There have been a couple of stories recently involving the need for poker dealers that illustrate that the pandemic-induced dealer shortage that at times hampered last year’s World Series of Poker may be still be in effect. It’s hard to find good workers for specialized tasks, and when the entire industry is shelved for an extended period, as happened with live poker games in card rooms everywhere, it takes a long time to rebuild.

Events in recent weeks at the Borgata in New Jersey and at Massachusetts’ two newer poker-providing casinos show that the WSOP, moving this year from the Rio to its new digs at the Paris and Horseshoe, may be as up against it, dealer-wise, as they were last fall. That’s no fault of the WSOP’s, to be sure; it’s just the way certain labor markets work.

One might think that the glamour and allure of the WSOP itself might allow the series to draw employees at will, but the truth has always been somewhat harsher. Parent company Caesars has always paid competitive (but not market-exceeding rates), but the seven-week series is arduous, and above all else, it’s a temporary gig. A few of the best dealers get tabbed by the WSOP’s traveling tourney directors to help out at select Circuit stops, but that’s the exception rather than the general rule.

Most times, for most dealers — and especially the newly trained ones — it’s seven weeks and done. And that makes it tough to attract enough trained help, even before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged this niche labor market. Add in the those lingering market effects, and the impact is much worse. It’s really a credit to the work that Jack Effel and his crew did at the 2021 WSOP that the series ran as well as it did. There were a few event delays due to staff shortages. More often, some of the daily events and cash games had to be cancelled. But overall, the WSOP ran about as well as it could.

Massachusetts rooms reopen late, with few tables

The dealer shortage isn’t just a WSOP thing. The reopening of Massachusetts’ two major poker-offering casinos, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor, illustrates the point. In March of 2020, both casinos underwent a total shutdown, as the first major wave of the pandemic spread quickly across the country and the globe.

Both casinos reopened months later on a limited basis, with mask mandates and personal distancing rules in place. Once vaccines were available, both casinos reopened to nearly full capacity, but with a notable exception: both casinos’ poker rooms remained closed.

Live-poker fans in the area were livid, since neither casino initially offered much for public statements about why the poker rooms remained shuttered. That led to an outpouring of complaints about poker’s continued absence to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Those complaints, according to a commission member, were at least ten times the volume of complaints the MGC had received on any previous topic.

The complaints drew attention from Massachusetts-based media outlets as well. Perceiving a little bit of heat, the MGC held a hearing and “invited” representatives of the two casinos to explain why poker wasn’t being reopened when everything else at the two properties was running. Both casinos’ reps explained — quite truthfully, in this writer’s opinion — that the specially-trained dealers they needed for poker just weren’t in the labor market any more. As the pandemic wore on, many of those dealers had moved on to other lines of work.

Not that there was really a lot that the MGC could do, except try to save some face. The state’s licensing allows casinos to offer certain forms of gambling, but it does not demand it, to players’ chagrin.

Still, the two Massachusetts rooms opened not long after. MGM Springfield, in the western part of the state, reopened in late October 2021. Encore Boston Harbor promised the MGC it would reopen by February, and it beat that promise by a day, serving its first returning players on January 31. Both rooms, however, opened only a portion of their existing tables, only for cash games, and plenty of downtime, especially on weekdays. Encore Boston Harbor in particular reopened with a skeleton operation, with only 12 tables of its initial 54-table room currently available.

The online page for Encore Boston Harbor’s poker room shows the 12-table listing and even offers a photo of the room’s much smaller footprint, suggesting it’s going to be that way for quite a while. (That’s a shot of the reworked Boston Harbor room above, serving as this story’s banner image.)

Borgata’s big blunder angers hundreds

Despite the ire displayed by Massachusetts’ poker players, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor probably handled the situation the right way. It could have done it the wrong way, as New Jersey’s Borgata chose to do more recently.

The Borg, which is one of the largest rooms in the United States, decided recently that the time was ripe to run its first major poker tournament since pre-pandemic days. And, due to a virtually inexcusable lack of foresight, the Borgata turned what should have been a busy but enjoyable event into a poker-themed disaster.

On Sunday, the Borgata ran a “President’s Day” special tourney with a $400 entry and a $200,000 guarantee, which was guaranteed to tap into plenty of pent-up poker demand. It sure did, but the situation grew unmanageable even before the event kicked off for the first of two Sunday Day 1 flights. The queue of waiting players grew several hundred players long and wait times to register were estimated at four hours long.

Hundreds of players gave up after discovering the long lines and left disappointed after investing hours in the chance to play. The second flight was every bit as overstuffed, and well before that flight got underway, the Borate posted this on its Twitter feed:

Later, word spread that the same staffing shortages seen elsewhere played into the Borgata’s blunder. The room spread as many tables as they could, but it wasn’t close to enough.

The Borgata’s failure occurred in multiple ways, too. Not understanding the nature of a poker-starved customer base’s willingness to come play in a $200,000 event, given its low buy-in, was just a major gaffe. Some would-be players alleged that players who were shut out of the first flight were then not given priority for the second flight’s seats, and while I’ve been unable to verify that, it’s inexcusable if true. Other players bemoaned the fact that the Borgata has no online registration for its poker tourneys, but in truth, not many venues offer that.

Objectively, it’s up to the reader to decide how much of the situation was due to the Borgata misreading the market, and how much wrath the players’ wrath over how the day’s events unfolded is justified. There’s a sense in most of the jilted players’ reports on the situation that the Borgata treated them as a commodity, rather than human players; once the casino knew it had maxed out its revenue, it didn’t care much about the overflow.

That’s not the first time the Borgata’s poker room has become involved in such a situation, either; back in 2014, when Christian Lusardi’s counterfeit poker chips fouled and eventually voided a Borgata Winter Classic event, the casino employed a refund system that largely penalized the players who ran deep in the event, before Lusardi’s crime was discovered. That resulted in a failed lawsuit by some of those players, but the event didn’t necessarily do a lot for the Borg’s reputation, either.

Dealer shortages may loom for 2022 WSOP

Before straying too far afield, however, it’s time to return to the 2022 WSOP, which begins at the end of May. Last week, when the WSOP released the 2022 schedule, it also revealed that the pandemic and vaccine rules implemented for the 2021 series won’t be in effect this time around.

Attendance will likely surge. In the 2021 series, overall attendance seemed to be done about 25%. A few big-field events hit hardest by the WSOP’s staffing woes were off by nearly 40%, but several others came close to meeting pre-pandemic turnouts. It was a down year for the WSOP, but it was entirely expected.

A lot of players didn’t show up for the 2021 WSOP due to the series’ mask/vaccine requirements. (A few players cheated and provided forged vaccination records, but that’s a separate story.)

Dealers, though weren’t required to be vaccinated to work the WSOP, though the WSOP even offered cash bonuses. The looming shortage even forced Caesars to mandate dealers at a couple of its other properties to go work the series, or not work at all.

What that means, as the 2022 WSOP approaches, is that the dealer shortage might be every bit as acute as it was last fall. The WSOP has already employed many of the methods it used to find dealers to work the series, and this time around, there might be 20% more players, on average.

Keep in mind that the long delays at the 2021 WSOP during its opening week were due to the protocols in place because of the pandemic. After that, however, the equally long lines that popped up later in the series were due to staffing shortages. As the events out east have demonstrated, those shortages may well reoccur. So if you’re playing at this year’s WSOP, be prepared, especially in those big-field events. The wait in line may be longer than you expect.

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