Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
The Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Fla., has reopened with Plexiglass barriers at poker tables.
The Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Fla., has reopened with Plexiglass barriers at poker tables.
Image: Seminole Hard Rock Tampa

Our long national nightmare is over, and suffering citizens are finally ready to reopen the economy and pursue the noblest of American activities: gambling.

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The Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa opened its doors Thursday night, making it the first gambling den to welcome customers since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses two months ago. This despite the fact that Florida has had 48,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 2,144 deaths, as of Friday.

As a former professional poker player, I have questions.

Is the public ready to go gamble away hard-earned cash during the worst pandemic since the Spanish flu, and what’s shaping up to be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

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The answer seems to be yes. Hard Rock invited 1,000 gamblers — the casino’s “best customers” (read: whales) — to attend its opening yesterday. Doors were opened to the public at 7 p.m.

The casino has put in precautions, including thermal imaging cameras at entrances to detect fevers and Plexiglass barriers at gaming tables. Two-thirds of the Hard Rock’s slot machines are turned off, in a nod to social distancing. Everyone entering is required to wear a face mask.

Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen told the Tampa Bay Times that 2,000 of the casino’s 4,800 employees have returned to work. He also claims that no casino patron registered a temperature over 100.4, which would require them to be rechecked by staff, a statistic that seems incredible, but OK.

But what about people who blow on dice for luck at craps tables? Seems unsanitary.

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Not knowing anything about craps players, despite spending 6,000 hours in a casino over the past 12 years, I asked a friend how he feels about it.

“Never blow on the dice,” Ricky Urena told me. “I’m a dice-setter.”

Dice-setting is a hotly debated method of throwing the die in a way to lower the house edge. Since this is something that casinos allow, as opposed to, say, card counting in black jack, I’m gonna go with, “This doesn’t help you.”

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But Urena is a believer.

“I studied and practiced different sets and did calculations over time,” he said. “Of course you cannot control the dice but you find ways to extend your rolls several more throws than other shooters and that means a lot better EV (expected value).

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Ricky Urena shows his grip for throwing dice.
Ricky Urena shows his grip for throwing dice.

“So no, never blow on the dice,” he said.

A friend who is a high-stakes crusher agrees that it’s not really a thing.

“Not many people still do that,” my friend said. “It’s theatrical.”

I get it, it’s a romanticized misconception about the game, sort of like how people playing poker in movies say things like, “Read ‘em and weep,” or, “I see your $500, and raise you $500 more!” (Tip: Don’t say these things.)

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Urena says he has already had COVID-19 and recovered — “Had a really bad headache for 3-4 days, high fever and body pain, but no respiratory issues” — so he isn’t too fearful of making the 12-minute drive from his home in South Florida to the Hard Rock property in Hollywood, Fla. He says as long as they sanitize the dice and make the shooters use hand sanitizer, he would feel safe playing.

Urena is a poker player, too, and the Hard Rock is the first poker room in the country to open. Poker still seems like a Petri dish, but some degenerates really need to gamble. According to its Twitter feed, the Hard Rock got more than 100 players in its room last night, with 20 tables opened. The tables are 6-handed, instead of the usual 9-handed, and feature plexiglass barriers, which poker players on social media have derided as unsafe and annoying.

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Blake Whittington, a poker pro who has been quarantined with his girlfriend in an AirBnB in Dallas since the pandemic hit, thinks it’s too soon to go back to live poker.

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“I think plenty of businesses should be opening,” said Whittington, who has $1.6M in live tournament cashes, including a $151,000 score in a World Series of Poker circuit event in Tunica a year ago. “But poker has got to be one of the worst culprits for spreading germs.”

However, there are those like Urena, who just want to play.

“Playing 6-handed sucks but I would do it, cuz poker,” he says. “I need it.”

Sergio Thorne Ramirez is a poker pro from east Texas who has the opposite view of Urena. He’s all in favor of shorthanded games, as he says the 4-handed tables that will be used at his hometown casino, Choctaw Casino in Durant, Okla., will “revolutionize poker.”

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For pros like Ramirez, shorthanded games mean more hands per hour, and having an edge over those who aren’t comfortable making the adjustments needed to play wider ranges and weaker holdings.

Ramirez, who is at risk because of asthma, says his health is a concern but it won’t necessarily stop him from playing once Choctaw opens in June.

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“As often as I get sick from casinos as it is, I’m not sure it really matters. Am I slightly nervous? Yes, partially. But I can’t live in fear forever.

“Then again, I guess you can. I’m not sure I’ll hop right back to the casino but I think I’ll at least stop in to see if games are amazing enough to possibly compromise my immune system.”

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No gamble, no future, I guess.

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