In the summer of 2003, one man holding two cards changed the game of poker for millions of players the world over. Playing in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, an accountant and amateur player by the name of Chris Moneymaker found himself heads-up against pro Sammy Farha. Along with the top prize of $2.5 million and a gold WSOP bracelet, both men were competing for the World Championship of No Limit Texas holdem – all while ESPN cameras hovered nearby to capture every flop and fold.

On the final hand, Moneymaker famously flopped two pair and baited Farha into shoving all in with top pair – a hand you can watch here courtesy of those ESPN broadcasts. Just like that, a worldwide audience learned about the spectacle that is the WSOP Main Event, leading to the fabled “poker boom” of 2003 through 2006.

During the three summers spanning the poker boom, WSOP Main Event attendance grew from 839 in Moneymaker’s championship year to 2,576 in 2004, 5,619 in 2005, and 8,773 in 2006. And that was just the Main Event, as hundreds of thousands more flocked to the weeks long summer series to take part in WSOP preliminary events. Seemingly overnight, the WSOP brand became synonymous with tournament poker, and to this day many players compete solely for gold bracelets.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of Moneymaker’s momentous win, ESPN’s award-winning “30 for 30” documentary series recently hosted a podcast with the man himself. You can listen to Moneymaker’s memories of his Main Event journey here, and for folks who prefer the written word, check out the PokerStars Blog for a full rundown of stories covering the “Moneymaker Effect.”

And if you’re anything like me, after immersing yourself in the mythology of Moneymaker’s impact on the WSOP for the last week, you’re probably dying to play some tournament poker for yourself. The only problem is, WSOP season doesn’t arrive again until late May, leaving tournament aficionados a good seven months until we can take Sin City by storm. But what if I told you world class poker tournaments are being hosted as we speak, from coast to coast and all points in between?

While it’s true that the WSOP represents the gold standard for tournament specialists, the poker boom birthed dozens of smaller tours and circuits. And even if many of those have come and gone without catching on with the public consciousness – here’s looking at you Epic Poker League – today you can find a packed schedule full of top-notch tournament action. And just like the WSOP, these tournament circuits make sure to offer games at all price points, so you can buy-in for $165 or $3,500 depending on your bankroll restrictions.

With that in mind, I present a personal list of my three favorite poker tours outside of the WSOP in Las Vegas:

1 – World Poker Tour (WPT)

Moneymaker lit the match that sparked the poker boom in 2003, but the World Poker Tour (WPT) was hosting televised tournaments one year earlier. Launched in 2002, the WPT has been turning TV fans into card sharks for nearly two decades and counting. And over that span, the list of poker legends to etch their name on the WPT Champion’s Cup is truly staggering.

Gus Hansen won the very first WPT Main Event – the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio – and from there the stars just kept on shining. Howard Lederer, Antonio Esfandiari, Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu, and Michael Mizrachi are just a few of the elite players to capture WPT titles over the years.

If you’ve ever tuned into a WPT broadcast, you probably know all about former commentator and poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton. In addition to coining the unforgettable catch phrase “may all your cards be live, and your pots be monsters,” Sexton practically built the WPT from the ground up. Partnering with Vince Van Patten, Sexton served as a Vin Scully of sorts, a voice that instantly became synonymous with the game.

Sexton has since retired – but not before winning a WPT title of his own at the Montreal stop in 2016 – leaving the broadcast booth to Van Patten, poker pro Tony Dunst, and the multitalented anchor Lynn Gilmartin. But while the TV cameras and seven-figure payouts are reserved for WPT Main Events, the tour also hosts a full series of preliminary events that appeal to the masses.

Just take a look below to see how the recently concluded Borgata Poker Open – a regular stop along the WPT circuit that brings the action to Atlantic City – stacked up in terms of prelim offerings:

Typical WPT Series Stop Schedule

The following schedule highlights preliminary events, and the WPT Main Event, from the 2018 Borgata Poker Open:


