Live Poker’s Recovery From Coronavirus Will Take A While — And You Can Forget About The WSOP

The WSOP isn't officially postponed or canceled yet, but that's coming. And live poker has a long road to recovery ahead of it.

The World Series of Poker has made no official changes to its 2020 WSOP schedule. As of mid-March, the plan was to wait and see how the coming weeks of COVID-19 mitigation efforts would play out before announcing postponements or cancellations.

By this week, rumors were swirling that such an announcement is imminent:

But you don’t have to wait for the WSOP to make it official. All you need is a little common sense.

The 2020 WSOP isn’t happening. At least not in person this summer.

It’s a depressing thought for professional and recreational poker players alike, as well as for members of the industry. But it’s the certain reality.

What’s less certain is what long-lasting, or perhaps even permanent, changes we’ll see to live poker, and how long it will be before the game recovers from a pandemic whose means of transmission turns every poker table into a potential petri dish.

‘There is just no way’

We didn’t need to read the stories about home poker games infecting and killing people to know that several people crowded around a table, touching all the same chips and cards, goes against every possible social distancing rule.

Golf —played outdoors, with no need for any two people to ever stand within six feet of each other, not to mention there’s no aerobic element to the game so wearing masks would not be a hindrance in terms of breathing — can be played safely in a pandemic. Poker can not.

That’s why three-time WSOP bracelet winner Dutch Boyd recently told the Gamble On podcast, “There is just no way that we’re going to have a World Series of Poker this year.” Boyd said a delay is possible, but he isn’t even optimistic about that.

“All this talk about flattening the curve, I think one thing that people don’t quite get is that it’s a mitigation strategy, not a containment strategy, and the difference is that the actual number of infected in that whole curve isn’t going to change that much,” Boyd explained. “Flattening the curve just kind of keeps it steady so that we don’t overload our hospitals. We’re still talking about a big percentage of the American population getting this even when we stay at home and practice social distancing. And all we’re trying to do right now is keep it from filling our hospital beds and taking our ventilators.

“So even if we are able to get away from the strict stay-at-home orders that we have … I would expect that even when casinos do open, it’s going to be kind of a tempered approach where we’re still going to have these measures where customers have to stay six feet away from each other and where a lot of countries are going to be dealing with the same thing by closing down their airports. I would expect that we still don’t have international flights coming into the U.S. by the end of May. So I just don’t see how we would really have a World Series of Poker in person.”

What about online?

In addition to the 87 scheduled live WSOP tournaments, there are 14 online bracelet events planned. And those would appear likely to go forward.

Online poker play is up across the board in states where it’s legal, and the 888/ network is available in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, so in those states, turnout would be solid. Travel limitations are an issue, though. Is this the summer when you want to be driving from, say, upstate New York to a friend’s place in New Jersey and staying there for a few days to play online poker tournaments? Maybe stay-at-home guidelines will have been loosened by then, but migrating from one house or apartment to another will still carry health risks.

With only three states in the mix, that’s definitely not a true World Series. Still, there’s a school of thought that the WSOP could move some of its live events online and have a more robust online schedule that counts as this year’s World Series of Poker.

That’s better than nothing, right?

“If they were trying to do it with an online-only version, it would feel so empty to me,” Boyd opined. “Winning an online poker tournament does not give you the same feeling as winning a live tournament. It’s empty. You’re playing against screen names. It doesn’t have that social element. It’s such a one-dimensional thing.

“I could see them trying, just to have some sort of 2020 WSOP, but I think it would just end up being a disaster. … There would basically be an asterisk next to every single champion. And you’re just looking at such low numbers, without having the great big influx of Russians and Germans and French and Brazilians coming down every year and staying on the Strip. It just would be kind of meaningless. And I think it would be bad for the brand.”

Maybe a Main Event

While it’s apparent that May and June won’t look terribly different from April in terms of reopening businesses and schools and returning to our pre-COVID way of life, nobody quite knows what to expect as we get into the second half of the year. There’s optimism among some that major team sports will return (without crowds, at least initially) by mid-summer, while others are convinced nothing will return until a vaccine is approved.

With that extreme uncertainty in mind, maybe parts of the WSOP can be rescheduled for the fall.

At the very least, if Las Vegas casinos are open at that time and COVID-19 testing and treatment is at such a level that larger gatherings are not considered a serious health risk, perhaps the WSOP will try to have a Main Event.

If they do, given continuing public fear of virus spread, plus possible continuing travel limitations, organizers should expect a small fraction of the regular attendance.

Last year, the second-largest Main Event field ever — 8,569 players — converged upon Vegas. Would a November tournament draw half as many? A quarter as many? It’s hard to say.

Another option to consider is a WSOP Main Event that starts online over the summer (and could attract major numbers if some sort of exemption could be worked out, similar to social-casino style sites many people are currently using, that allows international players and those in non-iPoker states to participate) but finishes in the fall with an in-person final table with all players tested for the virus. It’s probably a pipe dream — especially the “not just Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware” part — but it’s a theoretical alternative that would enable strong entry numbers and a final table with television appeal.

Long-term ramifications for poker

Whatever happens with this year’s WSOP, the game of poker is going to change in the months and years ahead.

The economic devastation and inevitably slow recovery will surely lead to a similarly paced recovery for the live poker ecosystem.

“Who’s going to, when unemployment is 30%, feel good about jumping on a plane and going off to Vegas and putting $1,000 or $1,500 into a hotel room and $10,000 or $15,000 into cash games and tournaments?” Boyd wondered. “I just don’t see it happening. Vegas is so dependent on tourist money, and poker is so dependent on a good economy.”

That’s a long-term issue, but not a permanent one, necessarily. The economy and poker should bounce back eventually.

But on a more trivial front, we might see one permanent change to the game: poker players wearing masks.

Gamblers are always looking for edges. Currently, it is encouraged, if not mandated, that people wear masks over their nose and mouth in public. Going forward, even when it is no longer encouraged, it will, for the rest of our lifetimes, be socially acceptable to wear masks. You can no longer question someone’s desire to protect him or herself and others, just in case, by wearing a mask. Not now. Not five years from now. Not 20 years from now.

And you’d better believe there are poker players who will do it if it makes them harder for opponents to read.

That’s just one of the ways in which live poker, when it does return, is bound to look very different.


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