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Heartland Poker Tour: Hidden Gem of US Poker Circuit
The Heartland Poker Tour has been around for seven years, but with growing prize pools and fields dominated by recreational players, the HPT has become one of the best tournament values on the US circuit.
The tour has had more than 60,000 unique entrants in its history, and according to co-founder Todd Anderson 80 percent of that number is represented by recreational poker enthusiasts.
That means a signifcant number of people are getting their first taste of real live tournament poker at a Heartland event, but it also points to a huge opportunity for US poker pros cut off from online poker.
And with its recent acquisition by Federated Sports and Gaming, owners of the Epic Poker League, the Heartland Poker Tour is only getting bigger.
Televised Poker for Recreational Players
From day one the Heartland Poker Tour has taken a grassroots approach to running poker tournaments.
The HPT has partnered with smaller regional casinos to offer recreational players an affordable chance to play poker for big money, on television.
“At the time the only thing on TV really was the WSOP Main Event and the World Poker Tour," Anderson told PokerListings.com, "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.”
Heartland’s first season saw seven events across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In 2011 the tour grew to 15 main events, a charity event and a Pro-Am Qualifier to a $20,000 Epic Poker League event, all spread over nine states.
Using a unique television syndication model that allows networks and stations to pick up the show virtually for free, Anderson and co-founder Greg Lang have run more than 90 events, awarded over $30 million in prizes and produced roughly 170 hours of content.
“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,” said Anderson.
“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 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,” he said.
That open-arms attitude and reach into the mainstream is what made HPT so attractive to Federated Sports + Gaming.
FS+G Chairman and former Commissioner of the World Series of Poker, Jeffrey Pollack, said he’d always admired what the HPT has been able to accomplish.
“I’ve long thought Heartland was one of the great success stories of the modern poker industry,” Pollack told PokerListings.com.
“Poker is America’s most popular card game and there are all sorts of ways to enjoy it, and HPT is a great way for the weekend warriors to enjoy the game in a context that Greg and Todd have really custom-designed for fun and affordability,” Pollack continued.
Untapped Value for Low to Mid-Level US Pros
While the HPT has done everything it can to attract recreational players to its events, it still seems like profesional grinders have by and large given the tour a pass.
But it’s only a matter of time before US pros cut off from most online poker sites take notice.
“Let me put it this way: a pro in our field is going to have an advantage,” quipped Todd Anderson.
“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,” he said.
Dan Smith, recent $100k Challenge winner at the Aussie Millions, won a Heartland event in 2008 and there are usually a few notable names peppered into the results, but the pro contingent certainly feels underrepresented.
Location has a lot to do with that since in the tour’s early years events were hosted in just a few Mid-Western states.
Since then the HPT has expanded beyond the actual Heartland to locations like Las Vegas and Florida, and it’s safe to expect to see more familiar faces at HPT final tables.
In the short term, HPT attendance may see a spike during the Black Friday era but in the bigger picture predictions for continued growth have more to do simply with the popularity of live tournament poker.
And the HPT seems to have struck a balance between buy-in, field size and prize pool that seriously appeals to the recreational player.
“HPT has had some ups and some downs and that’s par for the course, but over time we think poker will not only maintain its popularity but continue to grow,” said Pollack.
Anderson echoes that prediction.
"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,” he said.
“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.”