HPT Champ Open at Soaring Eagle-Mt. Pleasant, MI Recap

Michigan Auto Worker Wins $176,865

Mount Pleasant, Michigan – Until recently, Michigan’s Ahmed Harajli’s proudest accomplishment was his promotion at Ford Motor Company from line worker to manufacturing advisor.  He bested that Sunday night, coming out on top of a field of 413 players and winning $176,865 at Heartland Poker Tour’s Championship Open at Soaring Eagle Casino Resort.  Herajli’s pocket tens held up against king-five off-suit, sending heads up opponent Joey Brown home with $88,434.

Brown’s friends told HPT General Manager Jen Mastrud a day before the Championship Open kicked off that the Battlefield, Missouri poker pro was going to be the one to watch in the televised main event.  “He’s better than all of us,” said Shawn Roberts.  It was quite a vote of confidence considering Brown’s buddies are three past HPT champs: Roberts, Jim Darnaby, and Jason Fennel, who all took a road trip to play in HPT’s final event of the year.  “We pretty much forced him into the car,” Roberts said.

The weekend event at Michigan’s Soaring Eagle drew an unexpected crowd of poker enthusiasts, including a handful of recognizable pros.  Scheduled to be on set of the show he co-hosts, ESPN Inside Deal, at seven AM Monday morning, poker media icon Bernard Lee nearly passed on HPT’s Championship Open this year.  “As long as I make the final table,” the Foxwoods Resort Casino spokesman said before the main event, “I’ll have a good excuse to miss work.”  After two days of play, Lee earned his hall pass.

With pocket kings against a pair of tens, Lee added an HPT fifth-place finish to his extensive poker resume when a ten came on the turn.  Often called the busiest man in poker, Lee is also a columnist for the Boston Herald, PokerNewsDaily.com, and ESPN.com, among many other media gigs.  Lee collects another $35,374 in tournament winnings, which exceed 1.7 million dollars.

Another accomplished pro, Dean Hamrick, finished fourth at the final table for $41,269.  An East Lansing resident, Hamrick finished second in a 2008 HPT event, bubbled WSOP’s November Nine in 2008, and won a WSOP bracelet in 2010.  “I think I’ll play more HPT events,” he told producers, “especially if you keep bringing them to my backyard.”

Pro Tiffany Michelle bubbled HPT’s TV table on Sunday, taking $19,927 in seventh place.  Michelle, who gained crossover fame when she competed on the reality show Amazing Race, also made the final table at a charity tournament benefiting Disabled American Veterans earlier in the week at Soaring Eagle.  Over a hundred players, including Michelle’s Amazing Race partner Maria Ho, raised $15,000 for the cause, with past HPT champ Kimbo Ung taking first place.    

Attracting a number of recognizable pros is a departure from HPT’s regular demographic.  With the mission statement, “Real People, Unreal Money,” HPT aims to get casual players out of the home game in the garage and give them an opportunity to play for “life-changing money” on national TV.  HPT President Todd Anderson is not complaining about catching the attention of top players in the industry.  “Our events are even more exciting for the players when they get the chance to play with the celebrities they see on TV,” he said, “and all players have a shot at playing on TV themselves.” 

Michigan’s Chuck Earl never dreamed he’d play for six figures on national TV.  “It just goes to show that regular players can play with the best of ‘em,” he said as he took his coveted seat at the final table, “These are the people I read about all the time in magazines.”  The building inspector from Trenton, Michigan, who played his first HPT event over the weekend, will use part of his sixth-place payday of $29,478 to go to HPT’s next event at Red Rock Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

Five-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Scotty Nguyen departed Las Vegas to play poker off the beaten path.  “I could not believe the huge turnout,” said the Prince of Poker, “As soon as I walked in the door, I saw the lines from all the way inside, all the way outside, to the front door.  It’s just amazing.” HPT executives hoped for a field of 300 players.  Saturday afternoon, Soaring Eagle staff scrambled to bring in enough tables and dealers for all 413 hopefuls.  

Notorious for his quote at the 1998 WSOP Main Event, “You call, it’s going to be all over, Baby,” Nguyen went out in day one in 250th place after losing most of his chips when his aces were cracked by Earl’s flush draw. 

Twenty-year-old college student Jordan Rowan’s parents joined Nguyen and famed Darvin Moon on the rail to watch their son win $53,060 in third place.  The couple drove from Toledo, Ohio to support Rowan in his first HPT tournament.  After making the final table on his first attempt, the finance major said he may consider making poker his career.

Besides the handful of pros who played, all 2010 HPT champions competed in the main event with their eyes on another prize, the Player of the Year title.  Based on a point system, the POY earns buy ins to all HPT tournaments the following year.  Although New York’s Michael Liscio was the last champion standing in 12th place, Brian Reisner of Illinois accumulated more total points for the year with first- and second-place finishes in Minnesota and Iowa.

The year-end tournament will be produced into a pair of hour-long episodes and broadcast on a syndicated network. HPT is available in over 100 million US households, throughout Europe, and the Caribbean, airing 52 weeks each year.  Broadcast information and schedules for all upcoming events are available at heartlandpokertour.com.

“If you haven’t been to an HPT event, you need to try one,” says Bernard Lee.