LONG GAME: Casinos Open Slowly, But Many Challenges Remain for Live Poker

Sean Chaffin May 20, 2020 1670 Reads
A look at the future of live poker after the pandemic.

Casinos may be reopening after the Coronavirus pandemic, but questions remain about the future of live poker. Challenges lie ahead and how long it will take to return to some semblance of normalcy is unknown.

What’s the immediate future of a game that usually involves close quarters and players mutually handling casino chips? Many fans, players, and industry insiders are wondering where poker goes from here.

Players may be heading online, but many hope to be back betting, conversing, and playing with friends at an actual table soon.

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Casinos begin soft reopenings

According to OnlinePokerReport, roughly 10% of the country’s casinos have reopened for business in some form. As sovereign nations, tribal casinos were some of the first to do so.

As of this Wednesday, 16 states have casinos now back open including: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington.

Most of those are tribal operations, but Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Dakota are allowing commercial casinos to open as well. That doesn’t mean all casinos in all these states are opening. Some have chosen to remain closed longer or face individual city shutdown orders.

In California, Towers Casino in Grass Valley became one of the first card rooms in the country to reopen. Play was nine-handed with players and dealers wearing masks.

That didn’t last long however. State law enforcement officers shut it down after only 36 hours for defying state orders.

In New Jersey, casinos remain closed with no timetable yet on reopening. The same goes for Nevada

Many challenges ahead for live poker

Getting cards back in the air is a thorny issue. Players have to sit next to each other and all handle the chips on the table.

These aren’t actions that can be avoided. The use of masks seems likely, but other ideas that have been floated include:

  • Use of gloves
  • Four- or six-handed play
  • Testing employees
  • Avoiding congregations of players
  • Taking player temperatures

The Nevada Gaming Control Board recently released a document detailing best practices for casinos reopening. One recommendation included four-hand play at poker tables and frequent card and chip cleaning.

How conducive these recommendations are to poker remains to be seen. In a time when poker rooms have been closing in recent years, will casinos be amenable to only four-handed play?

That move may reduce house rake, but also may not be of interest to players. Four-handed play wouldn’t be conducive for tournaments as well. Properties might be forced to double staff with far fewer players at the tables.

Six-handed play might at least be a better option with social distancing at tables still possible. Perhaps additional starting flights could help. But finding a perfect solution remains difficult.

Wynn Resorts has already announced its properties in Las Vegas and Boston will initially return without poker. 

“We don’t in any way want to do anything we can’t execute as safely as possible,” Wynn’s Encore Boston Harbor President Brian Gullbrants told Bloomberg. “This is an evolving situation.”

A look at one poker room’s reopening plans

The Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa, Florida, announced its poker room would be open again beginning Thursday. That will include tables with the felt area completely enclosed by a plexiglass divider.

 

Plans call for the poker room to run at 50% capacity with 23 of 46 tables in operation. Staff and guests will be required to wear masks with gloves optional. Other regulations include:

  • Cards and chips cleaned on a regular basis
  • Six-handed games
  • Players encouraged to call ahead to play
  • Notification via text of an available seat

“We look forward to having you back knowing that your and our team member safety is the number one priority,” the property’s website notes.

Players and others in the industry will be watching to see the results of efforts like the Hard Rock’s.

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Tournament series still unsure of future

Beyond simply opening live poker rooms, tournament organizers face even more daunting challenges. The very nature of a tournament many people gathered at tables.

Large fields produce large prize pools, which tend to bring in even more players. The World Series of Poker announced in April that the annual Las Vegas series was postponed to the fall.

That move’s effect on the number of events and entries remains to be seen. With international travel limited and millions of Americans out of work, a big dip in attendance is likely.

The World Poker Tour has also postponed several events and is in a similar waiting pattern. Three events (Gardens Poker Championship, Borgata Winter Poker Open, and LA Poker Classic) also still have final tables yet to be played and filmed for TV in Las Vegas.

WPT executive tour director Matt Savage spoke with USPoker about the future of live poker after the pandemic. He believes tournament poker will return, but the industry can learn a lot from the current climate.

“First of all I know that poker will return someday to as it was before,” he says, “only this time with a better understanding of hygiene, sanitation, and the newfound knowledge of how to cough and sneeze correctly with strong reminders from other players and employees if you forget.”

Months of waiting still ahead for tournament players

As for the WPT, Savage says the tour simply awaits casino partners to open the doors. However, that will only happen when they feel it’s safe for customers and players to travel to tournament venues.

“I don’t see four-handed being a feasible option, and if that’s the case I know that some rooms will not open when casinos do and sadly may never reopen,” he says. “But honestly, I’ve felt some consolidation has been needed for some time to make the strong rooms more solid and create more action and better dealing jobs.”

As for a time frame for returning, Savage believes the long game looks like the only option.

“Live poker will return months before poker tournaments,” he says, “and local tournaments will happen before tournaments that require traveling players.”

Online poker continues to roll in big ways

Players looking for tournaments will continue to look online. April produced record numbers for legal, regulated online poker in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

That comes after the previous records were set in March. New Jersey topped $5 million in online poker revenue for the first time in April.

Pennsylvania topped that with $5.2 million. PokerStars, partypoker, and WSOP.com have run numerous series capitalizing on players at home. Gamblers shut out of sports betting and other casino betting have taken to the virtual poker tables.

Revenue numbers aren’t available in Nevada, but there’s a good chance that state is seeing record numbers as well. WSOP.com remains the only operator in the state.

Sweepstakes poker sites like Global Poker and ClubWPT have also seen huge fields.

These trends look to continue in May and WSOP.com, GlobalPoker, and partypoker all have series currently underway. In Pennsylvania, PokerStars held the major one-off “Pennsylmania” event on Sunday.

The $200 buy-in tournament came with a record $250,000 guarantee, which was smashed with a $515,964 prize pool. Pennsylmania ultimately produced 2,774 entries with 1,760 players and 1,014 re-entries.

This online success extends to international online poker operators. With most live poker still on lockdown, more players will continue to look online for their action.

For a complete look at this week’s US online poker action, click here.

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