Players, Staff Provide Snapshot of New Normal for Vegas Poker Scene

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Plexiglass barriers are installed at the Bellagio Poker Room in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. (photo credit: @LuckysLasVegas Twitter)

Not everyone is ready for a return to live poker in Las Vegas but for those that are, there are plenty of games to choose from. More than six months after the Sin City Strip was forced to close its doors in response to the coronavirus crisis, many of the most popular card rooms in the city, including Bellagio, Aria, and The Venetian, have adapted to new health standards and found a way to get back to business.

It’s not just the poker rooms that have been forced to readjust. The players who have made the decision to venture back into the casinos are returning to a game drastically different from the one they left. New regimented cleaning protocols, short-handed tables, limited room capacity, and plexiglass barriers have all been put in place and have quickly become the new norm.

And, of course, wearing a mask is non-negotiable.

With so much uncertainty still surrounding COVID-19, it’s understandable why many would opt to stay away. However, some professional and recreational players have reconciled with the current reality in order to get back to the live grind.

“I think the concern with COVID is actually pretty low,” said professional poker player Christian Soto, talking about the vibe around the table. “At least at the Bellagio, where it seems like it’s doing a relatively good job. Every dealer change they wipe down a table. Every time a person quits, they wipe down that area. There’s the plexiglass, all that stuff, that kind of eases the concerns of COVID just because of how much effort is going into that.”

“And I think that partially they amped that up because early on there were two or three cases of COVID right away at Bellagio.”

Soto’s a self-described ‘live pro’, an instructor at the Solve For Why Academy, and frequent tweeter of threads that capture his high-stakes cash game journey. He’s been putting in a lot of hours as of late, getting up early to ensure himself a seat in his game of choice. But before he was able to get back in action he had to feel right about returning.

“So, initially I was, ‘Okay, well how does it get transmitted? How easy is it to go from one person to another?’ And once we got a little bit more information, it’s not airborne and you really have to contract it by somebody coughing or sneezing or leaving it on the table…once we got that information, then I was, ‘Okay, well I think certain casinos are doing a pretty decent job at the table. As long as I’m doing my part, using hand sanitizers, stuff like that, then I think we’re good,” Soto said.

For a pro like Soto, a return to the tables is part of his livelihood. For “Anthony” (who preferred to not have his real name used), a recreational player from New York City, it was an invite from his Zoom online poker group to go to Las Vegas in early September that marked the first time he’d done any real venturing out into the world in six months.

“I don’t know. I think at a certain point, I think that we’ve got far enough in it where I felt like if I keep my mask on in public, and I have hand sanitizer and I’m not in really close quarters with anyone, like close quarters in terms of socializing in a large group, I felt like it was probably safe,” Anthony said. “I was not expecting there to be very big crowds. They were bigger than I expected, but I also was ready to leave if I needed to, if I felt unsafe.”

Depending on who you talk to, perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the Las Vegas live scene are those crowds. With limited capacity, to ensure social distancing, rooms are experiencing long waitlists and are granting reduced lobby times for in-game players to keep their short-handed games running.

“There’s more demand that there is availability in my opinion,” Soto said. “I’ve had to show up at Bellagio at six in the morning because if you don’t get there early you’re not going to get a seat for many, many, many hours. It’s insane. I’m not even joking, if you show up at 1:00 p.m. you’re going to have to wait three or four hours.”

A floor supervisor who is currently working in a Las Vegas poker room and wished not to be named agreed that, while there are plenty of players who have decided to avoid the poker rooms, the demand for poker is there.

“There is certainly a level of demand for poker in Las Vegas currently, even in its current state,” they said. “There are some pros willing to play under these conditions, but a good number have stayed away for the time being for various concerns. The pros I’ve spoken to recently remark that the games they have to choose from are ‘softer’ due to the reduction of pros populating them presently.”

