Heartland Poker Tour

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Founded on a shoestring budget by Todd Anderson in 2005, the Minnesota-based Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) set out to enable everyday poker enthusiasts in the central United States to play on a televised stage. Today, the tour has a loyal following, airing its events in 100 American million homes and some 20 countries in Europe. With more than 160 episodes produced, the show is also translated into Hebrew and Italian.

The first tournament of the HPT launched at the Northern Lights Casino in Walker, Minnesota in June 2005 with a unique business model. Under the banner of “All In Productions,” rather than sell the rights to air the broadcasts to networks, Anderson instead offered any station that wanted the show the ability to air it for free. The money to support the HPT would come from the casinos hosting the tournaments. By October, a station in Chicago picked up the offer and the first episode was seen by over six million viewers.

Over the first several seasons, two one-hour episodes were filmed at each stop on the U.S. tour, which featured casinos in Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Indiana and Michigan. Gradually, the HPT grew its way into a mainstream vehicle for poker tournaments and broadcasts. Soon, the tour had expanded to include stops in California and Arizona as well.

As Anderson puts it, the tournaments are about “Real People, Unreal Money.” Others describe the HPT as “sort of a minor league version of the Harrah’s Entertainment-owned World Series of Poker.” Whereas WSOP buy-ins can range from $1,000 up to $50,000 per event, the HPT’s Main Event qualifying tournaments have buy-ins of $110~$300. Depending on the number of entries, HPT winners collect payouts from $42,000 up to $150,000.

The relatively low entry fees have allowed HPT Main Events to draw 300 to 400 players, with a first prize of about $100,000. On the other hand, the relatively small prize pools do not attract many big names, so in 2009 HPT increased its public visibility by inking a deal with professional Darvin Moon to be the face of the of the Heartland Poker Tour. The agreement called for Moon to promote the series by appearing at HPT events across the country and promoting the brand by wearing its logo at other major events.

Also in 2009, HPT adopted a charity—Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a non-profit organization devoted to aiding wounded veterans. Since then, 1% of every prize pool has been donated to DAV.

If public relations moves such as these were not enough to upgrade the HPT`s public image, for the start of the 2010 season at the Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas, four 50-seat jets were chartered to fly 200 participants in from Oklahoma, Chicago, Denver and Fargo. "It’s kind of like a Vegas vacation," Anderson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in an interview. "Plus, we`re going to pick up a lot of players from Las Vegas."

In 2011, the tour included 16 stops, starting at the Red Rock and Golden Nugget casinos in Las Vegas and then wending through Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Indiana and back to Nevada before moving on to New York and Florida. The HPT Championship Open was conducted in November at the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with at total prize pool of $784,368. Robert West of Lincoln Park, Michigan took top honours, winning $234,410.

For the 2012 season, Reno was selected as the launch site, with a stop at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas in April. One of the biggest surprises of the current tour came at the Route 66 Casino Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico in July. That’s when 2004 WSOP Champion Greg “Fossilman” Raymer joined the action and took home the $71,875 first prize. That may be a far cry from Raymer’s $5 million bracelet-winning performance, but it’s a sure sign that the HPT is now firmly part of America’s poker landscape.

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