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LAPT poised for resounding success
Poker has come a long way in a short time in Latin America.
Just a few years ago there weren't even monthly casino poker tournaments in the seaside city of Vina del Mar, Chile. But today there's a major championship poker tournament being played out in the South American town for the first time.
The success story in Chile is another chapter in the evolution of the Latin American Poker Tour, one of the new kids on the international poker block.
Currently in the middle of its second season, the LAPT stepped into one of poker's fastest-growing markets last year and has proven adept at dealing with the conditions unique to this area of the world.
Full of potential
As is often the case in poker today, the story of the LAPT begins with PokerStars. Two years ago, while the United States dealt with the fallout from the UIGEA, European poker players were making the PokerStars-sponsored European Poker Tour a smashing success.
Buoyed by the reception Europe gave to the EPT, PokerStars began looking for opportunities to expand the live poker tour experience to the rest of the world.
One of the key regions that showed potential for its own tour was Latin America. With over 500 million people from Mexico to Chile, the southern half of the Western Hemisphere certainly had numbers on its side. That, along with the presence of a handful of maturing poker markets in places like Costa Rica, was reason enough for PokerStars to start doing market research.
Although there was enormous potential, the LAPT market came with its own special set of challenges. Tournament poker is entering its fifth decade in America, but it's enjoying its first burst of popularity in Latin America.
And then there's the matter of infrastructure. Internet penetration rates in Latin America pale compared to those of other Western countries, cutting into the potential for online qualifiers. In some countries such as Brazil there are no casinos, so that even players who know about the game and want to play have nowhere to go.
And even when casinos and poker rooms might exist, rarely was there anyone with the experience and resources to put together a poker tournament experience to rival what players get in the rest of the world.
The economic considerations were also important. While Latin America might boast a bigger population than North America, the region's overall level of affluence obviously lags behind its northern neighbors. Of key importance was basing tournaments in the right places.
"We knew we wanted to be in markets where poker players existed and where the population base is strong, where there is a strong poker community be it live, online or home games," said LAPT President Glenn Cademartori.
"So after all of our research and visits to cities and countries throughout Latin America and taking a look at how the model was established in Europe, we saw where we could duplicate some efforts and develop some culture-specific qualities for the LAPT."
For all the challenges unique to the Latin American poker market, there are also considerations that work in the LAPT's favor.
On the cultural side, Cademartori said that the tendency of many Latin Americans to emulate what is popular in the United States is helping poker's popularity to take off. Latin American tourist destinations popular with Americans and Europeans have started opening poker rooms to cater to their guests' tastes.
"Wherever we go, they're always looking for us to come in ahead of time and start training dealers and demonstrating how No-Limit Texas Hold'em tournaments are run," said Cademartori.
"So we're not just offering a poker tournament to these local markets, we're really growing the sport of poker from a grassroots level. I think the potential for Latin America is certainly there to get to a point comparable to the U.S. and Europe - and it may be five or six years away, but I think the potential is definitely there. We're very encouraged with the passion for poker we see here in Latin America."
After a successful first season, the tour experienced its first growing pains in December 2008. The second event of the season, held in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, was cut short when Mexican government authorities put a stop to the tournament with 89 players still in the hunt. The LAPT stated at the time that the stoppage came "due to an indefinite suspension served on one of its local partners."
After canceling the tournament, PokerStars distributed the tournament prize pool among the remaining players, giving at least double the buy-in to each player based on chip position and adding another $500 to each payment.
Then, as a sign of good faith, the 89 players were offered a $50,000 freeroll, with the final nine being given the chance to play for the title later in the season.
"We did appreciate the fact that [the remaining players] still had equity in the tournament, and that some of them had traveled great distances to play, so we wanted to compensate them as such," said Cademartori.
"We also felt it was very important that the players see a champion realized in this tournament, so we were able to put our heads together and see what made sense, what would satisfy the players, and what would exceed their expectations. I think what we developed made everyone more than happy, and I think they're excited that we'll be able to crown a champion for the event."
That champion was set to be crowned at Vina del Mar this week, but scheduling with the local property didn't work out. Instead, the Nuevo Vallarta champ will be crowned at a later date in Season 2.
A month and a half passed after Nuevo Vallarta before the LAPT had a chance to get running again, but with the third event of Season 2 wrapping up today in Chile it appears the tour is once again in full swing.
In a sign of the tour's evolution, every player at the final table is from Latin America. That means it's a guarantee that tonight the LAPT will crown its first champion from its home region.
The changes don't stop there. The end of Season 2 will see the tour hold its first championship event with a $5,000 buy-in stop in Argentina, the most affluent and prosperous nation in all of Latin America.
With an entry fee on par with other events around the world, chances are good that the first LAPT Championship will attract more than a few well-known faces from other corners of the globe.
Cademartori said that future expansion of the LAPT is virtually certain, though it will be a deliberate process. "We want to keep the expansion within reach but we certainly don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We have to be sure not to run before we can walk."
Right now being able to walk means a five-stop Season 2 schedule, up from the three stops in Season 1. The LAPT chief said that players can expect at least six stops for Season 3, with the possibility of expanding to seven or eight if it makes good sense to do so.
"We have e-mails and phone calls coming in every week from casinos in Venezuela, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru," said Cademartori. "People want us because we're the first people to come into this region with a major international poker tour and they all want to become part of it."
Keeping with its intention of growing the sport of poker in Latin America rather than just trying to attract international poker tourists, Cademartori said that the tour plans to work more closely in the future with its local partners to give players more chances to win their LAPT seats through live satellite events.
Vina del Mar, the first stop to offer satellites locally, saw 20 players - almost 10% of the total field - qualify at the host property.
But the tour isn't focused solely on attracting the locals. Players from the United States and Europe who might not have considered the LAPT in the past because of the tour's lower buy-ins may have a reason to take another look in the near future, too.
"If we keep the buy-ins too low there won't be value there for someone traveling thousands of miles. We certainly don't want to overprice an event so it shuts out many Latin Americans who want to play, and we also have to take economic conditions into account," said Cademartori.
"But I expect that we will follow the same course as the EPT. Early on we want to keep the buy-in palatable for Latin American players, and as the sport grows and the passion grows, we'll be able to draw from a bigger audience. They'll be willing to pay a higher buy-in down the road because the sport will be that much more popular."
Following the EPT formula has worked well up to this point for Cademartori and the LAPT. If it continues to prove a solid blueprint for success in Latin America, poker players from the United States and Europe might soon be routinely getting a run from their money from Brazilians, Argentinians, Colombians and Chileans.
With the online game still in legal limbo in the United States, that kind of competition can only be good for poker.