Commentary

HPT changing poker landscape

Updated: October 3, 2011, 11:25 AM ET
By Bernard Lee | ESPN.com

During this past weekend, a regularly scheduled poker tour held a main event with 668 entries. The tournament had a prize pool of over $1 million and the final table will be televised not only in the United States, but also in Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

Many people may relate this description to the familiar turnouts on the World Poker Tour, European Poker Tour or World Series of Poker, but they would be incorrect. For the last few years, this tour may have been the best-kept secret in poker … until now.

The Heartland Poker Tour invaded Black Hawk, Colorado's Golden Gates Casino, raising the bar once again with its first ever seven-figure prize pool. The "Million Dollar Mission" weekend brought out not only hundreds of locals, but also several poker pros in attendance including WPT Player of the Year Andy Frankenberger, Joe Sebok and even ESPN's WSOP announcer Lon McEachern.

[+] EnlargeCraig Casino
Heartland Poker Tour Craig Casino, champion of HPT Black Rock, has three Heartland Poker Tour cashes.

In its seventh season, the HPT has partnered with dozens of casinos to hold poker tournaments throughout the year. With the tour having held over 90 tournaments, thousands of players have participated in the HPT, which astoundingly has awarded over $30 million over the past seven years. This weekend's Black Hawk tournament awarded $293,270 to the winner, Craig Casino from Winfield, Illinois.

"Our first prize pool was $100,000," co-founder Greg Lang said, "Tonight, we awarded over $1,000,000. We owe thanks for the support of many dedicated folks along the way."

Although the poker world has grown very accustomed to a deep-stack, multi-day, long-level tournament world, the Heartland Poker Tour uses a different philosophy to attract its players.

"We've never thought the HPT was competition to either the WPT or WSOP. We have our own niche," explained co-founder Todd Anderson. "I have always thought of the HPT like a 'fishing trip'. You spend a few days with your buddies, drink some beers and, instead of fishing, play some poker."

To create a successful poker tour, Andersen realized that he needed to listen to his primary customer  the players.

"Most of our players work for a living and play poker for fun," he said. "Therefore, we needed to structure our events to be played over weekends in order for them to get back to work on Monday morning."

The genesis of the HPT happened about seven years ago after Andersen and his close friend, Lang, played in a poker tournament. Driving home, they both discussed how cool it would be to play on TV, but realized that it was more of a dream, especially with the high buy-ins. Lang suggested to Anderson, who worked at a local television station, the idea of a poker show centered on the everyday player.

"We talk about the idea of producing a poker TV show, but focusing the show on the average, amateur player," described Lang. "We strongly believed that players wanted to play on TV and that casinos, especially the ones outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, would want to take part in a televised poker show."

The idea of the HPT was born. After developing a business plan and holding numerous conversations, the two men from Fargo, North Dakota, decided to quit their jobs and devote full-time toward developing the tour. Despite the great intentions for immediate grandeur, their success did not come immediately or easily.

Creating a new poker tour from scratch and producing a television show at the same time was much harder than they had anticipated. They both quickly realized that there was going to be a steep learning curve. Additionally, the cost of filming and editing the television show was definitely more than they had originally budgeted.

"It is a good thing we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into because if we did, we would never have attempted it," admits Anderson.

Needless to say, their first few years were very difficult and almost forced them to bankruptcy. During the first year of their inception, 2005, three Minnesota and one Wisconsin casino signed up as hosts, but the newly produced show wasn't picked up by any television stations. In order to keep their contractual obligations to the casinos, they decided to buy time on television stations in North Dakota, which inevitably cost more unexpected money.

After years of trials and tribulations, their tireless work began to pay off. The HPT signed additional casinos to their roster and expanded their yearly schedule. The tour began to have a loyal legion of players that followed them from event to event and they were able to save money by bartering (instead of buying time) their shows to television stations. After a few years, the HPT was finally able to overcome their rocky beginning and began turning a profit.

Today, they have one of the longest running and popular poker shows, as the HPT is carried by over 150 US television stations every week. Recently, the HPT's tremendous success was recognized by Federated Sports and Gaming, owners of the Epic Poker League, which decided to acquire the popular tour.

"HPT is one of the great success stories in the poker industry," said Jeffrey Pollack, chairman of Federated Sports + Gaming in their recent press release. "In a relatively short period of time, the Heartland Poker Tour has firmly established itself as an important national brand with a passionate, loyal player base."

