Kansas City poker player brings home a big pot

When Blair Hinkle boarded a Friday afternoon flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Kansas City, he made sure to hold extra tight to the check he was carrying.

Two days earlier, the 27-year-old Kansas City resident had notched the biggest poker score of his career, earning $1.45 million in winnings for his victory in the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open Championship in Hollywood, Fla., and as he made his way through the airport, he took pains to ensure the check was kept secretly — and, more importantly, securely — in his possession.

“I’m keeping it very safe,” he said in a phone interview shortly before takeoff.

The reasons for his meticulousness — aside from the fact that $1.45 million is a lot of money — is that experience has taught him that until your winnings are deposited safely into your bank account, there’s no guarantee you’ll actually see them.

It was just two years ago that Hinkle made another massive score, winning $1.16 million in an online tournament run through the website Full Tilt Poker. At the time, it was the biggest score of his poker-playing career. Life-changing money.

The only problem was that he never actually got it.

Before he could remove his winnings from his Full Tilt account, the U.S. Justice Department descended upon the online poker industry, shutting down three of the world’s most populated poker websites — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker — in what the hold ’em world dubbed “Black Friday.”

In all, 11 executives and bank officials associated with the three sites were indicted on charges of processing billions of dollars in illegal profits. One of the chief results of the crackdown was to lock up funds that hadn’t yet been removed by online poker players, which meant that Hinkle would no longer have access to his $1.16 million.

To this day, he hasn’t been able to retrieve his winnings. And although there is some new hope that he’ll one day be able to reclaim the money — the government begins accepting petitions for remissions Sept. 16 — it is expected to be a lengthy process.

This week, then, he found himself with another chance to make himself an overnight millionnaire. This time for real.

In a tournament featuring some of the biggest names in poker, Blair had managed to stand out during the event’s early stages. He entered the final day of the tournament as chip leader, and while he eventually would lose that lead during a five-hour, 165-hand duel with Justin Bonomo — falling behind by a 5-to-1 count at one point — he was able to battle back.

When it was down to the final two, Hinkle and Bonomo made a deal that whoever won the trophy, they would walk out with equal winnings. It was widely reported that the top winner was to get $1.7 million and the runner-up $1.1 million, but the two men actually left the casino with checks for $1.45 million each.

“It was 9 p.m. when he won,” said his mom, Lynn, who along with other family members flew down for the final day. “So this poor guy’s been grinding along all day, and it’s so intense, and all of us are having fun. He’s a huge entertainment factor. At least for the pro-Blair people.

“It was a very fun celebration.”

“It definitely hasn’t set in yet,” Hinkle said Friday. “Maybe for a moment, last night, it might have sunken in a little bit. But it’s gonna take a little bit longer.”

It was only the latest recent success for the Park Hill High School graduate, who catapulted to No. 3 in Card Player magazine’s 2013 Player of the Year standings. This spring, Hinkle took home $120,000 after winning a World Series of Poker circuit event in Council Bluffs, Iowa. And this summer, he made the final table of a World Series of Poker tournament event in Las Vegas, finishing fifth.

Following Wednesday’s massive haul, his passion for the game — which had begun to wane as recently as two years ago — seems to have been rekindled.

“At that time, I didn’t see poker as a long-term thing,” he said. “But I’ve been playing more tournaments that I can travel to in the Midwest, and I’m starting to love the game again.

“For now, I’m starting to think poker all the way.”

Late Tuesday, when it became clear that Hinkle was headed to the next day’s final table, Angela Morel scrambled to find a flight to Florida so she could be there to cheer on her boyfriend. Considering the late notice — and the fact that, having advanced to the final table, Hinkle was guaranteed at least $370,000 in winnings — she figured that the $500-each-way Southwest Airlines tickets she was able to find was an acceptable price to pay.

Not so much. Big winner, yes. Big spender, no.

Blair Hinkle “went online and found a Delta flight that was $250 each way,” said Grant Hinkle, his older brother and a World Series of Poker bracelet winner. “So he had her go back and cancel the other one and get the credit to save money.”

If the past two years have taught Blair Hinkle anything, after all, it’s to not count his eggs before they hatch. And on Friday, he said he won’t be able to relax until his account balloons.

“When we get home,” he said shortly before his plane departed, “we’re going straight to the bank.”