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Howard Stutz

Heartland Poker Tour heads to Vegas

14 January 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Five years ago, Fargo, N.D., residents Todd Anderson and Greg Lang were lamenting the state of televised poker.

They could tune into ESPN or any number of cable television channels and see well-known professionals like Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson playing high stakes, $10,000 buy-in events.

A poker show for guys like them seemed to be missing.

"The idea we had in mind was sort of like a fishing trip, where you're sitting around drinking beer and playing poker," Anderson said.

That simple notion evolved into the Heartland Poker Tour, which is entering its sixth season of televised poker. Taped episodes are airing on more than 100 television stations primarily in the Midwest and covering 75 million households.

In five years, the tour's 62 events, held at regional riverboat and American Indian casinos, have paid out roughly $20 million in tournament jackpots.

The tour kicks off its 2010 campaign at the Red Rock Resort this week. The main event final table will be filmed in the Rocks Lounge on Saturday and Sunday. The show will be televised in September.

Anderson brought a Heartland Poker event to Las Vegas three years ago at Hooters Casino, but he wasn't pleased with the results.

This time, Heartland Poker going all-in.

Anderson has chartered four 50-seat jets to fly 200 Heartland Poker Tour participants from Oklahoma, Chicago, Denver and Fargo to Las Vegas.

"It's kind of like a Vegas vacation," Anderson said. "Plus, we're going to pick up a lot of players from Las Vegas."

Red Rock Resort is turning its entertainment lounge into a makeshift 18-table poker room for the week, supplying dealers and casino supervisors. Red Rock isn't taking a percentage of the entry fees and provided the tournament with 180 hotel rooms.

Instead, officials are hopeful the poker players participating in the events will use their down time at other Red Rock amenities, such as the blackjack tables, slot machines and restaurants.

Bart Pestrichello, Station Casinos' vice president of casino operations, said he and other executives visited one of the Heartland Tour events last year in Colorado. He came away hooked.

"It was a well-attended event and the tournament fits the demographic for Station Casinos players," Pestrichello said. "It's a great opportunity for our customers to play in an event like this. Las Vegas is the capital for poker players."

Think of the Heartland Poker Tour as sort of a minor league version of the Harrah's Entertainment-owned World Series of Poker, which is entering its 41st year.

Buy-ins for World Series of Poker events can range from $1,000 up to $50,000. Individual event winners pocket six-figure prizes while the main event champion in 2009 took home $8.5 million.

Last year, Heartland Poker event winners collected payouts from $42,000 up to $150,000, depending upon the number of entries.

Main event qualifying tournaments have buy-ins from $110 to $300. If someone wants to bypass the qualifiers and enter the main event, it costs $1,650.

Anderson expects the main event to draw 300 to 400 players, with a first prize of about $100,000.

The Heartland Tour doesn't attract big names, and that's fine with Anderson.

The tour has had some players achieve success by winning bracelets at the World Series of Poker. In 2008, Mike Banducci won a $1,000 buy-in no limit hold'em event and $636,736. Last year, Heartland Tour regular Mike Eise, a pipefitter from Troy, Mo., won a $1,500 no limit hold'em event and collected $639,331.

Anderson said Heartland Tour players don't feel the pressure experienced by high-stakes tournament players because millions of dollars aren't on the line.

"It's a different environment when you're in for only $200 or $300 as opposed to $10,000," Anderson said. "That's why we created this tour."

Anderson was the sales manager at the Fox television station in Fargo, N.D., and Lang was a video producer when they came up with idea of the tour. After getting the initial tournament aired on stations in Chicago, Minneapolis, Fargo and Duluth. Minn., the growth took off.

After primarily holding the tournaments at casinos in the Midwest, the tournament branched out to California and Arizona last year. Along the way, the tournament picked up sponsorships, including online gambling site

"Our players have a wide range of experience," Anderson said. "I'd say about 20 percent are Internet professionals, but 80 percent are regular working guys."

In conjunction with the Red Rock tournament, Heartland Poker is hosting a celebrity charity event Friday to raise money for the Disabled American Veterans organization.