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Pittsburgh poker player keeps focus at the table

Ben Hamnett of Pittsburgh celebrates after winning the WPT Borgata Poker Open and $818,847 on Sept. 21 in Atlantic City. Hamnett also cashed in the World Series of Poker Main Event in June in Las Vegas.Source: World Poker Tour

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I heard that some casinos have slots that pay below the state minimum rate, and that they pay fines instead of raising the rate. Is that true? (Alexis A. DeBernardo, West Newton)

No, says Doug Harbach, communications director for the Gaming Control Board. He says the board never has fined a casino for having a slot below the state minimum payout rate of 85 percent. The state gaming lab tests all machines for payout rate and other issues before they can be installed.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

University of Pittsburgh alum Ben Hamnett calls himself something of a nerd who is passionate about economics.

He can add a few other descriptions after a good summer at the poker table. He's also a player featured in a couple of big hands in ESPN coverage of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas. He's the winner of $818,847 and a World Poker Tour trophy after taking the Borgata Open in Atlantic City on Sept. 21. And, he's a qualifier for this year's WPT World Championship.

“I feel like I'm a businessman who happens to play poker,” says the 2004 Pitt grad, who received an economics degree after 3 12 years of study.

Hamnett topped the second largest playing field in WPT history in taking first place at the Borgata. The official count was 1,181, but that included many people who busted out and posted a second $3,500 buy-in. He estimates about 900 players took part.

The WPT plans a three-day nationwide television broadcast of the tournament in the spring.

The Borgata prize money includes entry in the $25,000 per seat WPT World Championship Tournament in May at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Last year's event had 152 entrants and a prize pool worth more than $3.6 million. Marvin Rettenmaier won, taking home almost $1.2 million.

Hamnett, 29, grew up in East Liberty, but attended middle school and high school outside Waynesburg after his family moved. He still considers Pittsburgh his home, although he travels extensively for poker and for fun.

He started playing poker while attending Pitt and has considered himself a pro since getting out of school. The education in economics proved to be a big help at the table, he says.

“Economics — people don't usually know what that means. Even people who study economics forget what it means. It's the study of how resources are distributed.

“If you think of people's actions and recreational money as a resource you're trying to get, it helps to start seeing that whole thing (at the poker table) as an economic system,” he says. “If you see where the money is flowing in and how it's moving around, then you can put yourself in a position to be there.”

Without that perspective, he says, he might have ended up like so many other young players: “just going head first and see what happens.

“A lot of young players play (poker) like it's a game of chicken,” he says. “They've got their foot on the gas pedal, and they've thrown the steering wheel and brakes out the window.” Any opponent who gets into a pot with such an aggressive player knows the hand is likely to break one of them.

This “terrorist” style makes opponents shy away, and the aggressors pick up a lot of pots.

Hamnett has a different approach, although it's still based on aggression.

“I just constantly am focused on people, constantly counting their chip stacks, trying to figure out their motivations, what are their goals, what are they trying to do, what are they thinking about and trying to adapt to that. It's what you think you would do at a poker table, but then, you end up goofing around, playing on your iPad, talking.”

He figures that when he concentrates on playing his best, his opponents will do the same. Then, he can take advantage.

“You want to make the bet that, when they see it, they're going to be worried. They're afraid they're going to fold the best hand, and they're also afraid you're going to have them beat, and they're going to have to pay off with the worst hand.

“You want to maximize that fear with every bet you make.”

The physical part of playing is important, too. Hamnett says he tries to exercise enough during a tournament to stay relaxed. He eats balanced meals to maintain a level blood sugar, he gets enough sleep, and he does stretches to keep his focus.

The hubbub surrounding a final table can be a distraction. In a major tournament such as the Borgata, players might have to be on the set three or four hours before play begins. The fanfare can lull some into thinking that they've done well enough just by getting that far.

“As soon as everybody has these attitudes, you have a big advantage,” says Hamnett, who recently started tweeting under @riverspecialist. “You're there saying, ‘No, I want to win every chip at the table. I want to put you in tough spots.'

“I'm here to play poker.”

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or

Mt. Airy adds mobile apps

Mt. Airy Casino in the Poconos has added mobile gaming applications for users of Apple and Android devices.

Bally Technologies, which provides the platform, said the Mt. Airy Casino Resort apps are free through the Apple iTunes store or Google Play. Users can view and book rooms, check Players Club points and see restaurant menus. The apps include a mobile play-for-fun version of Bally's Cash Spin video slot, plus casino gaming information and feedback surveys.

Money trail

Slot players lost $43.2 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Sept. 23, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's down from $45 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state gets 55 percent of that gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots have been paid.

Statewide, the slot-payout rate is 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Highest payout rate: 90.64 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest payout rate: 89.3 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $4.67 million, down from $5.24 million last year.


Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.71 million, up from $4.57 million last year.


Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.71 million, down from $3.22 million last year.

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