The 2021 World Series of Poker is less than a month away and while there are plenty of reasons to look forward to the return of one of live poker’s premier events, there are also plenty of questions that hang in the air. Specifically, questions surrounding COVID, the Delta variant, vaccinations, and the health and safety of both players and staff.
Ty Stewart, Executive Director of the World Series of Poker, as well as his staff, have been working on preparing the series for the unique challenges that will likely come with holding a major poker event in the current COVID climate as well as updating policies as real-time changes occur.
Stewart made himself available to answer some questions, above and beyond what’s stated on the WSOP’s website, regarding the WSOP’s policy decisions and plans moving forward – including, that in light of Governor Sisolak’s Emergency Directive 050 – masks will no longer be required for players while seated at the table.
The topic of vaccinations is a touchy one, can you talk a little about why the WSOP opted for a vaccine mandate?
Stewart: For the WSOP, it’s not about politics. It’s not about claiming to be experts in science. It’s about protecting the integrity of the tournament competition. Whatever your sentiments on COVID-19 vaccination, whatever personal choice you make, the CDC has clear guidelines on the impact of that choice. If you’re fully vaccinated, you may generally go on with your daily life following a COVID-19 exposure, unless you exhibit symptoms. If you’re not fully vaccinated, you’re required to go home and quarantine and your activities will be interrupted. As a Nevada Gaming licensee, we strive to fully follow the applicable CDC guidelines. The current CDC guidance is clear there should be an incubation period after exposure before testing. Following that guidance, there were no viable alternatives to keep unvaccinated players chips in a tournament once we became aware they were a close contact. Those unvaccinated players would be required to leave our premises to quarantine.
We didn’t feel it was right to withhold information about very real scenarios leading to disqualification should players remain unvaccinated. We saw the outrage when we published Rule 115 and knew we needed to go further.
With that in mind, amidst a rising number of cases and the Delta variant we saw only two viable options: Cancel the WSOP outright again, or have a full vaccination mandate which under current CDC guidelines generally removes contact tracing and the need to disqualify any player for close contact so long as they remain asymptomatic. With a fully vaccinated field, we hope the number of interruptions to the tournaments are very minimal.
Can you talk about the Close Contact Rule and what that could mean for players?
Stewart: A close contact is anyone having been within six feet for a period of 15 minutes or more within the past 24 hours of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
As you might imagine, in large poker tournaments with thousands of entrants, as tables break and consolidate, it would not be uncommon for a single player to have close contact with 100 or more players in a given session. If unvaccinated players come into contact with any person who tested positive for COVID-19, they must leave the premises to quarantine. This is what unvaccinated players should know and understand before they sit down to play at any casino in Nevada. This is not a World Series of Poker issue. We’re all following CDC guidelines, which for the unvaccinated is a serious gamble in a multi-day poker tournament.
You say it would be a serious gamble for the unvaccinated, what could have happened?
Stewart: This could have been a very real scenario. A final table is set for 2 pm shooting on CBS. But at 9 am in the morning, we get a call from the chip leader, who is unvaccinated, telling us he felt fine but has tested positive. Can he still play? Or can we have everyone stay and move the taping of the event to a week later? Or will he get ICM?
After we have the knowledge of the positive COVID-19 case, we would have to go to everyone who was a close contact at the final table and break their hearts. Those of you who are vaccinated, can stay and play as long as you’re asymptomatic. Those of you who are not, we’ll blind off your chips and you can pick up your prize money, if any, when the tournament is finished, but come back after you’ve completed the appropriate quarantine and/or testing recommended by the CDC. You can imagine how many will want to leave voluntarily. But it’s not just the final table. Any other unvaccinated player who was determined to be a close contact of the person who tested positive and has now entered new events will also need to be disqualified to quarantine. It just becomes untenable. You can imagine in the Main Event, with its extended duration and large field size. Just a handful of positive cases amongst a field of thousands could completely destroy the integrity of the tournament should the unvaccinated players be exposed to any person who tests positive for COVID-19. That’s why we felt it important to have tournament fields that would avoid those situations.
So from your point of view, this is about both following guidelines and tournament integrity?
Stewart: That’s the thing that’s gutted me the past two weeks – poker players thinking we’re choosing sides or somehow trying to penalize them for making a personal choice. Or that we have the power to dictate medical policy. We’re following the same CDC guidelines as everyone else. We’re just the first ones to call it out in poker. We all can read the sports pages, in the NFL Carson Wentz had a close exposure to a team staffer and was out for five days on the COVID list until he could return following a negative test. The NBA just came out and said any of their unvaccinated players will be out for seven days following an exposure. In those leagues, the players are also paid. Here, our customers pay for their travel and post their buy-ins. Given the scale of our event, we felt strongly it was the most responsible decision to make to avoid asking unvaccinated players to completely gamble with their tournament life.
Why aren’t you requiring staff to be vaccinated?
Stewart: We’re doing all we can to encourage and incentivize our staffers to become vaccinated.
Much of the staff will be existing Caesars employees subject to its policies, which include comprehensive health screening already. Our dealers, even those fully vaccinated, will wear masks at the tables.
As I said earlier, the primary reason for the vaccination requirement is to eliminate the prospect of disqualifying an unvaccinated player through contact tracing. Because you must be fully vaccinated to participate in the 2021 WSOP, under current CDC guidelines, an exposure to COVID-19 will not force you into disqualification so long as you remain asymptomatic.
Earlier today you announced that in accordance with Governor Sisolak’s Emergency Directive 050, no masks will be required at the table?
Stewart: Yes, it’s true. Given all participants are required to be fully vaccinated, they will be able to remove their masks while seated at a poker table during a WSOP event in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino Convention Center for our “poker convention.” As permitted under Governor Sisolak’s Directive 050 announced on September 2, we are moving forward with this masking exception option.
Such directives are always subject to change, but that’s a very positive development for the 2021 WSOP. Of course, masks are permitted at the poker tables should a player feel more comfortable using one this fall, but it appears we’ll be the only live poker played in Las Vegas where you can see a poker face.
Finally, just for clarity, this means that masks are optional while seated at the table. Are masks required in the convention area when you stand up, say to take a break, or use the restroom?
Stewart: Correct, masks are optional while seated at the poker tables, but masks are used in all other areas of the building as we are currently under a mask mandate.
The 2021 World Series of Poker begins September 30 and runs through November 23. For additional information on registration, as well as the event’s current COVID-19 policy, visit their website at WSOP.com.