1 Deepstack Kickoff NLHE ($1.5 Million Gtd.) $540 + 60
2 Omaha Eight or Better Hi-Lo ($25,000 Gtd.) $300 + $40
3 Deepstack Black Chip Bounty NLHE ($200,000 Gtd.) $350 + $50 + $100
4 H.O.R.S.E ($25,000 Gtd.) $400 + $50
5 Saturday Series Deepstack NLHE ($100,000 Gtd.) $350 + $50
6 Super Survivor NLHE (1 in 10 wins $5,000) $500 + $60
7 Memorial Seniors Charity NLHE $300 + $50
8 Ladies NLHE $260 + $40
9 Deeper Stack NLHE ($50,000 Gtd.) $200 + $30
10 Deepest Stack NLHE ($200,000 Gtd.) $260 + $40
11 Old School NLHE ($75,000 Gtd.) $400 + $50
12 Pot Limit Omaha High ($25,000 Gtd.) $400 + $50
13 Almighty Stack NLHE ($1 Million Gtd.) $400 + $50
14 Six Max NLHE ($150,000 Gtd.) $1,000 + $90
15 Super Survivor NLHE (1 in 10 wins $5,000) $500 + $60
16 Saturday Series Deepstack NLHE ($100,000 Gtd.) $350 + $50
17 Purple Chip Bounty 8-Max NLHE $1,000 + $560
18 WPT Borgata Poker Open Champ. ($3 Million Gtd.) $3,300 + $200


As you can see, players have more than a dozen tournaments on tap before the WPT Main Event kicks off. Entry fees for the prelims range from $230 to $1,090, offering plenty of room for players of all bankroll level.

Even better, when the WPT comes to town, it brings a regular cast of touring pros along with it. These guys and gals may be among the best players on the planet, but they’re still “grinders” by and large. That means you’ll have entire weeks where you can buy-in, sit down, and suddenly find yourself contesting pots against your favorite pros.

Just ask recreational player Rick Savela, who qualified for the 2016 Bay 101 Shooting Stars Main Event in 2016 via the free-to-play ClubWPT online app. As you can see here, Savela got to rub elbows with poker royalty like Phil Hellmuth himself – all while playing for life-changing money.

This amazing accessibility is part of what makes the WPT such a special circuit for amateurs, aspiring pros, and bona fide champions. As it turns out, that’s all by design, thanks to WPT president and chief executive officer Adam Pliska. A behind the scenes veteran of the WPT since 2004, Pliska has worked his way up to the top by consistently identifying ways to blend poker and entertainment.

In a 2016 profile published by PokerNews, Pliska explained how the WPT tries to bring recreational players in for an experience of a lifetime:

“We don’t want to just put on a tournament where you go and you play and either you cashed or you didn’t cash.Our goal is to make – whether it is the WPT champion or the first-time amateur player – feel like they’ve had some kind of journey, some kind of experience, from the moment they walked in. To the people they meet, to the opportunity that they had, to the moment they leave.

I think that’s our focus on that journey that makes a difference. When there’s just so many opportunities and you can go anywhere to play, you want to feel like this.”(Quote)

One of those recreational players who lived the dream is Dennis Blieden, who managed to top the field at this year’s L.A. Poker Classic WPT Main Event. Winning a WPT title and a cool million bucks is nothing to sneeze at, but to hear Blieden tell the tale, the camaraderie which comes with joining the WPT club was the real highlight of his tournament:

“By days 4 and 5, I was really having the time of my life. I knocked out Billy Baxter, Phil Hellmuth, and Anthony Zinno all on the same day which was just surreal.Billy and Anthony were both extremely nice, talkative, and class acts. Phil, not so much.

With about 15 players left Phil got moved to my table for the first time all tournament. I was under-the-gun and Phil was in the small, so I of course popped it up with the 4-5 offsuit. After he called and then check-folded the flop, I showed him the five-high bluff and instantly he exclaimed, ‘Oh what is this goofy shit? How are guys like you even still around?’

I couldn’t have been loving it more.” (Quote)

If you’re in search of a world class tournament series that rivals the WSOP, look no further than the WPT – which offers the following events* to close out Season XVII:

*Entries below describe WPT Main Events, but each stop along the tour hosts a series of preliminary tournaments, so be sure to check the event schedule for further details

Upcoming WPT Events in Season XVII

Date Event Venue    Main Event Buy-In
10/28/18 WPT Montreal Playground Poker Club CAD $5000 + $300
11/23/18 WPT Seminole Poker Open Seminole Hard Rock $3,200 + $300
12/11/18 WPT 5-Diamond Bellagio $10,000 + $400
1/21/19 WPT Russia Casino Sochi ₽180,000 + ₽18,000
3/11/19 WPT Barcelona Casino Barcelona €3,000 + €300
4/8/19 WPT European Champ Dusk Till Dawn Casino £3,000 + £300


On a final note, while many WPT stops do take players to far-flung locales – it is the World Poker Tour, after all – recreational players who aren’t looking to travel abroad have plenty of opportunities stateside. Be sure to check into the WPT DeepStacks series, a sub-circuit that visits small casinos nationwide while offering more affordable buy-ins.

