The 2018 Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) stop at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino was supposed to be a celebration as HPT was returning to the entertainment capital of the world after a long break. HPT Westgate turned out to be an embarrassment for tournament organizers, a disappointment for poker players and a scandal for the poker community at large.
Players took to Twitter to discuss and complain about what unfolded at the HPT at Westgate Casino. The gist of the controversy: a 50 percent discount on the HPT Main Event buy-in was given to a handful of players as a ‘special discount’. Players who paid full price for the Main Event buy-in felt cheated as a few players were gaining preferential treatment. However, when they dug deeper then found that there was a lot more to it than just offering a special discount to certain players.
A series of complaints, deleted tweets and cover up attempts followed which left players with more questions than answers. The main question that poker pros are asking is: Did HPT Westgate do something illegal and unethical?
Controversial Guarantees And Overlays
The Heartland Poker Tour returning to Las Vegas is a big deal. It’s been almost four years since the HPT last made a stop at Sin City and players should have been excited to join the fanfare. When the tournament was advertised, there was a $500,000 Main Event guaranteed with a buy-in of $1,650. Included in the buy-in is a $210 rake, one of the biggest rakes ever charged on a $1,500-type event.
The controversy started right at the end of the third Day 1. HPT promised a $500,000 guarantee for the Main Event in its promotions which meant that whoever finished first would have gone home with a six-figure prize. But the guarantee turned out to be a “fake guarantee” as it came with a caveat. Apparently, the guarantee will only kick into place if the Main Event secures 300 entrants.
Day 1a saw 64 players, while Day 1b drew 101 players. By 6 p.m. of Day 1c, HPT tournament director Jeremy Smith confirmed in a tweet that they have reached 300 entrants. That would have meant that the conditions were met and the guarantee would be in place. But a quick math of the entrants, buy-ins, rake, and overlay will show that just hitting the 300 threshold would have meant that tournament organisers would earn a lot less with just 300 players and stood to earn a lot more if the number of registrations increased.
The break-even mark for the tournament at a $1,650 buy-in should be 303 players (303 multiplied by 1,650 is exactly 500,000). For Westgate to be able meet the requirements to cover guaranteed prize pool and still earn the full amount of rakes and fees, they need at least 347 players to be in. Otherwise, the rake that they collected will only go to the prize pool and operating costs, which would leave them with little to nothing in profits.
Westgate Offers Special Discount
To make up the numbers, Westgate is believed to have launched a quick promotion giving players a 50 percent discount on the buy-in to the Main Event.
A tweet from vlogger TheTroop97 (which has since been deleted) announced that the organizers are offering a huge $800 discount on the buy-in, and players can join in for only $850 instead of the original $1,650. However this discount was restricted and only available to certain players.
In a recount of the day’s events, player Ben Yu said that after hearing about the announcement made on the Westgate sportsbook about the 50 percent discount on the buy-in, he approached a staff to try and avail the discount.  He soon found out that the promotion is only open to select players.
When the number of entrants reached 329, registration closed. No one knows exactly the number of players who were given the discount after the first 300, but Todd Witteles made a rough calculation of the possible repercussions of the discounted buy-ins.
If the final 29 were indeed given the discount, the organizers would have collected $495,000 from the first 300 entrants, and then another $23,925 from the next 29. After paying off the $500,000 prize pool, instead of being short on money at 6 p.m., they now have made $18,925 extra. So even though the players got in a discounted price, all the extra money went straight to the Westgate as rake.
Was It Legal And Ethical?
Technically, poker rooms like Westgate do have the power to subsidize players in tournaments. What happened at the HPT was that Westgate “subsidized” half of the price of the buy-ins for the other players, which does not violate any current Nevada gaming laws.
But many players believe that what HPT and Westgate did was unethical and defeats the integrity of the tournament. First, they asserted that guarantees shouldn’t have conditions and should be made regardless of the number of entrants. Second, it was also unfair to the first 300 players who paid the whole amount when they’re playing against people who got in for half the price.
HPT tried to clear things up by saying that they had no say or decision on the matter and the discounts were the call of Westgate. But despite HPT’s handwashing, many players feel betrayed by what happened and some are swearing they will not be joining any HPT events in the future.