Lexy Gavin played in the last live poker tournament in America before coronavirus shut everything down.
Gavin, well known in East Coast cash-game circles for years, has been making a mark on the live tournament scene of late. She had the most cashes of any woman at the 2019 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, with 11 finishes in the money, grossing $69,549.
She followed that with a $37,665 16th-place finish in the $5,250 Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., in August, and a $40,058 score at the WPT LA Poker Classic in January.
Gavin was selected as a “Shooting Star” and a celebrity bounty, typically granted to up-and-coming players, in the Bay 101 Shooting Star event in San Jose that began on March 11, just as coronavirus began ravaging the country.
“I was getting freaked out, but I felt obligated to play because I was a Shooting Star,” Gavin said. “San Jose was a hot spot. I made Day 2 and Broadway shut down and professional sports (were canceled). I made Day 3 and there were 10 of us left.
“I had been playing next to Mike (Tureniec) from Sweden, he was on my left. He showed up wearing a mask and looking really sick.”
There were some players who wanted to keep going, but common sense prevailed, and the final 10 — a star-studded field including Anthony Spinella, Anthony Zinno, Kristen Bicknell, Tyler Patterson and Craig Varnell — agreed to an ICM chop (players are awarded prizes based on the chip value of their stacks) and Gavin added another $40,000 score to her resume. But it halted the mojo she had going, and cost her a shot at first, which would have given her a career-best $300,000 score.
Luckily, none of the other players got sick, according to Gavin. But a stop to live poker was disappointing for her and thousands of poker players around the world. Quarantine life in Redding, Calif., has been tough for Gavin, as she’s been separated from her family on the East Coast, including her father, Austin, who had to endure 2½ months of treatment for prostate cancer in the middle of the pandemic. While not being able to play any poker because online games are not legal in California, Gavin has been working as a poker coach as part of Jonathan Little’s team and is preparing to launch her own training content on YouTube and LexyGavin.com.
The cancellation of the World Series of Poker (scheduled to start in late May) was a huge blow.
“WSOP is like poker player summer camp, it’s a nice reunion,” Gavin said.
High-stakes mixed cash games crusher Melissa Burr has been done her part to cheer up the poker world with daily tweets describing humorous anecdotes in what she calls the “wouldbeWSOP”:
Burr decided to make the light-hearted tweets after “seeing people saying they were disappointed about not going out for their first year.”
Burr’s little snippets of authentic WSOP experience have been extremely popular. Anyone who has played tournaments at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino can relate to not being appropriately dressed for the cold rooms of the Convention Center or being forced to buy a $7 banana before rushing off to play. Her tweets are loosely based on her performance in the 2014 Series, in which she made five deep runs and became the only woman to final table the prestigious $50,000 HORSE Players’ Championship.
There will be an online WSOP, with 85 bracelets awarded, which has sparked arguments among poker Twitter about whether or not the prestige of the Series is being watered down, especially as only players in Nevada and New Jersey will be able to participate. Last year’s WSOP featured 90 events, with 9 of them being online.
Brandon Shack-Harris, a two-time bracelet winner, said in a “rant about WSOP” that he had concerns about the quality of the product and that it felt like double-dipping if the Series goes ahead with plans to hold live events in the fall.
Burr was among those who agreed.
“I don’t think they should have 85 bracelet events,” she said. “It’s definitely going to dilute the brand,” said Burr, a South Jersey resident who said she will play one of the few non-Texas Hold’em events, a $1,000 Omaha 8 tournament. “Once they realize they can do it, they’ll probably do it again.”
Brooklyn pro Sundiata Devore doesn’t think online bracelets are worth less than live bracelets.
“Winning a bracelet or a trophy is nice,” Devore said, “but to me it’s always about making money. The best players tend to be online. I don’t think you water down anything by having bracelets run online. It’s not going to be easier to win a bracelet.”
Ryan Laplante, who won a bracelet in 2016 for the $565 buy-in PLO tournament for $190,000, said he will definitely participate, but he understands some of the concerns.
“My only true issues with them are: not enough mixed games, and way too small of buy-ins. Cheapening the buy-ins and having so many, to me kind of lessens the prestige of the events.”
Laplante, a prolific grinder who lives in Las Vegas, says he will play every online event and fire max entries into everything. He estimates that will end up being $20,000-$25,000 in buy-ins, but with live poker, he would have been in much larger events.
“I was planning on playing at least one $50K, maybe two, likely two 25Ks and a bunch of 10Ks and as many 5Ks and below as possible. So likely in the $300,000 to $500,000 in buy-ins.”
Neil Blumenfield, who finished third in the 2015 Main Event for $3.3M, said he will not travel to play on WSOP.com, citing the fact that his age (66) puts him in a high-risk category.
Blumenfield lives just 15 minutes from the Hard Rock Casino in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but hasn’t played live poker since March even though action has returned to the Sunshine State, now a hotspot for the virus.
“I expect that the casinos here will have to close again,” he said. “We made it worse by doing nothing in January to March and then doing nothing during lockdown to prepare to reopen.”
Most of the players interviewed for this story talked about missing the social aspect of the game.
“For me being mostly locked up,” Blumenfield said, “the three main things missing is live poker, which is my job, my hobby and my social life.”
“I miss not having WSOP a ton,” Devore said. “Not just because of poker. Part of the excitement of summer is getting out of New York and living in Vegas for two months and having an amazing tournament to wake up to every day.”
Devore says he plans on visiting a friend in New Jersey so he can play the online series, which starts in July. But it’s not the same.
“There’s social interaction you get live that can’t be replaced by playing online,” he said. “There’s isolation and loneliness. You get to meet interesting people from all over the world in Vegas. I’m really missing that this summer.”
Devore’s experience since the nationwide shutdown illustrates that the uncertainty poker professionals deal with constantly has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“I was playing on BetOnline, ACR, WSOP, and on the apps, and did well in all of them. I was lucky because I had some success and thought, ‘This should hold me over.’ But this is in mid- to late March, and we didn’t know how long this would last. Then I started not winning as much, which was disappointing because I was cashing consistently, just wasn’t getting the big scores. Then I started having a downswing.”
Downswings are a part of poker, but it’s particularly problematic during a pandemic and economic recession, not to mention social unrest.
“With so many players flooding the online sites, prize pools have grown but it increases variance,” Devore said. “There aren’t the softer $400, $600 live tournaments that are filled with recreational players. A $100 online tournament is like a $1,000 live tournament. A $215 online tournament is equal to a $3,500 WPT.”
Fortunes will still be won and lost at the virtual felt this summer, but those yearning for the return of live tournaments may have to wait. Even as poker rooms in Las Vegas start to reopen, there aren’t plans for large-field tournaments yet, and new rules restricting the number of players at a table have been instituted in order to provide “safe” social distancing.
“I love live poker,” Blumenfield said, “but not enough to die for it.”