It’s been over two years since a full, live World Series of Poker has taken place, and while the 2021 edition of the WSOP remains a full-go, it’s going to be a World Series like no other. A short while back, Caesars and the WSOP mandated that all visitors to this year’s series must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and they also must wear masks at all times while inside the Rio Convention Center. (There will presumably be some limited exceptions to this, such as allowing one to pull down the mask to eat or drink, but those exceptions still remain to be fleshed out.)

To make this all work out, the WSOP has hired CLEAR and its Health Pass app, which will record every visitor’s vaccination status. And if you haven’t been fully vaccinated, meaning two jabs for the double-dose shots, then you can’t participate in the WSOP. CLEAR will have a set-up at the WSOP, and we’ll return to this in a bit.

This applies to almost everyone — players, vendors, and media. It will also apply to any spectators, though the WSOP has yet to decide if it will or won’t allow any railbirds to watch the action. Who isn’t covered by the mandate might come as a surprise — it’s the WSOP’s own staff.

Though vaccines are being mandated for staff at at least one other Vegas casino (MGM), it’s not happening at the WSOP. This is a business decision; it has to do with the chronic dealer and trained-staff shortages occurring right now at casinos and poker rooms across the country. A lot of these rooms went through complete shutdowns beginning in March 2020 that lasted from a few months to… still going, as has happened in Massachusetts’ two poker-offering casinos.

Pandemic impacted temp-staff availability

Poker was particularly affected due to the extended close contact between players and dealers at the tables. And with the long, no-poker shutdown, perhaps thousands of dealers and other tourney staff sought other work. That’s translated to a significant dealer shortage, and it’s especially acute for an event such as the WSOP that hires hundreds of temporary dealers each year.

The online scuttlebutt is that the WSOP’s powers that be determined that if they mandated that dealers and staff be vaccinated, then they wouldn’t be able to find enough dealers and staff to run the series. I believe those rumors. I’m also aware that the WSOP will be paying a record high per down and will, purportedly, be offering further cash/work incentives for dealers and other staff to get vaccinated.

There was even a post or two on Twitter to the effect that Caesars may close its poker rooms at the other properties it owns in Las Vegas. Caesars would then offer those rooms’ dealers and staff the choice of working at the WSOP or being furloughed.

It can’t be understated how important the WSOP is as a profit center — albeit only a moderate-sized one — for Caesars as a whole. Don’t forget that Caesars as a corporate remains mired in overleveraged debt. The WSOP is smallish against that backdrop, but the tens of millions it generates each year is still way better than for the series to not run at all. That’s why the 2020 WSOP live cancellation was such a tough blow. So the WSOP 2021 runs as planned, within all mandates and medical guidelines, but with just a few allowances for the political and social reality we place.

A business decision indeed. And a whole lot more as well.

The CLEAR choice

It’ll be interesting to see how the WSOP handles the mandatory checking of everyone’s vaccination status. All visitors to the Rio will have to present their ID and their vaccination card if they haven’t already submitted it via CLEAR’s Health Pass app.

I’ll be attending and working at the WSOP, so I’ve gone ahead and done the CLEAR Health Pass signup. Health Pass comes in free and paid versions, and you’ll only need to register for the free version.

Once you’ve downloaded the CLEAR app, which is available via Google Play, and installed it, then it’s time to enroll. All your normal ID is entered via a registration form. From there, though, there are a couple of extra steps. First, you’ll need to take a couple of photos of your driver’s license — front and back both — which are then uploaded to CLEAR’s database. You take the photos with your camera’s phone, and CLEAR has functionality for that.

Next, you have to do the same thing for the front of your vaccination card. For the U.S., that’s the 4″x6″ card from the CDC that contains information about where and when you were vaccinated. That includes the vaccine’s lot number as well.

The info as collected also helps CLEAR identify any bogus vaccination cards that players might consider trying to use. That hardly seems worth it, since submitting false info is a felony, but you know someone out there is going to be stupid enough to try. I’d guess it’s much likelier than not that if you try to play the WSOP by submitting a fake vaccine card, CLEAR’s database will catch you.

Players don’t have to use the app, of course. They can submit the needed info in person instead.

If you’re not using the app, I expect the lines to check in with your vax card will be quite long during the first days of the series. Then it’ll taper off, and perhaps pick up a bit around the time the Main Events starts in early November. The tradeoff in all this is that attendance at this year’s WSOP may be down by as much as a third. That’s due to a combination of unvaccinated players refusing to be jabbed just to play at the WSOP, plus international travel restrictions that might significantly eat away at foreigners’ willingness to travel to Las Vegas this fall.

That’s particularly applicable to the many European players who visit the WSOP each year. Visiting the U.S. from most European countries now entails a 14-day quarantine period once these players reach the States, and that might be too much downtime for a traveling pro to tolerate.

It’ll be a different sort of WSOP. Of course, something unexpected will occur, despite the best-laid plans….

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