Among the news emanating from the World Series of Poker’s release of is 2022 summer schedule is a planned relaxation of its rules for 2021 that required players to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to wear masks while not seated at the poker table.
The WSOP dealt just briefly with the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination controversy in a small section of its press statement announcing the 2022 WSOP schedule. In a section titled “Operational Notes,” the WSOP offered its current stance on the pandemic:
COVID-19/Vaccination: The WSOP will follow local, state and CDC guidelines relating to COVID-19 that are in effect during the event. While there will be no vaccination requirement to play in the tournament, players will be accountable to follow CDC guidelines appropriate to them as individuals. Based on current state guidelines masks will not be required.
Those CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines are fluid and are subject to change, but the trend in recent months has been toward less restrictions rather than more. Just two weeks ago, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak ordered an end to the statewide mask mandate that had been in effect in large public venues, notably including the state’s casinos. Nevada joined many other states in revoking its prior mask mandate, while Nevada’s casinos generally endorsed the move as a boon to the state’s gambling tourism industry.
At the 2021 WSOP, only the players were held to the must-be-vaccinated standard. Non-playing visitors were also supposed to be vaccinated, but the WSOP never had a mechanism in place for checking, and in the face of severe shortages of dealers and other specialized workers, the WSOP was forced to do without mandating vaccines entirely for those groups. That in turn created a situation where players officially had to be vaccinated to play, but a dealer at the same table faced no parallel requirement.
This year’s relaxation fixes that discrepancy, if just by eliminating the underlying requirements. In regards to dropping its vaccine requirement, the WSOP will also end its arrangement with CLEAR Health Pass, through which players were required to present proof of vaccination in order to participate. However, as the series wore on, more and more anecdotal tales of faked vaccine cards emerged, to the point of calling into question the efficacy of the CLEAR system itself.
Anti-vax players celebrate reguirements’ removal
As expected, given how controversial the entire COVID-19 vaccine topic has become, anti-vaxxers were quick to celebrate the WSOP’s pullback on mandates. One of the most visible anti-vaxxers in the poker world has been two-time Global Poker Index Player of the Year Alex Foxen, who was quick to note his approval:
Foxen did participate in numerous WSOP Online bracelet events and was present in Las Vegas during the WSOP’s summer run. However, he stayed away from the Rio, instead playing in competing series at the Aria, Wynn, and elsewhere, where vaccine requirements for players were not in effect. His take on the 2022 WSOP received quick approval from many like-minded players.
Potential for dealer shortage at 2022 WSOP still exists
Overall, attendance at the 2021 WSOP was down roughly 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels, though there was wide variation among individual events. The WSOP’s lifting of both its vaccine and mask mandates for players promises a sharp jump in attendance for the live 2022 series.
However, that’s not the only logistic problem the 2022 WSOP faces. The 2021 WSOP was short-staffed through virtually the entire series, and in a few instances, play in bracelet events was delayed simply due to a shortage of dealers. Similar delays and long lines plagued other elements of the series, such as the cashier staff, despite the WSOP hiring virtually everyone it could find. The dealer shortage was so severe that parent company Caesars mandated to poker dealers at a couple of other Las Vegas properties that they had to work at the WSOP or be furloughed.
The now-expected resurgence in expected player attendance for the 2022 WSOP may make that situation even worse, for several reasons. First, dealers were exempted from last year’s vaccine and masking requirements anyway. Second, the entire live-poker industry remains gripped by a severe shortage of dealers that has caused stressful situations everywhere; many experienced dealers and floor staff moved on to other work during the pandemic.
As examples, Boston’s two poker-offering casinos finally reopened on a limited basis, several months after the rest of the venues’ gaming opened, while explaining to the Massachusetts Gaming Board that they couldn’t resume poker due to lack of qualified staff. Just last week, the first major post-pandemic-shutdown poker tournament at the Borgata, in New Jersey, turned into an epic fiasco, again largely due to staffing shortages.
Despite its allure and fame, the WSOP faces extra hurdles as well. Since it’s a seasonal gig lasting less than two months, the series must rely on temporary workers, who simply may not exist in the quantities needed. The WSOP is also not highly revered by many veteran dealers, who have cited overall low overall pay for their work, as detailed in this feature last summer by Poker.org’s Jon Pill.
It all adds up to uncertainty as the 2022 WSOP nears its new era at Paris and the Horseshoe (formerly Bally’s), adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip. It goes without too much elaboration that the WSOP seeks to keep everyone as safe as possible while also conducting business as close to “usual” as possible. As with any new situation, there are bound to be some surprises. The changes in this year’s rules regarding vaccine and mask mandates are just one element in what promises to be a very interesting summer.
Featured image source: CDC