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 significant 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.”
Todd Anderson, co-founder of the Heartland Poker Tour.
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
Online legend Dan "KingDan" Smith won six figures on the HPT in 2008.
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.”
Todd Anderson Interview Transcript
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."
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.
A final table on the Heartland Poker Tour.
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.