Neil Channing is one of the best-known faces on the UK gambling scene. Perhaps most famous for his poker wins, he has nearly £3m in lifetime winnings, at heart he’s a sports bettor with a deep undying love for horse racing gained from a lifetime watching and betting on the sport of kings.
Channing grew up within cycling distance of Ascot and Windsor racecourses and spent his formative years on the grass banks and betting rings of the South East of England.
After university he spent some time as a bookmaker, worked for one of the first online spread betting firms, City Index, and eventually found his way to being a professional gambler. He’d be the first to tell you it’s a hard way to earn an easy living, but he’d also not trade it for anything. We spoke to the man who’s probably forgotten more about gambling than most people know in their lifetime about how to find an edge, what makes him a winner and how you can find value bets every day of the week…
What were your earliest gambling days like?
I grew up gambling. I was always an entrepreneur.
I used to buy Shoot magazine and rip out the pictures of the Liverpool players everyone wanted and sell them for a penny. But gambling was what I did best.
I used to play poker with my sister’s boyfriend and his mates and me and my friend would be there with our eight quid and grafting and really trying to win. By the time I got to sixth form we had a poker game going regularly and we lived near Ascot racecourse and I used to go there and Windsor races every week.
We used to go on the Heath in Ascot and the bookies there were always much bigger on the favourites because people wanted to be on the long shots.
I remember one time I popped into the bookies and saw a horse had been backed from 33s into 8s and when I got to the Heath they hadn’t seen this yet so I had £3 with every bookie at 33/1 and it romped up.
I won £800 or something, which was pretty amazing back then.
How did you get started as a pro gambler?
When I finished school my intention was to go to university because I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do.
My career aspirations were actor, on-course bookmaker or working in the city in a striped blazer shouting at people. I did a dissertation on the gambling market and if the big four bookmakers were operating as an oligopoly and I met some interesting people as part of that.
I was a useless student though and I hardly ever attended. But it meant I left university with several thousand pounds.
Around this time my parents moved down to the South West and bought a pub. I met a guy at my mum and dad’s pub who was a bookmaker at the dogs in Exeter and he took me in as a partner and we had a laugh. I didn’t make a lot of money out of it, but I learned a fair bit and got to know a few more bookmakers and became a tic tac man for a few of them. I spent several years on the racecourses and then eventually got a job with City Index when I was 28. After a while I quit that and have been a professional gambler ever since.
What’s a typical week in your life like?
I get up really early around 7am and a lot of my time is spent dealing with admin around people putting bets on for me so I deal with admin and my Twitter addiction until about 11am.
I watch every race every day and I don’t mind having a £20 bet on a race I have no real insight on as I still get enjoyment if it wins. So my staking is quite weird. I might have a big bet on one race and £20 on the others. I like to watch all the races and I don’t watch them with the same intensity if I don’t have a bet on.
If it’s a busy week like Cheltenham I’ll have done my homework the week before and put 6-8 hour reading sessions in. But generally, I’m exchanging texts with other pro gamblers, looking at some websites I like and looking at a few horses I like. I don’t study form because I’ve watched it all already and I have a very good memory.
Any NFL weekend or the big horse racing weeks are the most busy and when I do a lot more reading, but I have odd weeks where I don’t have to put much time in at all. I probably have 90% of my stakes on a Saturday because it’s so much easier to get on.
What sports do you focus on and why?
I think finding bets is the easiest bit.
I can find 100 things to bet today that would be OK to do, but most of them have no longevity.
I used to do a bit of business with a super smart guy who would send me a couple of horses that were incorrectly priced at 4pm each day but it was no use to me. I don’t want to be opening a new account every week.
I’ve won a lot of money off the bookmakers in my life but it’s been a reasonably fair fight. Experience helps a lot. Sometimes, such as in a golf major, it’s literally a case of looking at the exchange prices and seeing which golfers are closest in price on the sportsbooks and betting on them each-way there. It takes the skill out of a bit.
You can also find tired prices where big things happen over the weekend and people don’t react quickly enough. For example people don’t move the price for teams who have suddenly seemed to come into form or performed well in a cup after a poor run in the league.
What one thing can I do today that will make me a better gambler?
The betting exchanges are a bet finding tool. If you want to be boring you can look on there and find the inefficiency in the markets.
I can look at a horse and see the price has dropped from 9.0 to 6.0 and there is money building up at 5.5 and I can find a bookmaker that is offering 9/2 I can bet that and if the next price is going to be 5.0 I’ve had a good bet.
If that doesn’t happen I can just go the other way and get out of it. Generally speaking, the horse moves keep moving as people hate to miss out. If they get a tip at 8/1 and now it’s 7/1 they will still bet. If you bet steaming horses you can put yourself in a good position, but if you do that on a lot of sportsbooks eventually you won’t have an account anymore.
What personal qualities do you have that make you a good (and bad) gambler?
Having a really good memory helps. And having some form of historical precedent and the experience of seeing a lot of sport from a gambling perspective allows you to make good assessments of the chances of outcomes and seeing things others may not have noticed.
How good are you with money?
I’m not very good with money.
I’ve lent ridiculous amounts of money and have trusted too many people, but I have a friend who is the opposite and he can’t get on anywhere because he doesn’t trust anyone.
I’m not very materialistic and I’m in favour of experiences over possessions and the accumulation of wealth is not something I’m that interested in.
How much influence has luck had on your life?
Luck has had a huge impact on my life.
I was lucky enough to win the Irish Open when the first prize was €600k.
If you have your good luck when you are playing a charity tournament and then go to play in the WSOP and get beaten on the bubble that’s just random. And I’ve been lucky in that way.
What advice would you give your younger self about how to win from gambling?
When I was really young I didn’t win all the time and I don’t think I was really that smart, but the reason I won was because I learned quickly about inefficiencies in the market.
Often there would be huge errors and we would exploit those because the market was inefficient. Numerous times I bet on golf bets where they had already played 9 holes. You could ring up the press office and find out the early scores before the man had updated them on Ceefax and ring up and get a bet on at a completely wrong price.
There was a tennis tournament one day when the final was played in Arizona and the favourite was 2/7 and the start time was 3.30pm. I rang up the press office and pretended I worked for a newspaper to check what time the event was starting and the woman said there was a storm predicted so they started early and I asked what the score was. She said the other lady won the first set and is 4 up in the second. I was so greedy I went to the bookmaker and asked for the correct score bet on the final.
How do you cope with variance?
Back in the early 2000s I switched from having 2-3 big bets on short priced horses to having a dozen bets on average prices of 8/1 or more. That was a big change for me and I would have really long losing runs.
I could go without having a winner for several days in a row and once you’ve done that for a while you don’t worry about losing streaks.
Poker has helped me cope with variance too. I played a lot of poker tournaments and you just get used to it.
What one thing would you change about the betting world?
I think that’s looking at it the wrong way. Whatever they change in the betting world you have to change with it. And change is good because it presents an opportunity for those who are good at adapting.
People who moan to me about things that used to happen four years ago that don’t happen anymore I like because that’s more money for the rest of us. I like it to get harder because that’s where I find my edge.
To find out Neil’s latest thoughts on staying ahead of the game you can find him writing regularly at Betting Emporium and as a regular guest on the Matchbook Betting Podcast where he dispenses tips and wisdom on horse racing, NFL and anything else he can find an edge on. You can also follow Neil on Twitter at @SenseiChanning. And if this has whetted your appetite to learn more about gambling you can read more interviews here or why not explore the rest of the Matchbook Insights archive here.