Hinkle captures historic Hard Rock title

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After a summer of planning and preparation for a groundbreaking event featuring a guaranteed $10 million prize pool, officials of the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open were ready for a large portion of the tournament poker world to arrive in South Florida. And while Hard Rock executive Larry Mullin promised a fun event and several pros joked about a possible huge overlay, it would be neither fun nor funny for Seminole gaming if the event fell short of the needed 2,000 entries.

But any worries proved unnecessary, as two months of satellites from six Seminole properties provided an initial group of 250 entrants in place with a week remaining before the start of the main event. The extensive summer advertising and the positive word-of-mouth that only an eight-figure prize guarantee can provide would then attract a huge field and the brave new world of unlimited re-entries would fill in the rest.

“I started feeling really good two days before the main event when 600 players showed up for a satellite at noon, then 625 for another the next day. … outstanding numbers for a satellite,” director of poker William Mason said. “When we have a cash tournament for $560, we’re lucky to get those numbers.”

The final tally of 2,384 entries blew out the guarantee, creating a prize pool of nearly $12 million and paying nearly 15 percent of the field (338 players). A dozen players cashed for more than $100K, and the final six earned at least $378K apiece. In the end, an entertaining battle between two well-known veterans — Blair Hinkle and Justin Bonomo — turned into a nearly six-hour rollercoaster ride, with both guaranteed more than a million dollars.

Heads-up play started with Hinkle and Bonomo virtually even. Hinkle took an early advantage, but Bonomo grabbed the lead three times, only to see Hinkle battle back to nearly even. After 147 hands, Hinkle retook the lead for good and 18 hands later won the title. He pocketed $1,745,245 for the victory, along with the white Hard Rock guitar, while Bonomo received a nice consolation prize of $1,163,500. There were two South Floridians at the final table: Mukul Pahuja of Coconut Creek, who finished third and earned more than $872K, and Greg Lehn of Plantation ($378K, sixth).

The event attracted many poker stars, including Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow and four November Niners (J.C. Tran, Ryan Riess, Amir Lehavot and David Benefield), along with nearly all the South Florida elite (Jason Mercier, Michael Mizrachi and Noah Schwartz, among others). The addition of the inaugural WPT Alpha 8, a $100K buy-in Super High Roller taped for broadcast on Fox Sports 1 next March, added to the excitement for the week, and was won by Steve Silverman.

The Seminole Hard Rock also delivered on the promised fun, with several late-night parties hosted by rapper Nelly, rock star Tommy Lee and actor-DJ Danny Masterson (That ’70s Show). Nelly and Masterson played in the main event, with Masterson cashing for more than $14K.

Tournament director Matt Savage ran the events, arriving in South Florida on Day 1A despite serious neck surgery earlier in the week. Trying to ignore the pain and lack of sleep, Savage told me he just had to be there.

“I’ve run some big events, but this one is special to me,” he said. “It was well-attended, but everyone that was here seemed to love everything about it. I’m excited about it and I hope they do more in the future. I felt it was very important to be here, because I worked so hard for months with Bill Mason to help put this event together, and I didn’t want to miss it.”

Mason also was pleased, saying the reward justified the huge risk.
“The players came from all around the world and besides the tournament events, it was just amazing to see the cash games going on over in the regular poker room,” he said. “There were nights we had 15 to 20 games that were $5-$10 or higher.”

So, what’s up next?

“This was a great success and I see bigger and better things coming.” Mason said. “The challenge is there. How can we top ourselves? That’s what people are asking.”

— Email Dave Lemmon at bigdave@pokeractionline.com.