Return to Live Poker
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Swings across the Live Poker Scene amid Pandemic

Do you remember the feeling of walking into your favorite poker room and hearing that loud yet comforting buzz across the tables? What about maybe, the sound of dealers shuffling cards and players stacking up chips while engaging in friendly banter? Or that familiar voice calling out the last couple of hands at the end of the day as you make the final day of a local tournament? These experiences we deemed as constantly available back then seem like a distant memory nowadays as we are left to reminisce and wonder, when will the poker world ultimately return to normal?

A Look Back into 2020

While the online poker scene has indeed been pumping out great value events left and right, many live poker enthusiasts undoubtedly miss the social aspect and excitement of playing on the actual felt. 2020 has been a damaging year for live poker across the globe with the budding sport forced to take a backseat as a majority of the communities tend their focus to overall public safety.

When news of the pandemic hit headlines, nobody expected its effects to bring such a huge impact across multiple industries, including gaming and sport. The widespread transmission and threatening characteristics of the virus wiped out all present action as well as the rest of the events scheduled for the entire year. Travel restrictions in many countries also meant that no major festivals could truly take place such as before. Even the annual World Series of Poker which has been running yearly for decades, met its first absence in history last year. 

The inevitable changes brought about by the current health crisis appeared as if the world was in a longstanding battle where no one knew exactly what to do, or how to deal with things both physically and mentally. While others compare the situation in 2020 similar to being stuck in a limbo, the light at the end of the tunnel eventually made its way to the scene, and the gradual recovery of live poker as we know it today slowly came to fruition.

2021’s Progress Towards Recovery

This year, a number of countries such as Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and so on have begun to host live events catered mainly to their local following. Successful festivals across the region indicate that the demand for live games remains strong as ever. With vaccines being aggressively rolled out since the start of the year, many felt (or rather, hoped) the end of the pandemic was finally drawing to a close. Safety regulations began to ease, travel borders started to relax, casinos began opening their doors, and live poker rooms cautiously saw action return to the tables. While the situation was inching towards recovery and allowed us to taste a sense of normalcy, these efforts would surprisingly face another major setback as reported novel variants of the virus wreak havoc across multiple nations.

Drawbacks of the reported twice as transmissible Delta variant left many people distraught, disheartened and most of all, worried about what could be lying ahead. Covid-19 tallies across the United States, Europe, and Asian region saw spikes in positive cases with many major cities closing up once again. The fight was not over and everyone braced themselves for possibly another round of closures, limited movement, and overall stricter regulations. 

Norman Chad and Lon McEachern
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Despite the threat, action across the live poker arena in a number of locations, such as the entertainment capital, continued to thrive. The summer events in Las Vegas, for one, were met with a great turnout and smashing prize pools as visitors flocked back to the city for a whirlwind of fun. Players relished being able to sit down, interact, and play a game of good ol’ regular poker, albeit being required to follow extra precautionary measures including wearing face masks for the entire duration. While opinion on the matter is subject to one’s own discretion, it appears regulations now are evolving to a new standard of operations.

As we look forward to what’s ahead, only we can decide whether we proactively choose to live our lives while protecting ourselves the best way we can or live in fear until the virus is eradicated for who knows, maybe in a couple of years. Nonetheless, having that option to go out and play some live poker, whether it be much smaller games as compared to pre-pandemic times, is already a comfort and privilege in itself at this moment in time.

What’s Next?

The industry’s biggest event of all, the annual World Series of Poker held in Las Vegas, is confirmed to be coming back this September, whilst adopting a few new rules and regulations in the upcoming games. Initially, the global entertainment brand updated this year’s tournament rules to include Rule 115 which notes that Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino reserves the right to remove any participant who “received a positive test result for COVID-19 or come into close proximity (within 6 feet for 15 cumulative minutes) of any person who has tested positive for COVID-19” from the tables and shall not be entitled to a refund or any compensation for that matter. 

The controversial rule raised questions among players and was met with negative feedback, leading the operator to essentially require all attendees to provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19 prior to registration.

World Series of Poker
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WSOP Executive Director, Ty Stewart, previously noted in the press release, “The nature of poker is to be in close proximity with your opponents for extended periods of time, and a seat at the World Series of Poker is a commitment for both our company and the participants. We want players to be excited for their return to the WSOP while offering the greatest level of protection and limiting complications during the tournament this fall.

The full schedule of 88 bracelet events whilst as exciting as can be, doesn’t exactly adhere to everyone’s outlook on the current situation. Top professional players like two-time Global Poker Index Player of the Year, Alex Foxen, clearly disagrees with WSOP’s decision and has taken to social media to voice out his concerns. With that said, implementing a rule that likely closes the door on a segment of players means this year’s festival could lack some of its usual attendees or even, its toughest competitors.

Given that full vaccination of all participants is now mandatory, WSOP moreover, announced that it will operate under the mask exception set forth in Nevada Emergency Directive 050 as released earlier this month. That means players will be free to remove their masks once seated at the tables and will not have to keep them on for hours at a time. While this would generally make the players more comfortable while playing, it might likewise push away other interested players who may feel less protected from joining. Traveling to Nevada, Las Vegas is also not as easy as it used to be, with current directives prohibiting travelers who were physically present in countries like those in the European Schengen area (Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and many other countries) and UK, Ireland, Brazil, China, Iran, South Africa, and India during the 14-day period preceding their entry.

Considering the added regulations and adjustments to be made, a few thoughts may undeniably come to mind – Could having a “solely vaccinated” WSOP this year be better than having none at all? Will all following major events continue to follow this standard post-pandemic? There are many questions yet to be answered as the state of live poker continues to develop. Uncertain times call the community to practice understanding and openness towards possible changes that may arise in the foreseeable future. 

Regardless of our own personal choices, it is still gratifying to think that the poker industry as a whole is doing the best it can to cater to players’ needs. Ten days remain on the calendar before the prestigious WSOP festivities kick off, giving everyone just enough time to gather their thoughts, prepare their bankrolls, and assertively make their way to Nevada for an action-packed, star-studded eight-week schedule of events.