If you’re an England fan looking forward to the World Cup, it means one of two things.
Either you’re at peace with the fact that the national team will flatter to deceive, as they have for most of the last half-century, and prepared to enjoy the rest of the tournament regardless, or you’ve taken the baffling decision to convince yourself this time will be different.
On the surface, England’s footballers and the country’s poker players might not seem to have that much in common. Some 23 Englishmen have more than $3m in live tournament earnings, while two players from the country were present at the final table of the 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event.
However, to claim no symmetry would be to overlook the near-endless stream of heartbreaking near misses to befall some of the best English players of the 20th century.
Sure, there might be a tidy consolation prize a lot of the time, but that doesn’t make the losses any easier to take. Here’s just a selection of the times English players have ‘pulled an England’ and fallen short just as we – and they – started to believe the glory was theirs.
Stephen Chidwick v Jake Schindler partypoker MILLIONS Super High Roller 2018
Few players, English or otherwise, have shown the consistency of Stephen Chidwick over the last couple of years. Seven of his eight highest cashes have arrived in 2017 and 2018, and we’re talking mid-six-figures and higher, but he’s not been without his close but no cigar moments when it comes to claiming the top prize. The one moment that stands out came at the end of a drawn-out heads-up battle with Jake Schindler in the Super High Roller event at the recent partypoker MILLIONS Barcelona. Chidwick committed his last 27 big blinds on an ambitious river bluff, only to run into Schindler’s straight. It was the equivalent of a panenka in a penalty shootout – get it right and you’re a hero, but mess it up and you’re in deep trouble – and you know what the English are like with penalties.
Will Kassouf v Griffin Benger, WSOP Main Event
In the football world, there seems to be a fair bit of resistance to cocky or outspoken English players. Sure, the same might occasionally be true in poker circles, but the difference there is that there are fewer actual consequences for this kind of behaviour, save for a lack of sympathy after the fact. Will Kassouf might have been a divisive figure during his run to the final two tables o the WSOPE Main Event in 2016, but there was no way he was getting away from that aces versus kings run-in against Griffin Benger. It’s the equivalent of reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, only to run in to an unstoppable opponent – even if you hold them over 90 minutes, they’ll eventually get you in a manner you can’t avoid.
Neil Channing v Henry Lu, WSOP Bracelet Event
A stalwart of the game, Channing has achieved a lot in poker but twice fell short of the WSOP bracelet which few would claim he doesn’t deserve. The most heartbreaking near-miss came in 2012, when he took a dominating chip lead into heads-up play against Henry Lu, only for the American to come out on top after a three-hour battle.
Channing held healthy leads during three-handed and heads-up play, but no matter how hard he tried to grind his opponent down, he couldn’t get over the line. It’s the sort of thing that will sound familiar to anyone who has watched England’s footballers at a major tournament.
James Akenhead v Grant Hinkle, WSOP Bracelet Event
That old boy at your local casino hates ace-king precisely because of this hand, or at least an equivalent with himself in Akenhead’s shoes.
Akenhead walked away with more than half a million dollars for his second-place finish at the 2008 WSOP – his highest ever cash until his run to the November Nine the following year – but to get so close to a bracelet only to lose out in these circumstances must hurt.
A shot at a 10:1 chip lead, with ace-king going up against 10-4, is poker’s equivalent of the last-minute penalty from Asamoah Gyan which could have put Ghana into the 2010 World Cup semi-finals: it might not be a sure thing, but neither is it the sort of opportunity you’d readily pass up. The pain of defeat comes in part from glimpsing so clearly what you might have won, and it’s devastating.
Gus Hansen v David Chiu, WPT Championship
Occasionally you’ll want a reminder that it’s not just England who suffer agonising defeats after coming so far, so here’s something to make you feel a little better – unless you hail from Denmark, of course.
You couldn’t move for Gus Hansen in the early days of the WPT, and the 2008 Championship event was no exception. With a dominating heads-up lead over David Chiu and a seven-figure difference between first and second place prize money, there was plenty at stake. Sadly for Hansen, however, he couldn’t complete the job. It’s poker’s equivalent of taking a penalty shoot-out lead before losing momentum at the last.
Sam Trickett v Antonio Esfandiari, WSOP One Drop
It’s hard to feel too unhappy after winning a tidy $10m, but you can still feel sympathy for Trickett after he came perilously close to poker immortality in the first ever seven-figure buy-in event. As a former junior footballer, partypoker's Global Ambassador Trickett can surely sympathise with some of what the England squad go through, even if they might struggle to recognise the gravity of his final hand against Antonio Esfandiari back in 2012. Had Trickett made his flush – something which would happen one out of every four times – he’d have been level-pegging and in good shape to push for the $18m top prize. Imagine being 1-0 down in the final minute and having a free-kick on the edge of the D – it’s not a guaranteed goal, but if the ball goes in you’d back yourself to complete the job in extra-time. Sadly for the English pro, the game ended at the 90-minute mark.
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- Paul Seaton