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  Poker not your game!
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"Heartland Poker Tour"
Shows More Down-to-Earth Poker

By Paul Kammen
December 22, 2005

A college student moves all-in with AQ suited in heads-up poker play, and gets called by a construction worker holding KJ offsuit.  The two players are surrounded by lights, and an audience, and know that hole cameras reveal what they hold to the audience at home.  On the line is a top prize of $30,000, bragging rights, and a brief reign in the poker spotlight of "flyover country."

No, we're not talking about the World Poker Tour or World Series of Poker here.  Instead, it’s the Heartland Poker Tour, a poker tournament TV show featuring everyday players with reasonable buy-in tournaments at casinos most people outside America’s heartland have never heard of.

On the surface, it sounds like a strange format.  No "poker brat" to taunt players?  No "Devilfish" to grace the table in a suit? No boxful of hundreds of thousands of dollars brought out to the table when heads-up play begins?  Who would watch it?

The answer?  Many people would, who are looking for an alternative to the poker tournaments that fill the airwaves, who would like to see casinos they might play at, opponents they can relate to, and a tournament with a buy-in that is not a quarter of many people’s yearly salaries.

Enter the Heartland Poker Tour, a new poker show featuring casinos off the beaten path and players you are more likely to run into at the VFW than the high-stakes games at the Bellagio.

Beginnings. The Heartland Poker Tour wasn't some Hollywood TV producer's idea, and didn't come out of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.  The idea for the program came from the unlikely spot of Fargo, North Dakota, when friends and independent television producers Todd Anderson and Greg Lang teamed up.  According to Anderson, he and Lang were coming home one evening from a tournament last winter, shooting the breeze about a new television show.  Lang’s first idea was for a home improvement show, but Anderson felt that would not get a very large audience.  A few days later, Lang suggested a poker show, and over 3 or 4 weeks, Anderson said he worked on a plan for how the show could get off the ground.  After Christmas of last year, Anderson and Lang started laying the groundwork for the show.  Anderson even quit his job to focus on the program.  He said that one of the stations he worked at was broadcasting an “unwatchable” poker show.  If this could air, there was certainly a market for better poker programming, and plenty of casinos who would like to host some tournaments.

At first glance, the Heartland Poker Tour looks like any other poker show: two commentators, a final table under the lights, hole cameras, and a person on the floor to interview players as they exit.  But you won’t find the big names in poker at the final table.  What you will find are "real people," whom Anderson feels there is a genuine interest in seeing.

"Part of our show’s appeal is that there are a lot of real people out there who are interesting.  You don’t need a $10,000 buy-in or Phil Hellmuth.  Poker is a great game to watch, no matter who is playing," said Anderson.  Anderson repeated pro golfer Lee Travino's comment that the pressure of making a big putt to win a lot of money was nothing compared to the pressure a golfer putting for a few hundred dollars might be under when he has no real money of his own.  “It’s interesting to see how real people handle pressure,” he said. Phil Hellmuth, he pointed out, doesn’t need more money, but a college student winning $22,000 in a tournament may pay for his four years of college, earned from winning a $30 buy-in to a satellite.

The format.The Heartland Poker Tour highlights the casinos of the heartland, currently those in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Future stops may include Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma and Nevada, eventually settling on a format that has six to eight events near Minnesota and Wisconsin and four to six events outside the region.

Tournaments include about 200 to 400 players, with the final table broadcast over two episodes.  The featured poker hands include percentages, so the viewer knows who the favorites are at each stage of the hand, updates on chip counts and blinds, hole cameras, and constant on-air commentary.  Buy-ins are in the $300 to $500 range, with the casinos hosting the event with satellite tournaments as well.

Hosts include Chris Hanson, a morning host on a Fargo radio station, and Fred Bevill, a full-time comedian who tours every week.  The two might seem to be an odd pairing for a poker program, as neither is a professional player.  Anderson, however, has been pleased by their performance.  He says that he and Lang both started the project on a shoestring budget, and had to find people who would be committed to the show but be able to work for nearly nothing.  Anderson said they were looking for people who might not be poker experts, but who were funny, interesting, and had some broadcast experience.

