Westgate Las Vegas Stirs Controversy with Discounted Buy-ins in HPT Event

A Las Vegas casino has drawn heavy criticism for proffering preferential prices to selected entrants to a popular poker tour event.

The Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino has become mired in controversy after its decision to offer discounted buy-ins to selected, late-registering participants in a major poker tournament being held on its property, a Heartland Poker Tour visit’s main event.

Protests from large numbers of players have emerged online after the Westgate casino, acting independently of HPT officials, decided to recruit additional players into the $1,650 (£1,163) buy-in event by offering a roughly 50% discount on entries. Those players, described as “VIP” patrons by the casino as it scrambled to sell more seats, were recruited as the last hour or so of the tournament’s late-registration period elapsed.

As with many large poker tournaments, this Heartland Poker Tour main event offered multiple starting flights. However, as happens with less frequency, the event had not drawn enough players to cover its published $500,000 (£352,575) prize-pool guarantee. This potential shortfall, or “overlay” in poker terms, prompted the Westgate Las Vegas to take the unusual step and frowned-upon action.

The event’s ongoing registration had threatened to cost Westgate as much as $65,000 (£45,835) to meet the guarantee, which as stated amounted to only a partial guarantee anyway. Fine print in the tourney’s advertising declared the published $500,000 (£352,575) guarantee null and void should less than 300 entries be reached in total.

Additional players recruited

However, as the third and final opening flight’s dinner break approached, the field swelled over the 300-player plateau, thus bringing the guarantee into effect. The late-registration period ended as play was scheduled to resume, giving Westgate an opportunity to “recruit” additional players. The effort brought the field to a total of 329 entrants, though it was still short of the 347 mark that meant the Westgate would wind up collecting full rake from the field. The 329-player total meant the casino collected reduced rake, but still earned some measure of operating profit from the event.

The Westgate’s extra recruitment efforts violated the spirit of the poker world’s understanding of guarantees and overlay. Players who bought into the event for the full $1,650 (£1,163) list price did so with the understanding and expectation that a small overlay could emerge, should the full field land in the range between 300 and 347 entrants. That, combined with the possible six-figure payday, are part of the event’s initial lure.

Such “back-room” discounts are shunned because a casino offering such discounts might also reach a deal with recruited players to return a portion of any prize money won to the casino, another aspect of why they are so shunned by the larger poker community.

In this case, further undermining the legitimacy of the discounts, the buy-in discounting was done without the knowledge of the Heartland Poker Tour and its on-premises directors. Some players heard about the discount and attempted to buy in for the reduced players, but were told it either didn’t exist (by HPT directors) or wasn’t available to them (by non-VIP types who spoke to Westgate staff).

Potential entrant’s tale

One such would-be entrant, two-time WSOP bracelet winner and Vegas tourney regular Benjamin Yu, recounted his personal experience. He had noticed a Twitter post from an apparent Westgate regular, “TheTrooper97,” that promoted the buy-in discount:

Yu had already fired two full-priced entries into the event and busted both. Yu was already in line waiting to register (at the full price) when he heard about the discount.

Here’s part of how Yu described it:

“As I was at the cage, a poker player told me that they had made an announcement in the sportsbook, that they were letting people buy in for half the actual buy-in (~800). The player directed me to staff person A, who I saw shaking hands with a couple of guys. I heard another staff person tell this guy, ‘These are Matusow’s boys’, and staff person A spoke with them for a brief time, then directed hem somewhere behind a pair of closed doors.”

The reference was to controversial veteran poker pro Mike Matusow, who also figured into the story.

Yu continued with his experience:

“I approached staff person A to inquire about the situation, and he said to me, ‘Are you Danny?’ I told him I wasn’t and he left. A floor person I recognized from playing the other days told me that, ‘This offer is not open to you, these guys had a special promotion.’ I said, that doesn’t seem to be the case; they seem like some average Joes he just met’, to which he responded, ‘Well, if that’s how it looks to you, the door is over there.’

“I left the immediate area to think about what I should do. It was during this time I first considered it might be unethical for me to try to get in at a reduced buy-in, and that I should just skip the event regardless of what happens.

“When I returned to the area that players/tournament staff were in, HPT tournament director Jeremy Smith was talking to a few players. I hadn’t heard the announcement in the sportsbook myself but a couple of players were recounting it to him. He said that the person who allowed it to happen shouldn’t have made that decision, and that no one had gotten into the tournament at $825 [£580]. The players responded that they had seen at least three players get in for that amount, maybe two more, to which Jeremy Smith changed his story and said, ‘If they got into the tournament at that price, it was a special promotion’. At this point, he wouldn’t discuss the issue further and told the players that ‘… registration was closing immediately, I don’t want you players to get shut out; you have two options at this point, buy in for $1650 or not play’. I left shortly after.”

Other players present at the Westgate offered similar stories or verified, in general, Yu’s version of events, and the Twitter poster, “TheTrooper97”, later deleted his posts about the discounted buy-in and asserted that he was unaware a potential overlay was involved.

Director denies knowledge of decision

HPT tourney director Smith, a fixture at that tour’s events, also took to Twitter on his “@HPTJeremy” account, where he vehemently denied that the HPT had any knowledge of the Westgate’s decision to offer the “special” discount. Smith also re-Tweeted some character references, such as one offered by tourney vet Craig Casino, who wrote: “Tournament Poker World. I’m going to ask you to reserve judgment regarding @HPTPoker ‘s @WestgateVegas event for a bit. Trust me, @HPTKorey and @HPTJeremy are 100% standup guys and vividly fought what was going on. HPT is NOT the culprit here. Word will be out.”

Additional social-media scorn accumulated in Westgate Las Vegas’s direction, as well as some being aimed at Matusow, the former Full Tilt Poker minority owner who’s been involved in other squirrely happenings in the past.

Matusow, not known for his quiet reserve, tweeted this on April 8: “How am I involved in this all I did is try and promote tourney in which a friend for 25 yrs was running… You guys never cry when wsop takes in 80 mill a yr from poker players you just keep registering! Quit crying”.

Whether some past or future “friendship” quid pro quo involving Matusow was a part of this controversy isn’t publicly known. Matusow, though, has suffered other image-damaging scrapes. He failed to repay millions in outstanding loans taken from the original Full Tilt in the couple of years before that site folded under the US’s “Black Friday” prosecutorial pressure. Matusow also famously welshed on a $2m (£1.41m) weight-loss prop bet with former friend and fellow poker pro Ted Forrest; Matusow later declared that since he’d lost his Full Tilt income, he shouldn’t have to pay up on the lost wager.

Matusow aside, the HPT Westgate controversy looms large for both entities. Westgate Las Vegas subsequently took responsibility for the discounted buy-ins, but without any acknowledgment of poor business ethics. Numerous high-profile pros have since declared their intent to stop playing poker at the property.

The controversy may also doom plans for any future Heartland Poker Tour events at the Westgate venue, which sits just off the northern end of Las Vegas’s famed Strip. This event was the first Vegas stop for the HPT, and it may well be the last for quite some time.