2- World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOP-C)

Speaking of affordable buy-ins, what could be better than chasing WSOP gold and glory for just $365 entry fee?That’s the appeal of the WSOP-Circuit (WSOP-C), a smaller tour spun off from the WSOP proper in Las Vegas during the height of the poker boom. The conceptual design of the WSOP-C is deceptively simple – bundle up the structures, atmosphere, and branding of the WSOP into a series of small casino stops.

The WSOP-C hosts dozens of tournaments each year, and whomever manages to win one takes home a shiny gold ring – the tour’s equivalent of the WSOP bracelet. Today, the greatest WSOP-C player of all-time is Valentin Vornicu, owner of an astounding 11 gold rings.

WSOP-C players are the ultimate grinders, travelling each and every week to a different stop – most of which are held in local casinos falling under the Harrah’s brand. And because the price points for WSOP-C events are among the most affordable in the industry, recreational players have every chance to parlay a small buy-in into big bucks.

That’s exactly what Adam Ross did earlier this year, when the self-described part-time player took down the WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event. In addition to the gold ring, Ross pocketed $295,970 in prize money, not to mention a coveted seat in the season-ending WSOP-C Global Championship tournament.

Speaking of that Harrah’s Cherokee stop in North Carolina, take a look below to get an idea of how preliminary event scheduling shakes out on the WSOP-C:

Typical Series Stop Schedule

The following schedule highlights preliminary events from the upcoming WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee stop in North Carolina:

1 No-Limit holdem ($500,000 Gtd.) $400
2 NLHE ($75,000 Gtd.) $400
3 Seniors NLHE ($100,000 Gtd.) $250
4 $600 No-Limit holdem ($100,000 Gtd.) $600
5 NLHE 6-Handed ($75,000 Gtd.) $400
6 Pot-Limit Omaha ($50,000 Gtd.) $400
7 NLHE 8-Handed ($50,000 Gtd.) $400
8 NLHE ($75,000 Gtd.) $250
9 NLHE Monster Stack ($200,000 Gtd.) $400
10 NLHE ($100,000 Gtd.) $1,125
11 NLHE Main Event ($1 Million Gtd.) $1,700


After 15 seasons of success hosting mid-level tournaments, one might think the WSOP-C would be content to rest on its proverbial laurels. But ahead of the current season, legendary WSOP tournament director Jack Effel announced a series of changes to the tour’s structure – including increased starting stack sizes, flattened buy-in prices, and the integration of the popular big blind ante format.

Here’s how Effel described the WSOP-C’s evolution in a press release:

“For our fifteenth season, the time was right to take a hard look at our offering and refreshing it to give players a better experience all around.

Everyone loves more starting chips, and we think things like the Big Blind Ante and larger prize pools will be big hits for all players.” (Quote)

Another awesome reason to consider playing the WSOP-C is the inclusion of online-only ring events. Following the WSOP proper’s addition of online bracelet events a few years back, the WSOP-C followed suit by adding ring events held concurrently via That means you can head to a stop like WSOP-C Rio or WSOP-C Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas to grind the live tables, before retreating to your hotel room to take a shot online.

In an interview with US Poker, Bill Rini – who serves as head of online poker for the WSOP – described the online ring event revolution as a natural progression within the industry:

“We’ve been running online bracelet events during the summer, so we knew there was demand for cross-over online tournaments.

We also see a lot of satellite interest going from online to live circuit events whenever we run them.

