For seven years the Heartland Poker Tour has been showing us what a low buy-in regional poker tour can do and with their recent acquisition by Federated Sports and Gaming things are only going to get bigger.
We spoke to HPT co-founder Todd Anderson about why the HPT is poised for growth, and why it offers a unique opportunity for US grinders who might be feeling the pinch post-Black Friday.
This interview was used along with quotes from FS+G Chairman Jeffrey Pollack in our news feature Heartland Poker Tour: Hidden Gem of US Poker Circuit.
PokerListings.com: What was the original vision and goal with Heartland Poker Tour, and has that changed as a result of all the changes poker has gone through in recent years?
Todd Andersen: It’ll be seven years almost to the day right now and in the beginning we really didn’t have any lofty goals. We just wanted to create a poker television show that normal people could play.
My business partner and I had been friends for a long time and we were playing a lot of poker casually in local casinos and stuff. We live in North Dakota and there was a casino about 80 miles away where we used to play at once a week or something.
At the time the only thing on TV really was the WSOP Main Event and the World Poker Tour, and it just seemed impossible for regular players to get into a $10,000 event. So we were just kicking around the idea of creating our own show and that was the genesis of it.
Is that sort of the overriding tone of these events, that it’s accessible and comfortable for the recreational player? How have people reacted to that idea?
I remember the first tournament we did and we had like 200 players and people loved it. I think people were excited to see a tournament that could attract a good-sized field and generate a fairly big prize pool but I think a lot of people were skeptical about the idea.
I know a lot of the casinos we worked with in the beginning were very skeptical about the idea that these two guys from Fargo were going to get a TV show produced. And they should have been skeptical. In retrospect it was a lot more difficult than we thought it would be.
But it’s worked out. I think a big part of why it’s working is because we really try to foster an environment where people get together to have fun, and poker is the thing that’s bringing them together.
The biggest prize we’ve ever had was almost $300,000, which is a big contrast to the first tournament we did where first prize was $30,000.
With so many recreational players in these fields, and a manageable buy-in, are there many professionals following the tour?
I’d have to say the range of players is about as wide as it can get. You’ve got players that have never played a live event before in their lives all the way to some very exceptional players.
The very first final table we had there was a kid named Cody Slaubaugh and he’s gone on to great things as a professional poker player. He’s had great results since but he was just an 18-year-old kid from Fargo back at that final table.
I remember thinking he was some punk kid back then (laughs), but it turns out he’s a really nice guy and we’ve become friends.
I’d say 80 percent of our players are what I’d call enthusiasts. They have nine to five jobs and they play poker for fun. But that other 20 percent are making a living playing poker, and you’re usually going to see a few of them at the final table.
How has Black Friday Changed Things for Heartland Poker Tour?
Since Black Friday we’ve definitely seen an uptick in our events. We had our biggest event ever in October in Colorado where had our first million-dollar prize pool.
I think there are a lot of players who used to be able to play online, whether it’s for fun or to make a living, and now they’re forced to come out to the casino to play tournaments.
And our events offer a lot of value. You can win a lot of money. The idea of winning $300k from a $1,500 buy-in is pretty exceptional.
Let me put it this way, a pro in our field is going to have an advantage. I’m sort of surprised our events haven’t been targeted more by the sort of low to mid-stakes grinders because they do offer such great value.
Do you think HPT is showing poker in a positive light, and showing it to people who might otherwise not be exposed to it?
I would definitely say that our tour has brought poker to a lot of mainstream players. We’ve had in excess of 60,000 unique players that have played in HPT events. This is a great way for beginner players to sort of slide into the game.
You can come and play qualifiers for as little as $40, or a $180 super satellite where 10 percent of the field gets into the main.
It’s a great way to get out and play live comfortably and not get overwhelmed and make sure you have a great experience.
It’s a really social atmosphere so people are making friends and coming back to events and seeing each other. It’s really great to see that happening.
It’s different than the big buy-in events where you really feel that pressure, because it’s a lot of money and people have so much riding on it.
HPT’s growth has been very healthy. What are the predictions for the next few years?
I foresee very significant growth for us in the next few years, and I’m not just blowing smoke, there are some very definite reasons.
Every day we’re exposing new people to this brand and our merger with Epic Poker has opened up a lot of new doors for us in that department.
We’ve added six new levels to our main event structure and we’re just going to continue to expand to new locations, and continue to improve our tournament experience for our players.
The other thing is that we have a very unique syndicated television model which makes us a very durable show. It’s basically free to any station that wants to pick it up so we reach a whole variety of audiences.
As long as we’re putting on fair tournaments and as long as we’re putting on a good quality TV show I don’t see any end in sight for the Heartland Poker Tour.