The increasingly global spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus poses an ever-larger threat of disruption to major poker events, including this summer’s World Series of Poker. While the odds remain long against the 2020 WSOP’s cancellation — speaking in terms of the live gathering in Las Vegas, and not the online bracelet events — developments in recent days have increased the chances of disruption to the WSOP and many other large series.
Last month, before the Covid-19 spread truly became global, a Triton Poker super high-roller stop in South Korea became the first significant stop to be cancelled. Since many of that event’s players come from China, and a tenth of China was already under quarantine, the move made business and logistic sense.
Such cancellations hadn’t been repeated, however, until recent days. This week the Malta Poker Championships were also shelved; that series draws significant player traffic from Italy, which has been the site of Europe’s largest Covid-19 outbreak to date. And in a related move, King’s Casino in Rozvadov, Czech Republic, the home of WSOP Europe, has banned all visitors from Italy from its casino property.
These cancellations come amid the start of a wave of closures and postponements of large gatherings across all walks of life. Numerous business conventions, trade shows and sporting events have been called off in recent days. In the US, the sports cancellations have been limited to some college and high-school games in Washington State, in Europe it’s been larger. Italy has cancelled numerous pro soccer games (or had them played in stadiums devoid of fans). In neighboring France, the government has already placed a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 5,000 people. That’ll cover most major French sporting events.
There’s even prominent talk of cancelling or postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics, set for late summer in Japan. (Logistically, a cancellation is more likely than a postponement.)
Rather smaller in relation to the global scene, but of significance to the poker world, is the annual gathering of tens of thousands of poker players each summer in Las Vegas. Whether for major tournaments or for rich, juicy cash games, from late May to mid July, the city teems with poker activity.
Is some or all of it going to be called off this year? The odds are still slim, but they are growing.
Much of the attention on this topic has been focused on the WSOP. That’s because it’s not only the largest (by far) of the summer’s poker gatherings, it’s also held in the Rio Convention Center, an aged venue widely known for its cramped quarters, its erratic air systems, and the annual “Rio Flu”.
Not counting shorter trips to Vegas, I’ve caught the Rio Flu in four of the seven full summers I’ve spent in Vegas. I’m already not going this year — the prior gig went away — but honestly, I’m glad of it. I’m getting older, the bug hits older people especially hard, and tromping around a chilly, virus-sustaining Rio for nearly two months seems like a lousy bet.
One safe bet: 2020 will not be the year that the WSOP Main Event sets a new participation mark. International travel restrictions and growing player reticence are seeing to that.
And the WSOP isn’t alone. It gets the lion’s share of the attention in this matter because of its size, but it’s just one of several large poker series that could be impacted by voluntary or ordered shutdowns. Just off the top of my head, major poker series during the Vegas summer — besides the WSOP at the Rio — are held at the Venetian, the Golden Nugget, MGM, Planet Hollywood, South Point, the Orleans, and more. And the very essence of the casino life involves mingling with hundreds or thousands of other people in relatively close, indoor quarters where viral bugs can thrive. Like a cruise ship, a casino is indeed a human petri dish.
So, if cancellations do come into play, how will it play out? First, it’s unlikely that any of these venues will announce voluntary cancellations any time soon. In the case of the WSOP, that’s virtually an absolute. The WSOP is a shining profit center amid Caesers’ lousy corporate balance sheet, which has seen the company and its various entities emerge from years of bankruptcy but still be strapped for cash.
Caesars Interactive Entertainment, the WSOP’s parent company, desperately needs the WSOP’s profit on its sheets. It will do almost anything it can rationalize to keep from cancelling the WSOP.
Yet one scenario, still slim at this point, is that it wouldn’t have a choice. State or federal authorities in the US could conceivably order a ban on large gatherings similar to what’s happened in Italy and France. That won’t happen by tomorrow or next week, but if by April the coronavirus spread in the US is three or magnitudes larger, it’s in play.
And that would mean 2020 could be a washout summer for poker in Vegas. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, and the big poker events go off as planned, but as a realist, I’ve got to acknowledge all the possibilities. For me, it might just be the summer I return to a bit of online play, because, you know, I’ll always have the poker itch.