It was really just a matter of offering something that the players wanted.” (Quote)

Between the affordable buy-ins, prestigious Main Events, and online tournaments, players of all caliber have every reason to try their hand at the WSOP-C this season.The 2018-19 season of the WSOP-C is currently ongoing, and along with the five stops below to close out the calendar year, you’ll find more than a dozen events nationwide to begin 2019:

Upcoming WSOP-C Events in 2018

Date Event    Venue    Main Event Buy-In
10/31/18 WSOP-C Choctaw Choctaw Casino Resort $1,500 + $200
11/14/18 WSOP-C Las Vegas Planet Hollywood $1,500 + $200
11/22/18 WSOP-C North Carolina Harrah’s Cherokee $1,500 + $200
12/1/18 WSOP-C Los Angeles Logo Bicycle Casino $1,500 + $200
12/6/18 WSOP-C Biloxi IP Casino Resort & Spa $1,500 + $200


3 – Heartland Poker Tour (HPT)

Regulars along the Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) circuit are partial to a particular slogan associated with the brand – “Real Poker, Unreal Money.” That motto was coined by HPT co-founder Todd Anderson, a recreational player who envisioned a poker tour for “regular Joes” like himself back in 2005. More than a decade later, Anderson’s vision is more than a reality, it’s become a smashing success.

Using a streamlined schedule of ultra-affordable prelims, coupled with a relatively low $1,100 or $1,650 Main Event – each of which offers several avenues for players to qualify on the cheap – HPT circuit stops typically follow the format below:

Typical Series Stop Schedule

The following schedule highlights preliminary events from the recently concluded HPT Daytona Beach stop:

1 NLHE Monster Stack $250
2 NLHE $165
3 NLHE (Seniors) $165
4 NLHE $165
5 NLHE (6-Max) $165
6 NLHE HPT Main Event $1,100


Because the HPT concept is modeled after local daily and nightly tournaments held at tiny casinos across the country, the tour largely appeals to weekend warriors and hometown heroes.

Here’s how Anderson described the HPT dynamic in an interview with PokerListings:

“I’d have to say the range of players is about as wide as it can get. You’ve got players that have never played a live event before in their lives all the way to some very exceptional players.The very first final table we had there was a kid named Cody Slaubaugh and he’s gone on to great things as a professional poker player. He’s had great results since but he was just an 18-year-old kid from Fargo back at that final table.

I’d say 80 percent of our players are what I’d call enthusiasts. They have nine to five jobs and they play poker for fun. But that other 20 percent are making a living playing poker, and you’re usually going to see a few of them at the final table.”


One of those pro players who has turned the HPT into his own personal stomping grounds is Greg Raymer, the 2004 WSOP Main Event World Champion. Back in 2012, Raymer went on a historic tear during which he captured not one, or two or three, but four HPT Main Event titles.

At the time, HPT director of operations Jen Mastrud told PokerNews that Raymer was the perfect “everyman” champion to represent the brand:

“There is no champion more gracious than Greg Raymer.The players he eliminated praised him for the way he conducted himself throughout the tournament. He’s been incredibly kind to all of the players, the tournament staff, and the HPT crew. He represents poker well.

All of us at HPT are proud to be on his poker résumé. Those of us with a front row seat to Greg Raymer’s unbelievable run are in awe. After eight years in the business, we appreciate how remarkable this is.” (Quote)

If playing alongside poker legends like the “Fossilman” is a goal, but paying the premium asked by WPT and WSOP-C events isn’t in the cards, the HPT is the circuit for you.

Check out the list of 2019 HPT events below to see when Raymer and his pals make their way to your neck of the woods next:

Upcoming HPT Events in the 2019 Season

Date    Event Venue    Main Event Buy-In
1/3/19 HPT Chicagoland Ameristar East Chicago $1,650
1/26/19 HPT On the High Seas Western Caribbean Cruise $1,100
2/6/19 HPT Colorado Golden Gates Casino Denver $1,650
3/7/19 HPT St. Louis Hollywood Casino St. Louis $1,650
4/4/19 HPT Pittsburgh Meadows Racetrack Casino $1,100



At one point in time, the WSOP in Las Vegas offered the only legitimate tournament series in the world – but my how things have changed for the better. Nowadays, pros and recreational players alike have a year round schedule of smaller circuits and tours to choose from. Whether you want to chase WPT Champion’s Cup glory, a gold WSOP-C ring, or an HPT title, the trio above gives you every chance to live your poker dreams without ever stepping foot in Sin City.

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