Shooting Star Casino - Mahnomen, MN Recap

Race for Player of the Year Heats Up in Minnesota

Mahnomen, MN – At precisely the same time most Minnesotans tuned in to watch the Vikings beat the Packers, another high-profile competition was heating up in the state.  The Heartland Poker Tour, concluding a weeklong tournament at Shooting Star Casino & Hotel Sunday night, hosted a die-hard field of 198 players in the televised main event.  As familiar as Favre to football fans, many of the poker enthusiasts were HPT regulars.  When they air next season, the episodes filmed Sunday will resemble a reunion special.  Four of the final six players have appeared on the nationally-syndicated poker show before.  

“Because we’re nearing the end of our Season V schedule, competition is heating up for the chance to become Player of the Year”, says Executive Producer Greg Lang.  Based on a point system, the lucrative title is now up for grabs to most any player finishing in the top 30 of the remaining 2009 Heartland tournaments.

The current Player of the Year, Mary Jo Belcore-Zogman of McHenry, Illinois, isn’t relinquishing the throne without a fight…even if that means sleeping with the enemy.  Seated at the same poker table as her husband for much of the afternoon, Belcore-Zogman lost a healthy chunk of her chips to Dan Zogman, a previous HPT champion.  Belcore-Zogman finished in 11th place Sunday, while her husband went on to the televised final table, eventually going heads up against Jeremy Dresch.  The Fridley, Minnesota gas station owner made his second visit to the Heartland Poker Tour set, emerging as the latest champion after catching a flush on the river.  His $55,490 win beats all previous success at the felt.  

The Zogman’s weren’t complaining about their latest payouts.  With Dan’s $27,745 payday in second place and Mary Jo’s $3,144 eleventh-place check, the couple estimate they’ve taken home over $380,000 from HPT tournaments over the years.  “We’re way, way up”, Belcore-Zogman said of their overall track record, showing no signs of slowing down.

The only newbie at the final table, Jason Sanderson of Bemidji, Minnesota, learned to play just three years ago in a home game.  “At first, I was a horrible player,” admits the small business owner.  Looking for a new hobby when stock car racing became a money pit, Sanderson stuck with it and earned $16,647 in third place Sunday night.  Having a hobby that pays him couldn’t have come at a better time; Sanderson will become a dad for the first time in December.

Champion Dresch knocked out Sanderson and regular Brian Johnson with skill and the help of some good cards.  When Johnson shoved with pocket sixes, Dresch called with pocket aces.  Johnson, a father of four, finished fourth for the second time on the HPT set, his highest finish in a half dozen cashes.  Also “way, way up”, the banker from Grand Forks, North Dakota will make a $12,948 deposit to his bankroll.  
Another Heartland Poker Tour fan favorite, Ray “Stingray” Bendijo, added another $11,098 to the $55,000 won on two previous visits to the final table.  A native of the Philippines, Bendijo learned to play poker from watching TV before playing on TV himself.  Viewers remember Stingray relying on his poker skills to cover medical costs for his wife as she battled cancer.  “She went through hell and back, but always supported me when I played” Bendijo said of his wife as she watched from the rail, adding “she is well now.”

Sixth-place finisher Lorne Persons’ motivation couldn’t be more different.  The avid sportsman plays simply to “have fun”, planning to spend his $9,248 on golf, fishing, and hunting near his homes in Wisconsin and Colorado.  The 63-year-old was in the area for a hunting trip when heard the Heartland Poker Tour was hosting a televised tournament at Shooting Star.  A regular at HPT stops in Colorado, Persons cashed for the first time Sunday.

When the Heartland Poker Tour makes a stop at Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama, Iowa, next weekend, many familiar faces are likely to pop up again.  “We are fortunate to have a loyal following,” says HPT President Todd Anderson, “With just three more stops this season, those vying for Player of the Year will no doubt plan to play.”

After Iowa, the Heartland Poker Tour will make its first visit to the St. Louis area with a stop at Ameristar St. Charles, and then conclude the season at Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan at the end of the month.  “We’ll be there,” says Mary Jo Belcore-Zogman.  The HPT Player of the year wins a buy-in at every stop on the tour for the next season.  The season VI launch is scheduled for January 2010 in Las Vegas.