Westgate Casino, Heartland Poker Tour Stir Up Ire of Poker Community with Half Price Buy-In Snafu
The Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) returned to Las Vegas for the first time since 2014 last week (bringing into question the definition of “Heartland,” but I digress), but in doing so, it brought about an unwanted controversy during the Main Event at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, located on Paradise Road, just east of the Strip.
The Main Event cost $1,650 to enter, $1,440 of which was the buy-in going to the prize pool, $165 of which was the entry fee going to the casino, and $45 of which went to the tournament staff. There was a guaranteed prize pool of $500,000.
Right off the bat, there were two things that irked players who studied the structure sheet carefully and these aren’t even the main controversy (though the latter does have something to do with it). First, as tournament grinder and structure critic Allen Kessler noted, that $210 rake is the priciest ever charged for a live tourney in the $1,500 range aside from a previous HPT event which had a $230 rake. Second, the guarantee was considered a “fake” guarantee, as it would only be delivered if the tournament attracted at least 300 entries. With a buy-in of $1,440, 348 players would be needed to break the $500,000 mark, so the Westgate would be on the hook for some overlay if there was 300 to 347 entries. The 300 number is only semi-arbitrary, as $210 in rake from 300 players would just about cover the overlay.
Now to the real controversy. About an hour and a half before late registration was to close on Saturday, HPT Tournament Director Jeremy Smith tweeted that there were 300 players registered and a $69,000 overlay, encouraging players to come enter (the tone of the tweet was that players should enter for the overlay, not to help the tournament avoid overlay, which makes sense since it is the casino that covers the guarantee).
Seeing the problem, the Westgate apparently started offering some people half-price buy-ins. Popular vlogger Tim “TheTrooper97” Watts, who is apparently a prop player at the Westgate,* tweeted shortly after Smith’s announcement for people to send him a message if they want to play in the HPT Main Event for just $850.
Poker Player Ben Yu also reported that he had been told by some players that there was an announcement of the same deal at the Westgate sportsbook. When he approached a staff person, he saw that person shake hands with a couple guys then direct them “somewhere behind a pair of closed doors.” He asked a floor person about the deal and was told it was a special promotion for select people, of which Yu was not one.
Yu then found Jeremy Smith, who said he knew nothing of the deal and that it shouldn’t happen. When informed that some people had been seen getting said deal, Smith responded that it must have been a special promotion.”
More evidence of the nearly half-priced entries came from poker player Darren Attebury (aka Darren Lara), who called the Westgate to ask about the deal. The man who answered the phone confirmed it and told him to hurry down and ask for Jonathan or Sal (Sal was apparently the man speaking). Darren made it clear in the call that he was new to the Westgate, so the deal obviously wasn’t for VIP’s. Credit goes to Poker Fraud Alert, who obtained a recording of the call and posted it with Attebury’s permission.
Attebury also video recorded his registration process, which involved eventually being escorted to a random empty gaming table where he paid the $850 buy-in.
Most of the poker community is up in arms about all of this and for good reason. While a casino can generally change terms as it sees fit, cutting the price of a tournament in half for select players in the waning minutes of registration seems at best unfair and at worst hugely unethical. Obviously, poker rooms, both brick-and-mortar and online, give people free entries into tournaments all the time, but this is something that is done beforehand in small quantities and is generally done as a prize giveaway or a courtesy for very select VIP’s. Players understand this and nobody who has to pay full price feels they were given the short end. But granting 50 percent discounts to either randoms or people who know people after almost everyone in the tournament has already paid in full is bad.
Extending a courtesy before the tournament is marketing, promotion. Doing something similar to try to mitigate the overlay as registration is about to close is unfair. Looking at it from another perspective, the Westgate was about to be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in overlay. Presumably, the half-price registrants would not have played had they not gotten the discount. Thus, their entries went directly into Westgate’s coffers.
It might be a subtle difference, but there is a difference between, “Hey everyone, come pay $1,650 to play in this poker tournament. The prize pool is guaranteed to be at least $500,000!” and “Hey, we need help paying this $500,000 guarantee. We’ll let you play for half price if you help us defray our costs.”
For his part, Jeremy Smith tweeted the next day, “I did not ok this. It was a Westgate decision.”
On Sunday, the Westgate tweeted, “End of reg for the @HPTPoker Main Event we chose to pay a portion of the entry fee for select VIP. Full $1,650 entry$ accounted for in the $500k main event that continues through 4/9. WR is upholding all prize packages & guarantees are being upheld. Good luck to the participants.”
The HPT followed up on Tuesday with, “Without approval or consent from HPT, Westgate did allow select players to enter the Main Event at a rate lower than the $1,650 buy-in near the end of the registration period. All funds were accounted for and the $500,000 guaranteed prize pool was honored.”
*I do not know this for certain, but he definitely has close ties to the poker room, as the casino announced a tournament running tonight: “’GO GAMBLE’ with THE TROOPER, Las Vegas YouTube Vlogger. We will be hosting the Trooper: Thursday Apr 12th @ 6pm playing $1-$3 NLH $50min-$300max buy in.”