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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has worked as a writer and editor more than 20 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

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Breaking down the COVID-19 impact on live poker

27 Mar 2020

By Gary Trask
2003 WSOP Main Event champ Chris Moneymaker said he does not expect additional precautions at the poker table once the current pandemic is over.

2003 WSOP Main Event champ Chris Moneymaker said he does not expect additional precautions at the poker table once the current pandemic is over.

Up until about two weeks ago, the thought of sitting around a table, elbow-to-elbow with nine strangers, handling the same playing cards and chips seemed like a perfectly normal and entertaining way to spend an evening to this avid poker player.

Today, the simple act of playing a live game of poker would not only be frowned upon or deemed repulsive, but it would be near impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down casinos and poker rooms all over the world.

As concerns about the coronavirus outbreak get more serious with each passing day, we still fully expect that someday our lives will eventually begin to get back to normal — whether it’s Easter Sunday (12 April) as U.S. President Donald Trump so boldly (or foolishly?) proclaimed on Tuesday, or a year from now. Schools, public spaces and restaurants will reopen. People will have the confidence to get on an airplane and, yes, land-based casinos will reopen their doors to a pent up demand of gamblers who have been holed up in their homes for longer than they ever expected to be.

But when that day comes, how quickly will poker players — both recreational and professional — be willing to jump right back into the game?

Like most every other matter involving COVID-19, the answers are not clear cut and opinions vary wildly.

“I feel that the entire landscape will be changed for a long time, probably until a vaccine is completed,” said Melanie Weisner, a 33-year-old poker pro from Houston who has more than $870,000 in live career earnings and 36 World Series of Poker cashes to her name. “Even if they are allowed to re-open in the near future, live cardrooms will experience a dearth in player activity. A poker table is just about the worst Petri dish you can imagine, so I believe live poker will be non-existent for a while.”

Lon McEachern, pictured here with Norman Chad, thinks live poker will bounce back quicker than most other industries.

Lon McEachern, pictured here with Norman Chad, thinks live poker will bounce back quicker than most other industries.

Despite the dim outlook of Weisner and other players, WSOP Vice President of Corporate Communications Seth Palansky told Casino City earlier this week that since this year’s schedule of events isn’t slated to start until 26 May at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, no cancellation or postponement has been announced as of yet.

“We’ll do the right thing. We’ll follow the guidelines from the medical experts and make a decision when the time comes,” Palansky explained. “But for now, we remain optimistic. It would be great if we’re able to host it. It will be sad if we can’t. But life will go on either way.”

But some of the poker pros we spoke to didn’t see a scenario where the WSOP would be able to stage live events this summer in Las Vegas.

“Personally, I don’t think it will happen live,” said Chris Moneymaker, who is credited for revolutionizing poker when he became the first player to win the $10,000 WSOP Main Event after qualifying through an online poker site in 2003. “I think they move it online like some events they are doing now. If Vegas reopens I could see them having a schedule starting in late June till August.”

Other players are less optimistic.

“It will certainly need to be cancelled,” said Neil Blumenfield, who cashed for just under $4 million when he placed third in the WSOP Main Event in 2015. “Shift it to all online. At least folks in Nevada can play.”

Added Weisner: “It will absolutely not happen. Basically impossible to imagine the Olympics not happening, but the WSOP going forward.

“Postponing it seems very difficult given the space/advance commitment required to run it. Having an online series would be fine, of course, but if you have to be in Nevada to play, it won’t be much of a series.”

Whether or not the poker world congregates in Las Vegas this summer for the most prestigious tournament of the year or not, there’s still the larger issue of whether or not players will eventually want to return to live poker rooms. Or will players continue to flock to online poker, which has seen a huge surge in traffic due to brick-and-mortar casino closings.
Poker pro Melanie Weisner says the entire live poker landscape will be changed for a long time, probably until a vaccine is completed.

Poker pro Melanie Weisner says the entire live poker landscape will be changed for a long time, probably until a vaccine is completed.


“I will certainly not play live until the pandemic is under control,” Blumenfield said. “But once it has run its course, or we have an effective vaccine, I will certainly play . . . Poker is just one of a zillion activities that requires multiple people congregating. We need to solve the bigger problem.”

“I see it eventually going back to normal, and I see it probably quicker than a lot of other industries, because it's the gaming industry, it's casinos, it's gambling and there’s a lot of money involved,” said Lon McEachern, the voice of the WSOP on ESPN since 2002 and an avid player himself. “It’s not going to be an immediate door-busting event, it will be a slow ramp up. But when things do get back to ‘normal’ I hope and pray we can trust the people that make the decisions that when the doors are reopened it will be safe.”

And that brings us to what the new “normal” will look like. Will dealers and players be donning masks and gloves? Will tables be bigger with more space in between players? Will there be a limit to the number of tables allowed in a certain space?

“Nothing will change,” Moneymaker said. “I don’t have any major concerns once we figure out an antiviral medicine or a vaccine.”

“Theoretically, there could be some kind of widely-available protective gear, but it’s hard to imagine people suiting up in that way to go play poker,” added Weisner. “If chips were able to be sanitized effectively and efficiently, that could make some progress . . . Everyone will be evaluating it as it continues, but I imagine life will return to normal sometime in the next year.”

“We'll have to see what the medical and health experts recommend,” Palansky said. “I don’t think any medical expert would tell you that doing something like limiting the table to six players would be any healthier. I realize that there’s a lot more paranoia right now, and rightfully so, but I don’t see poker being much different than going to a concert or a nightclub. The reality is that either everything is going to be safe or it’s not.”

McEachern agreed that precautions such as masks and gloves at the table won’t be necessary nor would they be helpful, but added, “Maybe the new saying in poker will be, ‘Shuffle up and deal . . . and please wash your hands.’”
 
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