (the toughest form of poker), then I would be happy to gamble on you in live tournaments (the easiest).

My favourite parts of the process were the training days. It was tough to force these guys to come to school, but I watched some great friendships develop, and people like Nik Persaud, Marty Smith and Phil Laak were an enormous help in encouraging the guys along. The group of players we assembled included Toby Lewis, Sunny and Chaz Chattha, James Mitchell and Ben Vinson, and they were only the ones we didn't pick. The Vegas 8 have all gone on to great things in poker and if they have noticed Black Belt shutting this month, I hope they look back and think of it as a momentous time in their lives.

For me, it was something I was very proud of.



There has been a lot of discussion in poker recently about what is good for the game. I wrote a lot last summer about a very specific thing that annoys me and severely damages the game, which is players being prepared to talk at the table but only ever engaging with people who fit into their own particular clique. I don't like to see recreational players being alienated. My arguments have since been misrepresented more than they've been reported, with people saying I want everyone to talk all the time, I want headphones banned, being shy is not allowed, I am starting a war on educating and I'm ranting against berating. All of those would be fine targets to aim for, but I'm merely trying to fight one small battle in the war.

Recently we had Joe Hachem talking about poker ambassadors, and then the whole thing got derailed by arguments about the youth vs. the elderly. There have also been a lot of words written in the past few years about bum-hunting and the ecology of the game.

Let me bring this back around to why Black Belt Poker is closing.

The simple answer to that question is: we invested a large amount of money in trying to build a site that could grow from being one of the smallest sites in the UK to one of the largest in the world. Rather than have an infrastructure that you might have for a small iPoker skin, we had one that you might have for a really big business. We spent large amounts on staff and fixed overheads, essentially gambling that we'd soon be big enough to cover those costs. In recent years it became obvious that the growth was not coming, and we had to inject more and more cash to just pay the overheads. We reduced costs a fair bit, and in turn that meant our growth slowed.

If I’m honest, it just got to a point where there seemed no point in keeping the machine switched on.

As part of a poker network we were involved in a "prisoner’s dilemma". We could focus on getting players to join the network, perhaps encouraging them to come from ‘Stars and other sites by offering generous, fun and interesting promos. We could encourage new recreational players who currently don't play much online by targeting live casino-type punters with personal introductions, and we could focus on getting new young players in by spending enormous amounts of time on social media projects to attract people.

All of those things would be great. All would cost time and money, but they would attract exactly the right people to the network: people who can afford to deposit, who are recreational and may well lose, but will definitely feed the machine.

The alternative that each skin can consider is to cannibalise – just have a look at promos that will encourage people to come to your skin from another. Put all your energies into stealing multi-tabling, high-raking, winning grinders from your "network partners". The network don't really like this, so the skins simply offer "secret" rakeback and bonus deals to players if they move from a fellow skin on the network. This is way easier, you don't have to think up expensive and interesting promos, you just need to find out what others are offering and offer slightly better.

This obsession with rewarding the high-rakers, customers who by definition are winning, and need you more than you need them, is in my opinion very high on the list of problems that online poker has failed to face in recent years.

You see how it's like the way that players treat the games? Sure, starting new games is tough and sitting with anyone who comes along may cost you some EV in the short-term. Sure, quitting the second the "fish" leaves is better for your hourly than staying for twenty-minutes after to "be polite". Sure, bum-hunting in heads-up games is very lucrative. The problem is that if everyone is doing it then the game will suffer as a whole and may even die.

As the economy continues to suffer, and as online poker becomes a less interesting "product" for the bookmakers on the iPoker network (since customers are moving to ‘Stars in their droves), I just see a bunch of operators with tighter budgets thinking..."if everyone else is doing it, I may as well".

I find it sad that the network didn't seem to want to have the one skin that dared to be different involved anymore.



One thing I was concerned about was making a very clean break from Black Belt. There is certainly no concern about the player balances – if you haven't withdrawn already it's sitting waiting for you, but I did want the players who have been loyal to us to get their Black Belt Spending Points. I also wondered what to do with the website which we started a year before we ever had a skin. A lot of our players love the online games they play between themselves, and our live events have always been popular.

It just seemed too sad to just let all that die.

I have been friends with Karl Mahrenholz a long time before he became the tall bloke from the Hit Squad. He was talking to me about a joint poker project when we started Black Belt poker but the timing wasn't quite right. He went off and started Poker Encore while we did our thing.
I was delighted when Encore, through Corals, suggested that we could host all the regular online Black Belt community games on their skin and keep the band of players, who have found friends and good times through our project, together. Corals will be happy to honour any outstanding loyalty points, unspent tournament tokens and other rewards that were unused. All the Black Belt player has to do is open an Encore account and Karl will sort everything.


It's certainly been a pretty sad time but I'm delighted to still carry something of Black Belt forward. I hope plenty of the Black Belt players will give Encore a try. I'll definitely be there playing in a few of the promos and regular weekly games.

Tags: Neil Channing, The Beat, Poker Encore, Black Belt Poker