In light of their success, the HPT wanted to give back in some manner and decided to partner with the Disabled American Veterans. The DAV is a non-profit organization that devotes itself to aiding American wounded veterans and at every HPT tournament, the DAV benefits as one percent of the prize pool is donated to the charity.

"Helping the DAV keeps our success in perspective. It humbles us to see our players embrace the cause," exclaimed Jennifer Mastrud, HPT's General Manager and Public Relations Director.

The HPT success, family atmosphere and sincere caring for its players ultimately led to one of the most surprising signings ever in the poker world. Darvin Moon, the 2009 World Series of Poker main event runner-up, signed with the HPT as its tour ambassador earlier this year. Moon, the reserved player who famously turned down high-paying endorsement deals before the November Nine to remain his own boss, said that he felt very comfortable with the HPT family and that the low pressure tour fits perfectly with his lifestyle.

"HPT folks are my kind of people. They treat me like family and I always have a great time when I go to play in one of the HPT events," he said.

As Season 7 continues, the HPT crew will continue to crisscross the country to bring its own brand of tournaments and the "life changing" money to another group of players. All along the way, the hard-working team will chant the HPT mantra: Real People, Unreal Money. After seven seasons, the secret is finally out.

Here are the complete results of the Heartland Poker Tour stop in Black Rock, CO:

Heartland Poker Tour: Black Hawk, CO

Buy-in: $1,650
Entries: 668
Prize Pool: $1,003,650
Players in the money: 12

1. Craig Casino ($293,270)
2. Mary Flurkey ($146,633)
3. Dan Hirleman ($87,217)
4. Jimmy Frisk ($67,345)
5. Phil Martin ($57,108)
6. Darren Hicks ($47,172)
7. Richard Klein ($30,812)
8. Kory Hungerford ($26,095)
9. James Sparks ($18,367)
10. Huu Tran ($15,055)
11. Fuad Sarvestani ($13,549)
12. Norman Straughn ($11,642)
13. Martin Stevens ($10,137)
14. Clint Coffee ($8,732)
15. Bruce MacDonald ($7,628)
16. Nils Bardsley ($6,825)
17. Matt Kurtz ($6,524)
18. Peng Ung ($6,122)
19. Brian Hartner ($5,620)
20. Bryan Stillwell ($5,018)
21. Brett Abramovitz ($4,416)
22. Tom Domboski ($4,416)
23. Howard Dion ($4,416)
24. Bernard Lee ($4,416)
25. Ahmad Shirazi ($4,416)
26. Milton Amaya ($3,914)
27. Matt Brinkhoff ($3,914)
28. Klaus Degler ($3,914)
29. Corey Hansen ($3,914)
30. Richmond Meyer ($3,914)
31. Chris Sublette ($3,312)
32. Terry Langer ($3,312)
33. John Rice ($3,312)
34. Panlguk Kong ($3,312)
35. Jeff Wichers ($3,312)
36. Thanh Bach ($2,810)
37. Mike Bonetto ($2,810)
38. Allan Hedin ($2,810)
39. Wes Hobson ($2,810)
40. Estanislade Gonzalez ($2,810)
41. Brian Whitney ($2,609)
42. Jake Nguyen ($2,609)
43. Gary Germann ($2,609)
44. Jon Cohen ($2,609)
45. William Morris ($2,609)
46. Greve Raclar ($2,609)
47. Eric Grave ($2,609)
48. Jason Tischer ($2,609)
49. Carl Horvath ($2,609)
50. Clavde Garcia ($2,609)
51. Reza Yazdi ($2,108)
52. Krzysztof Stybaniewicz ($2,108)
53. Brian Becker ($2,108)
54. Jon Armstrong ($2,108)
55. Louis Cohen ($2,108)
56. John Rice ($2,108)
57. Joe Sebok ($2,108)
58. Rafael Veintimilla ($2,108)
59. Jason Hulley ($2,108)
60. Hildegard Vermillion ($2,108)
61. John Holdren ($1,907)
62. Charles Paraclise ($1,907)
63. Ralph Kingan ($1,907)
64. Alex Difelice ($1,907)
65. James Welzig ($1,907)
66. Jeff Purcela ($1,907)
67. Francois Safieddine ($1,907)

Bernard Lee is the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal, weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and radio host of "The Bernard Lee Poker Show."

Bernard Lee is a columnist for ESPN.com and the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal. Since finishing 13th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Lee has earned over $2 million in career earnings, including three poker titles. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Bernard is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and also the host of a weekly poker radio show in Boston, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show".

ALSO SEE