A new strain of coronavirus first appeared in the world in 2019. For short, we now call it COronaVIrus Disease 2019, or COVID-19.
What started as a number of serious pneumonia-like cases in December 2019 made their way across Asia and Europe and quickly to the United States in January 2020. The situation snowballed to a public health emergency and mounting fatalities in February. A fast-growing number of deaths led to a national emergency declaration on March 13, 2020.
As the world reacted, so did the poker community. Concerns led to closures and state-mandated lockdowns.
Reopenings took months and even years. Health information, vaccinations, and the implementation of new safety protocols allowed for casinos and card rooms to reopen.
However, the pandemic changed poker forever. One of the most social games in the casino remains so, but with a few changes that make it healthier for everyone.
The month of March in 2020 will forever be linked with COVID-19.
The first person in Eastern Oregon to be diagnosed with COVID was an employee at Wildhorse Resort & Casino. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation quickly ordered the casino closed for sanitization.
What happened in Vegas…
Within days, Wynn Resorts became the first Las Vegas casino to close its poker room. Poker pros like Daniel Negreanu spoke out to demand that poker rooms close. “Suspend all tournaments and cash games now,” Negreanu wrote on Twitter on March 11. “There isn’t a more infectious environment imaginable than a poker table.”
At the same time, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
In a matter of days, as cases appeared in more cities across America, poker rooms and entire casinos closed in quick succession. States ordered all public gatherings stopped and non-essential businesses closed.
By the end of March, there was nary a poker room open in most countries around the world.
Something had to give
The pandemic expeditiously began to set its own records. Cases in the U.S. alone exceeded one million by the end of April 2020 and deaths surpassed 100,000 by the end of May.
South Dakota became the first state to ease restrictions in May 2020. By the end of the month, 11 casinos had reopened. More followed in Arizona, Montana, and Louisiana. And in June, more than 400 casinos unlocked their doors.
The limited casino openings that happened in May were extremely restricted. There were capacity limitations, strict sanitization protocols, and temperature testing for all patrons. Restaurants and bars remained closed. Socially distanced slot machines were almost the only games available.
No casino had yet reopened a poker room through May.
The very first poker room to reopen in the U.S. was at Derby Lane in Florida. The May 11 opening included only 13 of their 52 poker tables, and they played six-max hold’em. Players had to wear face masks and wear sanitary gloves or use hand sanitizer regularly. Poker dealers wore masks and sanitized their hands often.
In May 2020, no one could predict the direction of COVID-19. Vaccines were not yet available. Poker players were among many people around the U.S. who had become anxious to get back to regular life.
Hialeah Park Casino in Florida tested a full plexiglass barrier around poker tables with openings only for players’ hands and the dealer. The Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles ran their chips through a new sanitizing machine and asked players to bring their own chips in for the same treatment.
Online poker filled a void
Many poker players took to the virtual tables to compete. Outside of the U.S., players had many opportunities on sites like PokerStars and GGPoker, partypoker, and 888poker. PokerStars took its European Poker Tour virtual with EPT Online events.
GGPoker offered official World Series of Poker Circuit and bracelet events. Series like the Irish Poker Open went online with partypoker. And the World Poker Tour put main tour events on partypoker and WPTDeepStacks on 888.
Limited online poker in the U.S.
Within the U.S., however, options were limited. Considering the difficulties involved in traveling in 2020, American poker players had to improvise.
Those in Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania could access state-licensed poker sites. Three of those states offered WSOP tournaments, while New Jersey brought the WPT online. But players in most states found action on sites like Americas Cardroom, BetOnline, and Ignition.
New faces of poker
After months of closures, poker rooms began to reopen cautiously.
Many poker room managers from Florida to California installed the plexiglass dividers between players and separated the dealer. Some poker rooms sanitized their poker chips at regular intervals. All poker rooms required face masks in late 2020 and played short-handed poker with six or seven players to each table.
The Mid-States Poker Tour was the first poker tour to return. It hosted its MSPT Grand Falls in Iowa in late August 2020. A large turnout proved players’ desire to play again. With masks on faces and hand sanitizer stations everywhere, the tournament drew more than 500 entries and a prize pool of $500,960.
Downfalls of protocols
Plexiglass dividers created the social distance helpful in limiting the spread of the virus, but players had a difficult time hearing each other through the barriers.
Face masks provided the most obvious protection and remained mandatory for more than a year in most poker rooms. But masks literally changed the face of poker, as players could no longer see much of their opponents’ faces. Tells became tougher to identify. Smiles disappeared. And many players hardly recognized each other anymore.
Poker players may have been discouraged, but they wanted to play. If masks allowed them to do it, most affixed them to their faces. Some complained but did what was necessary.
No sanitizer arguments
Most poker players will readily admit that poker tables have long been feeding grounds for germs. In pre-pandemic times, players were unsurprised if they left a tournament with a cold or flu. WSOP players at the Rio during the summer even dubbed their frequent annual illnesses as the “Rio flu.”
When casinos and poker rooms began installing hand sanitizer stations, almost no one complained.
In fact, sanitizing stations and protocols have remained in place long after casinos and card rooms dropped other mandates. While most don’t continue to use as rigorous a chip sanitization process as in 2020, some have continued that ritual in some form.
Poker in 2022
Many people and establishments have learned how to minimize coronavirus risks to remain open for business in 2022.
The WSOP tried a vaccine mandate in late 2021. For the most part, the restriction worked to minimize the risk of turning the tourney into a super-spreader event. Most players complied and showed their vaccine cards to play. However, the move did slow down the registration process. The staff also found it difficult to monitor people entering the tournament area from multiple entrances.
The WSOP dropped its vaccine mandate for 2022. The WPT implemented no mandates, though it supports mask requirements at its host casinos.
Prepared for adversity
Poker is all about minimizing risks. The goal is to use all knowledge to one’s benefit and apply odds in search of the best outcome.
Many poker players are willing to apply this approach to in-person poker. Some players continue to wear masks and sanitize their hands frequently. Others obtained vaccines and are updating with booster shots to protect themselves and others.
COVID-19 may rear its ugly head again. Emerging variants are a continued threat to world health. Today, however, many people and businesses have learned how to implement protective strategies to keep player safety front of mind.
If a poker room reinstitutes a mask mandate, most players will be able to handle the requirement, especially knowing that it’s temporary. Poker players have shown that it will take more than a global pandemic to keep them away from America’s pastime.