Ratings success. Anderson says he has been quite pleased with the ratings of the Heartland Poker Tour thus far.  In Minneapolis, he said, in most weeks the Heartland Poker Tour has been the top-rated show on Saturday night on the WB affiliate, hitting as high as a 2.4 ratings share. 

Ratings seem likely to continue to rise as the HPT expands.  The show is not limited to cable, being on broadcast stations in Minneapolis, Fargo, Cincinnati, Duluth, and Bismarck.  The program also airs on cable in Chicago, Detroit, and Denver.  Anderson noted that in Chicago, HPT is on the Comcast network, the Chicago-equivalent of Fox Sports Net.  The show will be entering even more homes as a deal was recently signed with America One Sports, a satellite feed that is beamed into 140 different stations (mainly low-power networks).  According to Anderson, the HPT is available in 12 million homes currently, and another 8 to 10 million homes will be able to see the HPT in the future.

The ability to be on broadcast stations in some markets is a big plus, according to Anderson.  He cited the World Poker Tour as being a great show, but if you want to watch it in Fargo you have a problem: The Travel Channel is not on the Fargo area cable lineup.  Broadcast stations, available to the millions of viewers without cable subscriptions, greatly expand the TV audience.

The Future. Currently, there have been 14 episodes produced.  Anderson says the goal is to have 26 episodes done by July.  Amazingly, while the show has been on since October 1st, there have been no repeat episodes yet.  Anderson said credit for this goes to the editors, who have pulled many long nights and all-nighters to keep the new episodes coming.

Anderson noted that there is extensive note-taking on site, because each hand has to be catalogued.  In the shows that have aired, Anderson said the shortest final table had about 50 hands, the longest had 156.  About 17 to 20 are shown in each hour-long episode.

Impressions. With a local production you might expect a sub-par set.  The HPT, however, is even better than some.  The table is well-lit, and the hole cameras work well.

Hanson and Bevill work very well together.  They are quick to recognize how many outs each player has, and comment on the how tight or loose the betting of players at the table was.  Anecdotes about the players were also provided, so the viewer has a chance to get to know the players a little better.  These players are ordinary people, who don’t have several homes and don't travel the world to play in poker tournaments: college students, office workers, construction workers.  People you’re likely to run into in low-stakes games online or at your local casino.  You’ll also see stuff you won’t see on tournaments with professionals as well.  In one episode, for instance, a player inadvertently flipped his cards up.  I wouldn’t expect to see Johnny Chan do that at a final table.  It’s also fascinating to see how people not used to the spotlight react to being on TV.

The learning value of a show like the Heartland Poker Tour is greater than other poker shows on the air.  It’s much more helpful to see how amateurs play at these levels than it is to see Phil Ivey and Annie Duke, who aren’t going to show up at your table (unless you’re one of the elite players of the world, or can afford the expensive buy-ins of major tournaments).

The bottom line? The Heartland Poker Tour is a surprisingly good production that has a lot of potential to be a mainstay on the airwaves for years to come.

Viewing Times. The Heartland Poker Tour has different airtimes based on the network serving your area.  Thankfully, the website is top-notch.  Just go to HeartlandPokerTour.com and click on "television network" on the menu to your left, and you’ll get a handy listing of networks, dates, and times.


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Paul Kammen is an avid low-stakes poker player from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He has played regularly at the Canterbury Card Club since it opened in 2000, playing primarily in low stakes Stud and Holdem games.  Since then,  he has played at various other casinos in Minnesota and Las Vegas,  and also plays regularly at the low-stakes tables on PokerStars.  He is the author of two books on poker, How To Beat Low-Limit 7-Card Stud Poker  (2003,  Cardoza Publishing) and How To Beat Seven Card Stud Eight-or-Better  (also available at ebookmall.com)  and available soon in print.

 

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