COMEBACK QUEST: Live Poker Tournaments Begin Returning with Safety Protocols; Challenges Still Ahead

September 15, 2020
COMEBACK QUEST: Live Poker Tournaments Begin Returning with Safety Protocols; Challenges Still Ahead

It’s been months since players have enjoyed major live poker tournaments. Poker rooms in some states still haven’t returned, and the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour have postponed events and focused efforts at promoting online events.

Despite a boom in online poker, many players are asking: when will live poker tournaments return? While a full poker circuit doesn’t seem likely any time soon, a few tours and casinos have made efforts to get back in the action.

The Coronavirus pandemic may currently have many players shut out, but there is some hope things may be slowly returning.

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MSPT gets back to the grind

In late August, the Mid-States Poker Tour became the first mid-major tour to get back to the felt. The MSPT hosted a $1,100 tournament at Grand Falls Casino in Larchwood, Iowa.

Organizers didn’t know exactly what to expect, but were surprised when the event produced 518 entries. That shattered the previous record of 238 and also set a state record for tournaments with buy-ins of $1,000 or more.

“The turnout was amazing and far exceeded expectations,” MSPT founder Bryan Mileski says. “Grand Falls is a beautiful property with great amenities, a hotel, and golf course. But it’s definitely a little bit more remote than a lot of tour stops, sitting outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”

Mileski says the event went well with a minor challenge of staffing for that many players. All players, dealers, and staff were required to wear masks.

Mark Collins won the MSPT Grand Falls event for $107,706. (photo courtesy MSPT)

Free masks were provided for players who didn’t have one and hand sanitizer was placed throughout the tournament area. The casino also reduced the number of tables for additional spacing. 

“I heard nothing but positive feedback,” Mileski says. “Everyone was cooperative wearing a mask, no issues there.

“The players were amazing and so happy to be back getting the opportunity to play. It’s probably the most positive and complimentary I’ve ever seen poker players, just excited to be back at it. Hopefully that lasts a little while.”

The turnout certainly shows that there is a demand among some players at least to get back to the tables. The MSPT has a few other events in the works, but is waiting to hear from properties before finalizing.

“Ultimately it’s day to day,” Mileski says. “All properties have to adhere to their own state guidelines for operation and running poker tournaments.”

Venetian brings tournament series back to Las Vegas with huge results

In August, the Venetian in Las Vegas announced it would be running a festival in September. The DeepStack Showdown runs through Sept. 27 and features 32 events with a total guarantee of $400,000.

The festival has become the first major Las Vegas poker series since Nevada casinos reopened on June 4. The Venetian reopened its poker room on June 5 and has seen a regular flow of customers at eight-handed tables.

Players must wear masks and Plexiglass dividers are placed between players. Poker room organizers reduced guarantees, but were hopeful on a nice return.

“Our one-day poker tournaments have seen tremendous support even with lower guarantees since we resumed on July 24,” tournament director Tommy LaRosa told USPoker. “We evaluate each DeepStack poker series and make adjustments as participation dictates.”

So far, the efforts seem to be working. Most events have shattered expectations –  doubling or tripling the guarantees. Some have even gone beyond that. The $400 MonsterStack which topped the $50,000 guarantee with a prize pool of $219,447.

The property has already announced another DeepStack Showdown in October with more than $400,000 guaranteed. The MSPT will also be making another Vegas stop at the Venetian in November.

Other Sin City casinos have been running daily tournaments as well. It’s a good bet some of those will follow the Venetian’s tournament series path soon.

Seminole Hard Rock casinos gear up in Florida

Florida has been a poker hotspot over the last decade and the Seminole casinos have been a big part of that. The properties host the WPT, WSOP Circuit, and their own branded tournament series.

The Tampa facility opened on May 21 and experienced a big demand for poker on opening night. Coconut Creek and Hollywood opened on June 12 with a strong demand as well. All properties have experienced increased player turnout in the intervening weeks.

Daily tournaments are also now ongoing at all three poker rooms as of Aug. 1. Those numbers have been solid as well.

The properties are now planning on being part of tournament poker’s revival. The Tampa Hard Rock will host the Pinktober Poker Open on Oct. 7-18 with four events and $250,000 guaranteed. A portion of every buy-in goes to the American Cancer Society to fight breast cancer.

That property will also host the Winter Poker Open on Dec 2-14 with six events and $450,000 guaranteed.  At the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, the Ninth Annual Fun in the Sun series is planned for Dec. 26-30.

All series will be held in the poker room under the company’s “Safe & Sound” program. That involves stringent safety protocols including mandatory masks, temperature checks, physical distancing, frequent cleaning, and the use of state-of-the-art air filtration systems.

The state has seen decreasing COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, and cases in recent weeks. If that continues, the tournament series could see even bigger turnouts than expected.

WPT tests tournament waters in Asia

Larger tours seem to be taking a more cautious approach. After postponing the live WSOP in Las Vegas to the fall, organizers haven’t commented on when the series might return.

The WPT also has postponed events on its Main Tour and other brands. However, the company ran the WPT Japan in August at the Hotel Gajoen in Tokyo.

A look at the final table at the recent WPT Japan. (photo courtesy Japan Poker Union)

Gambling is illegal in Japan, so players participate by playing in satellites at poker bars and clubs throughout the country. WPT and tournament organizers were pleased with the turnout – a record 726 entries.

That’s an increase of 35% from last year. The WPT and hotel had numerous safety protocols in place including:

  • Mandatory mask usage
  • Temperature checks
  • Disinfection procedures
  • Acrylic partition dividers at registration
  • Players bringing their own bottled drinks

 What about American events? None have been announced yet. WPTDeepStacks director Cathy Zhao says the WPT season always concludes after the Tournament of Champions.

WPT organizers plan to continue with that format to conclude Season XVIII. However, the timeline for that tournament remains unconfirmed. Tour officials continue working with casino partners to find a home and date for the event when it’s safe.

“As always, WPT will look to our casino partners to help guide the return to live poker events,” Zhao says. “We are optimistic about future events.”

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Challenges remain, but poker rooms continue reopening

While some tournaments have returned, there are still some obstacles ahead. While many states have seen Coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations decline, fear of additional cases remains. 

Some players may be hesitant to return to live poker at a casino even as some events see large turnouts. 

Travel is also a problem. Many players might be hesitant to fly at the moment and international poker travel isn’t possible at the moment.

Most reopened poker rooms have strict safety measures in place like Plexiglass table dividers and mask mandates. Poker is a social game and many players may not feel comfortable in that environment.

Other states are also seeing poker return including Texas growing number of poker clubs. However, some states and properties are taking different approaches than Iowa and Nevada.

Pennsylvania hasn’t allowed poker rooms to reopen at all. And while not officially barred, none of the New Jersey poker rooms have reopened.

But as more properties and tours return, there seems to be a path forward. It will simply take some time and adjustment.

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