The supervisor speculates that pros are spending more time online or in the much talked about Las Vegas private games which is leading to a group of players at the table who “have never stepped foot in the room” before. They are also of the opinion that some of the early games in returning from the shutdown may have played higher with an influx of “pandemic money”, funds that may have been received from unemployment or severance, combined with people headed into Las Vegas to take advantage of cheap room rates aimed at rebooting the gaming economy.

“There is a very limited level of concern expressed by players in the room. For the most part, the folks who are uncomfortable with being here, simply aren’t here. We still get phone calls from time-to-time asking what safety measures and precautions are in place, but the folks actually stepping foot in the room, they’re sated by the measures in place or don’t voice their concerns.”

The players aren’t the only ones affected by the threat of COVID as the dealers and staff are also asked to deal with the current conditions. Unlike the players, these individuals are required by their employment to be on the premises.

“When we all shut down in March I was apprehensive about what measures would be in place upon re-open, and was unsure how comfortable I was going to be spending time in a setting that – let’s face it – has never been highly regarded for its hygiene,” they said.

“When the glass was put up, the masks became mandatory for everyone, the cleaning of the tables and cards, etcetera…it all came to fruition, I felt as though everything that could be done realistically was being done,” they said. ”I commend the time and thought put forth by the majority of operators in town. My apprehension has given way to being comfortable in a day-to-day routine. I know what to expect, which leads to peace of mind I suppose.

“The majority of the staff at this point is on the same page, the only real difficulty is playing whack-a-mole with the players being lax on wearing masks properly. It tends to be exhausting. There are always people who pretend to be drinking their tea for 45 minutes at a time, with their mask hanging off an ear, things like that. It is an additional burden placed upon the floor staff, mainly because while we ask dealers to enforce the masks, they fear being militant with players about masks will impact their tips.”

A busy Caesars poker room on Labor Day, 2020. (photo credit: @LuckysLasVegas Twitter)

While there may be some who are in opposition to masks, unconcerned with the comfort or safety of those around them, the enforcement of sanitary standards is part of what is keeping the live scene in action. That and the large plastic barriers which keep a group playing together also isolated from each other. For many, poker is considered a social game, where one would think barriers would dampen the enjoyment of playing.

“I think some people that I play against are actually more comfortable with the plexiglass and the mask and things like that,” Soto said. “Generally, poker players are rather introverted. So this just gives them another barrier and they’re actually a little bit more comfortable than they normally are, which is a weird thing. It’s backward thinking, but it’s somehow, giving them more barriers, ends up being a good thing for them. They’re more comfortable and actually more relaxed than they usually are.

“It could be something like that where it almost feels they’re just very similar to being at home in front of a computer where they’re just kind of in their own box. They’re not necessarily around anybody. So, they feel a lot more comfortable than usual.”

For Anthony, the barriers not only help soothe some health concerns but they also removed some of the other negative elements of live poker.

“I pretty quickly liked them a lot,” Anthony said. “Some people complained about the dividers and not being able to hear, but I didn’t feel like it was that big a problem. There were very few instances where a hand was turned over before it should have been because the person couldn’t hear.

“I personally loved having all the space. There were some of those stereotypical issues of the person sitting next to you smelling or taking up too much space or being too loud. A lot of that was mitigated by them. Did I like that it hurt some of the table talk? That was definitely reduced, except for a couple of very social, loud people.”

Anthony took it a step further saying he was “hoping the dividers are here to stay” and that he enjoyed his week-long experience of playing short-handed poker in Vegas, even in a pandemic.

“I did have a good time. I would have had a better time if I won a little more,” he said. “It was nice to be back.

“I don’t know if I ever felt 100% comfortable. It’s going to be a long time before we ever feel comfortable. I think until the fire is under control and you feel comfortable in the people running the country. So at a certain point, you have to be like ‘We got to get on with our lives.’ Part of that is the entertainment of stress relief.

“Are there better choices than going to Vegas? Almost certainly.”

Since returning home to New York, Anthony has tested negative for both COVID and its antibodies.

photo credit: @LuckysLasVegas