Imagine sitting at a cramped table, for hours at a time, with eight or nine strangers who have traveled from every corner of the world. Some are drinking. Some are eating snacks. Some are coughing, sneezing, picking their nose. It’s a carnival of hands and fingers touching faces and mouths. Intermittently, those same hands and fingers are fondling small items that are then passed back and forth among all of you at the table.

Sounds like the ultimate breeding ground for a deadly virus?

Well, welcome to the World Series of Poker.

The end of May signals the start of the 51st WSOP, an event that runs through July and sends tens of thousands flocking to Las Vegas from more than a 100 countries in hopes of winning a fortune.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic rages stronger every day, it’s time for officials to admit that this year’s WSOP just can’t happen.

Despite more than 124,000 confirmed cases and 4,600 deaths worldwide, professional sports seasons being postponed and the cancellation of countless public events, Caesars Entertainment (who owns the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino where the event is held) has yet to cancel or postpone the Series.

On Feb. 27, the WSOP account on Twitter responded to a user: “We are monitoring COVID-19 developments and have no plans to cancel WSOP.” Since then, it’s been radio silence. (Most of the main strip casinos announced Sunday that they will be closed temporarily. Caesars Entertainment has yet to do the same.) 

What more is there to monitor? If the NBA can postpone its season, the NCAA can cancel March Madness, and states and municipalities can ban large gatherings, it’s time for the WSOP to face the reality that poker tournaments are a substantial threat to public health and safety.

“It’s crazy,” said avid recreational player Zach McNees of Brooklyn. “It’s cowardly. They’re praying they can just say nothing and run the WSOP as planned.”

McNees points out that the casinos — and the Rio specifically — are already known as a Petri dish of communicable diseases.

“The Rio in general as a casino property is fairly disgusting,” said McNees. “The Legionnaires outbreak in 2017 (7 people contracted the disease at the Rio that year solidified my disgust.”

One high-profile player stated his disgust pretty clearly. “It’s all greed. Pretty obvious they don’t care about the players by not canceling.”

As poker players — I have been to Vegas every summer since my first WSOP event in 2014, and played full time in Vegas for two years — we all want the WSOP to happen. It’s the center of our lives.

At 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning I got a message from Muskan Sethi, a poker pro in New Delhi, India. She was responding to a Facebook message I posted, asking if players were still going to the WSOP.

“(My husband) and I come for the whole series,” Sethi said. “Usually by this time we are fully booked and planned, but this time we haven’t. I’ve been Googling ‘WSOP coronavirus’ every day.”

Wednesday morning seems so long ago now. East Coast grinder and circuit event regular Blake Whittington messaged me Thursday morning: “Guess it’s not really gonna happen, huh?”

Maybe. But maybe not. Don’t forget, the WSOP is huge business. Last year, there were 187,000 entries in the 90 events, with buy-ins totaling almost $320M. Of that, roughly $31 million was pocketed by organizers in fees and staff expenses. That doesn’t include money made from cash games, hotel and resort charges, restaurants and entertainment at the Rio and every other casino in Vegas.

Given how slow the response to the Coronavirus threat has been in the U.S., it’s understandable that Caesars wants to take a wait-and-see approach.

Players and dealers pack the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in what amounts to feeding ground for communicable diseases.
Players and dealers pack the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in what amounts to feeding ground for communicable diseases.

Last week, I talked to Dr. Vit Kraushaar, a medical investigator for the Southern Nevada Health District. While acknowledging that poker was an effective way to transmit diseases, he seemed optimistic that the tournaments could go on. “If the event were held today, I think the risk would be low,” Kraushaar told me. “We are not experts at running resorts or poker tournaments, but we are working closely with hospitals who are in contact with casinos.

“At this time, there is no evidence of community spread.” Kraushaar told me that the Southern Nevada Health District had access to 1,000 test kits, but agreed with my assessment that that number was not enough. Nevada seems as ill-prepared to deal with Coronavirus as the rest of the country.

“We don’t have the capability to test everyone. It will be important to begin scaling up the test response and getting private labs up and running.”

But that was before Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive. Before Rudy Gobert. Before Nev. Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency. It’s time for the poker world to get a grip. It’s no longer an issue of business affecting a small segment of the population, it’s a matter of national health and safety.

Give Stacy Matuson credit, she was the first player who publicly stated she would be skipping the Series because of coronavirus. The poker pro from Fort Lauderdale announced on Facebook on March 6 that she would not be attending.

“People were saying I was paranoid,” Matuson said. “It’s bad enough the viruses that go around in the poker rooms and hotels, but an epidemic makes the WSOP a full-fledged breeding ground. (There are) so many tourists from all over the world, including China, where it’s hit the hardest.”

“If WSOP is smart, they’ll cancel.”

Will they be smart? Judging by their complete silence and the inaction of most other casinos and poker rooms, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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