Henry Lu’s Ecstasy and Neil Channing’s Agony
This is the story of a comeback and a tragedy.
It is the story of a thrilling moment of triumph and the shattering devastation of defeat.
It is the story of pleasure. It is the story of pain.
This is the story of Henry Lu and Neil Channing, who squared off in an epic heads-up duel in the most recent championship event at the 2012 World Series of Poker. The marvelous and miraculous story of how these two men – so utterly different in just about every way – came to face each other heads-up in the showdown of all poker showdowns bears telling.
Channing has been around the British poker seen for what seems like an eternity. Unquestionably the most beloved, yet long-suffering English poker player on record, Channing has watched virtually everyone around him win major poker titles and WSOP gold bracelets. On most of these historic occasions, Channing was right there sitting in the front row, clapping and cheering the loudest. Utterly selfless and overly generous, Channing is an old-school poker player with personal characteristics and defining qualities that in some ways makes him the envy of the poker world.
Twenty years his opponent’s junior, Lu grew up thousands of miles from Channing’s London flat, in the Brooklyn asphalt jungle, called Bensonhurst. Also unlike Channing, Lu’s fondness for the game and skill as a player stemmed largely from his experiences playing online. Since Lu was not old enough to play in a live casino, he spent much of his time playing poker on the Internet. Indeed, if Channing was the live poker ying, then Lu was the online poker yang. These two polar opposites should never have met anywhere close to a final table, let alone played heads-up for a WSOP title.
Consider this: Early on the third and final day of the tournament, there were 11 players remaining – two spots away from the official final table of nine. Lu appeared to be destined for an 11th place finish. Had he actually finished 11th in this tournament, there would have been no shame or embarrassment. In fact, Lu would have been relatively pleased with his accomplishment, outlasting 2,760 other poker players and collecting $37,000 (11th-place prize money). Lu wasn’t just low on chips and close to elimination. He practically had one foot out the door and a key in the ignition of the rental car. Lu was down to barely more than two big blinds in his stack.
If the poker expression, “a chip and a chair” originated with the late great former world champ Jack Straus, then Lu’s updated version of the concept would most certainly be “a big blind and a chair.” Lu managed to win that crucial all-in moment, when his pocket sevens held up against ace-jack. Lu doubled up. He doubled up again. Then, a short time later, he doubled up again -- and again. Perhaps Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Lu’s chip castle was most certainly constructed in a period of about two hours.
And while all this was going on, while Lu was making a fantastic comeback, Channing could not have possibly cared less. And why should he have cared o been worried? Channing was rolling along like a steamroller, absolutely pulverizing everything in path, inching close to that first gold bracelet victory each time a chair was yanked and more chips found a new home in the portly possession of Channing.
So, these two men arrived at the final table, which was played on a Monday evening in front of a packed gallery of spectators. Over the course of the next several hours, Lu played tournament poker in a manner well beyond what anyone could have possibly expected given his relatively brief WSOP resume and live-action playing experience.
If Lu’s survival instincts were impressive, then Channing’s mastery of playing the super stack was awe-inspiring. No one at the table got a break. If he had an opponent in a proverbial choke hold, the next move was to snap the poor victim’s neck. If the disadvantaged adversary was on the ground, symbolically speaking, Channing was the one pushing the mop removing the human debris, cleaning off the grand stage for what he hoped would eventually become a British victory celebration.
Channing had every right to feel confident – perhaps even overly so. Everything was going perfectly. He held a big chip lead. When the heads-up showdown was finally reached at about 10 pm, many observers looked upon the two men at the final table in the manner that a coronation was about to take place. Lu had already “won” in a sense, managing to take a single blind at one point and rocket his stack up to at least second-place prize money. No one could have possibly foreseen – not Lu and certainly not Channing -- that this would turn into the blood-match of the 2012 WSOP.
For all of Lu’s obvious disadvantages against Channing – less high-limit experience, a 3 to 1 chip disparity, and perhaps even less hunger to win – he did enjoy one huge edge. And that edge could be defined in one simple word – pressure.
Lu had none of it, Channing had all of it. Lu had no pressure on him whatsoever to win. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t supposed to be sitting at the final table. And, he certainly wasn’t supposed to be heads-up playing for a gold bracelet. By contrast the weight of the world was on the shoulders of Channing. He wasn’t carrying a wheelbarrow. Channing was hauling a quarry.
