Golden Gates Casino-Black Hawk, CO Recap
Colorado Man Scores $221,594 Championship on First Cash
Black Hawk, CO – (April 11, 2011) Boulder’s Spencer Uniss promised his friends a private jet to Las Vegas Monday if he won the Heartland Poker Tour championship at Golden Gates Casino & Poker Parlour Sunday night. When the final table began, it didn’t seem his entourage would be packing their bags anytime soon. The only player with under a million in chips, the bright lights of Vegas started to look dim. By the time he held a record-breaking prize of $221,594 in his hands, the disadvantage was a distant memory. “I just remembered I came in as the short stack,” said the 25-year-old who insists he’ll keep his promise to the friends who cheered him from the rail. With just $370 invested in the tournament, he has plenty of profit to play with. To date, he had no previous career winnings.
A six figure difference between first and second place made for a thrilling heads up match and ultimately a compelling TV product, HPT producers say. In the final hand with nearly identical chip stacks, Denver’s Keith Love had the lead on a nine-five-jack board with nine-eight of diamonds. Also looking for diamonds, Uniss was behind with ace-queen until a fateful ace appeared on the turn.
Uneasy in the spotlight, runner up Love was visibly uncomfortable when the cards flew at Sunday’s televised final table. “The cameras make me nervous,” said the Denver man just before taping. Eventually making himself at home on the set of Heartland Poker Tour, the 46-year-old father of two from Denver hit his stride, winning $110,797 in second place.
Denver’s Jim Rice wasn’t intimidated by the bright lights at the televised final table. “There’s a bunch of cameras today,” said the 34-year-old entrepreneur, “but the game is the same.” Confident he was the best player at the table, his poker resume includes a 2005 WPT championship and $200,000 in career winnings. “My confidence comes from playing poker my entire life. I’m most comfortable with two cards in my hand.” He had the wrong two cards when he went all in against trip fives, earning him $66,478 in third place.
The weekend event drew 491 players, a record number of participants at one of HPT’s largest stops. Previously, HPT’s largest field in Colorado was 426 players in April of 2009. “We’re celebrating a new record,” said Golden Gates General Manager Shannon Keel, “but we already anticipate topping it in September.” HPT returns to Golden Gates September 23 to October 2. HPT President Todd Anderson also predicts a larger field in the fall. “Numbers are up at every stop this year,” he says, “It’s a testament to the momentum in our industry. Poker is thriving globally.”
Igor Gavrilov says poker is also booming in his native Estonia, citing more players from his homeland playing online. The 30-year-old father from Avon, Colorado landed in fourth place when his pocket sixes ran into aces, earning him $51,705. A mechanic and a night auditor, Gavrilov says, “That is huge money for me and my family.” Scoring on the HPT means a break from his two full-time jobs to take his family to Disneyland.
Volodymyr Kondratenko has a similar take on poker in Ukraine, his home country, “It’s booming.” The 23-year-old spent most of day one as the chip leader but says “it was still really difficult to get here” to the final table. Kondratenko failed to hit a flush and ran into trip queens for fifth place. Volodymyr plans to use some of his $44,319 to help his parents back home
HPT producers have also noticed an increase in the appetite for televised poker worldwide. Originally founded in Minnesota to air regionally, HPT is now available in over 100 million US households, in addition to widespread distribution throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. In the Denver area, HPT airs as often as twenty times per week on Altitude Sports, MAVTV, and other networks. The weekend event in Colorado’s popular gaming town will be produced into two one-hour episodes to air in May. Broadcast information is available at HPTpoker.com
When the episodes hit the air, Eydie Mortellaro’s family won’t miss it. “My grandkids have never been impressed with anything I’ve ever done in my whole life until now,” said the 65-year-old Lakewood, Colorado retiree. She learned to play poker just a couple of years ago with encouragement from her husband, an avid player, so the two could spend more time together. Lou Mortellaro just missed his own chance to play poker on national TV when he finished seventh at HPT’s Golden Gates stop last September. The proud Mr. Mortellaro hoped his wife of 46 years would best his finish on her first HPT event. His bride obliged, finishing sixth for $36,932. “If I can do it, anyone can,” she said.