So you want to play poker in Vegas during a pandemic? Here’s what you need to know

Jon Sofen
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Posted on: September 27, 2020 9:00 am EDT

Las Vegas has always been the poker capital of the world, and still is even during a global health pandemic. But if you’re planning a trip to Sin City, understand that your next visit will feel a bit different than previous ones. And if you’re a first-timer, know that the Vegas you see isn’t the Vegas of old, nor will it be the Vegas of the future.

I’m not trying to discourage you from making the trek to Southern Nevada. Lord knows our local businesses sure could use more tourism as thousands here remain without work due to decreased customer demand. Plus, there still isn’t a better place to play poker. But the city has changed quite a bit, and not in a good way.

First off, many of our top attractions that lure in tourists are closed, and likely will remain closed for quite some time. Want to hit up Omnia at Caesars Palace or any other nightclub? That’s not going to happen because they’re all closed. Ditto for strip clubs, shows, and about half the restaurants on the Strip.

Face masks are required everywhere you go, unless you’re eating, drinking, or inhaling a cancer stick. And, for some strange reason, many able-bodied but extremely lazy tourists have been riding around the Strip on rented mobile scooters, flooding the sidewalks, a nuisance to the rest of us.

Different crowd, different vibes

For reasons unknown, the crowds have deteriorated since COVID-19, but not only in quantity. I’m also talking about quality. Brawls have become the norm on the Strip and downtown on Fremont Street, although fortunately most of them have turned out to be harmless. And one of the numerous videos spread around social media had a happy ending when a Nazi received a painful dose of karma.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported that hotels on the Strip would increase daily rates in an effort to weed out some of the riff raff. I asked Vital Vegas blogger Scott Roeben what’s up with the trashier clientele since COVID-19.

“It probably has to do with drive traffic due to travel restrictions and decline in air travel,” Roeben said. “The rascals thing is another baffling element. They were always here but the lack of people makes them stand out more.”

“I’ve spoken with several high-ranking casino executives and, honestly, they’re baffled,” he continued. “Everyone seems to agree low room rates are a factor, but it doesn’t really account for everything that’s happening. There were also indications those government checks ($600 per week tacked onto unemployment) were drawing visitors who can’t always afford Vegas.”

Where to play poker

Alright, that’s enough negativity for one article. It pains me to say anything bad about Las Vegas, my favorite city in the world and the place I’ve called home since 2012. Sin City will return to its glory days before long, I’m confident in that. In the meantime, despite the harsh criticisms I presented, this town is still worth a visit for poker players.

Before COVID-19, we had 31 places to play poker in Las Vegas. That’s down to 17, although Wynn is set to reopen soon. Perhaps, by the time you make it to town, that number will increase by a few.

I’ve played in just about every poker room in town multiple times. But Aria has always been my favorite place to play as I find it the most comfortable and the dealers are among the best (plus, the watermelon juice and strawberry smoothies you can order are bomb). But given Aria is still spreading six-handed games and doesn’t have plexiglass dividers in place, I prefer Venetian to anywhere else right now. Venetian’s poker room now has eight-handed games and I like the safety dividers at the tables as they give me a little peace of mind during the global health pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to catch Covid.

Where else can you play? Bellagio, Boulder Station, Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Golden Nugget, MGM Grand, Poker Palace, Sahara, Santa Fe Station, Silver Sevens, South Point, The Orleans, Venetian, and Westgate.

Please don’t forget to generously tip your dealers. They’re risking their own health so that we can all enjoy this wonderful game even during a pandemic.

What to do away from the felt

Although quite a few of Vegas’ main attractions are closed — and, yes, that includes brothels in nearby Pahrump (sorry) — you can still have some fun away from the poker table. For starters, most pools on the Strip are open, so long as you’re visiting before they close for the winter in late October.

Yes, the buffets are gone (South Point and Cosmopolitan are the only ones left), as are many of the regular restaurants, but there are still numerous delicious eateries on the Strip and Fremont Street. If you’re looking for a steak, I’m partial towards Gallagher’s Steakhouse at New York New York. Prime rib lovers can’t go wrong at Oscar’s at the Plaza downtown. And while the pizza selection in Las Vegas overall is absolutely brutal, Pizza Rock at Green Valley Ranch is quite appetizing.

Gov. Steve Sisolak finally permitted bars in Las Vegas to reopen effective September 20. If you’re looking to blow off some steam after a rough poker session, Bugsy’s Bar at Flamingo is my go-to spot.

With the return of sports in the US, the sportsbooks are also open again. Venetian and Wynn, in my opinion, boast the top two sportsbooks in terms of viewing experience. For those like me who don’t enjoy inhaling cigarette smoke, Park MGM (formerly Monte Carlo) is reopening September 30 as the first smoke-free casino on the Strip.

Las Vegas isn’t completely yet “back.” Many attractions remain closed and tourism is down compared to the pre-coronavirus days. But it’s still a quality tourist destination with plenty to offer, especially for poker players. Just remember, masks are required everywhere you go. Tip your dealers, social distance as much as possible (don’t go spreading the Rona while you’re here), and please don’t rent a mobile scooter unless you have a health condition.

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