Indeed, Lu was on a giant emotional and financial freeroll. He vowed to have a good time and enjoy his first experience at a WSOP final table. This is not to say that Lu took things lightly nor did he play recklessly. To the contrary, he played near-flawless poker for the next four hours, perhaps even finding talent and skills that he never knew existed.
No one would dare suggest that having a big chip lead or being within a hand of victory is a disadvantage. But there’s something inherently uncomfortable about having everything be so, so close, with everyone in the world watching, and waiting for that elusive moment of victory. Channing didn’t just want to win for Neil's sake. He wanted to win for them. All of them.
Channing played an extraordinary match. He committed no discernible mistakes. In fact, if Channing had the chance to play out all his hands again in a rematch, most would have said he’d play them the same way.
But if Channing played a great match, then Lu played a brilliant one. Down by a 9 to 2 margin on two occasions, the fearless Brooklynite never panicked. He never tilted. He picked just the right spots each time when he committed his entire stack and – on each of those key occasions – he had slightly the best of it against the tenacious Englishman.
The grueling duel slowly took its toll. From the look on Channing’s face, he seemed to sense everything was slowly slipping away. And, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Four hours after the showdown began, Ly had seized the chip lead by small margin.
The final hand of the tournament was dealt when Lu flopped over 4-4 against Channing’s A-J suited. The two players would essentially race for a gold bracelet. The next 45 seconds would determine the new poker champion.
As if the poker gods wanted to tempt, tease, and ultimately torture poor Channing a little while longer, the evasive savior card that could have catapulted him to poker bliss did not come.
A mob of at least a dozen supporters stormed across the big stage and mobbed their colleague. One half of the stage was complete bedlam. Hugging. Cheering. Celebration. The other half of the stage resembled a funeral. Alas, dreams of victory had died a painful death – at least for now.
Channing’s supporters sat in stunned silence. A deafening echo of cheers rang through the gallery filling the cavernous void that was in the hearts of the Channingites. All they could do was watch helplessly, no doubt searching for the solace that could bandage the wound of a man they loved and respected.
It was a party that many thought should have been Channing's. Meanwhile, the disbelieving Londoner continued to sit at that table. He sat and he sat. He waited. Utterly dejected, Channing could not bear to look anywhere in particular – not at the opposite site of the arena engulfed in jubilant celebration, and certainly not at his supporters, who he must have felt were utterly let down by what they saw. Channing continued in his state of trance. Looking straight ahead. Blindsided. It was as though he was waiting for something to happen, anything to happen, some miracle – a stretcher perhaps – that could instantly transport him out of this utter hell of disappointment.
As the celebration gradually faded and quieted, Channing finally stood up from his seat. He looked ahead, trying desperately to find the path of least resistance, searching for the avenue that could ease the pain of defeat. But for Channing, that street did not exist. There was but one path to take, and the walk of defeat was a painful one.
The portraits of ecstasy and agony were emblazoned in the memories of everyone who was here on this night to witness a one comeback and one tragedy. The culmination of the great comeback was a glimmering cylinder of gold. Photographs were taken. Interviews wee conducted. Then, there was even more celebration.
As all this was happening, just over the massive crowd swarming around the latest WSOP winner, Channing shuffled away slowly in dead silence, hopelessly consoled by the only people on this earth who could share and empathize with the heartbreaking disappointment. Channing tottered past the gallery. Slowly, they began to clap. They began to cheer.
Then, the cheers grew louder, and louder.
They knew a champion when they saw one.
Henry Lu Wins $1,500 Buy-In No-Limit Hold’em (Event #43)
22-Year-Old New Yorker Wins First Gold Bracelet and $654,380
Las Vegas, NV (June 25, 2012) – The 2012 World Series of Poker is nearly two-thirds of the way complete. The energy and excitement of the globe’s grandest gaming spectacle shows absolutely no signs of slowing down as yet another huge crowd turned out for the $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament, classified as Event #43.
Tournament newcomer Henry Lu added his name to this year’s extraordinary list of gold bracelet champions after winning his first WSOP title tonight at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He not only received the game’s most coveted prize – the gold bracelet – but a whopping $654,380 in prize money as well -- his biggest score ever.
The three-day competition drew another massive field. The tournament began with 2,770 entrants on Saturday and concluded on Monday night on the ESPN Main Stage in front of a large crowd and a worldwide WSOP.com live stream viewing audience.
The runner up was the popular, but long-suffering British poker veteran Neil Channing, who barely missed the chance at what would have been his long-awaited first WSOP victory.
The more comprehensive official report of this tournament, with much more news and official data, will be posted soon to WSOP.com.
-- by Nolan Dalla