Bon Hiver: A Roadmap for Live Poker in the Pandemic

  • US live poker proceeded almost unencumbered in 2021, European events were sparse 
  • In recent weeks, there has been a spate of cancellations, most notably EPT Prague
  • Justin Bonomo has called for a solution if a player gets COVID mid-tournament 
  • A winter hibernation for live poker makes sense with realities of the pandemic now clear
Poker players wearing surgical gloves
Now we are all aware of the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be time for live poker organizers to consider a winter break for events. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

“Good Winter”

In season five, episode ten of Northern Exposure, the residents of Cicely, Alaska, emerged from their homes after the first snow. As is customary in those parts, they happily wished each other a “bon hiver” (‘good winter’), putting a cheerful spin on the dreadful reality of the harsh weather. It’s a good life lesson about accepting the things that we cannot change and enjoying the fleeting moments that we can.

live poker should go into hibernation between November and February

I believe that in the coming years, the poker world needs to adopt a similar approach. With the likelihood of winter spikes in COVID case numbers and mutations that render our vaccinations less efficacious, live poker should go into hibernation between November and February (May and August for the Southern hemisphere). Big online series can fill up those four months with poker players at home and hungry for action. 

There might still be some cancellations and postponements in the spring, summer, and fall as specific countries experience localized increases in case numbers and react accordingly. For the most part, however, these seasons will be suitable for poker events. 

A tale of two realities 

There was plenty of live poker in the US in 2021. The World Series of Poker (WSOP) went off without a major hitch or outbreak of COVID cases. Caesars Entertainment opted for a vaccinated-players-only policy and used the Clear App system to verify the status of all taking part in the tournaments. Added to this, there were umpteen World Poker Tour (WPT) events and the Mid-States Poker Tour season proved a huge success. 

In Europe, stricter regulations made organizing live poker a more difficult task. For most of the year, the contrast between the US and the rest of the world was stark. In many ways, it was a tale of two realities. Once the UK relaxed restrictions, the Grosvenor UK Poker Tour seemed to have a stop every fortnight. Ireland enjoyed a brief window with the biggest festival coming in the form of the Unibet International Poker Open. 

most live poker in Europe has ground to a halt

There was lots of poker in Cyprus, Tallinn, and Rozvadov. The Unibet DeepStack Open managed to have most of its French stops. Pokerstars had a stop in the Hippodrome Casino in London but the European Poker Tour’s planned return to Prague in December was postponed. In fact, while the US tours continued unencumbered this month, most live poker in Europe has ground to a halt and looks likely to stay that way as the Omicron variant spreads like wildfire throughout the continent. 

Abandoned stacks worth nothing

The short-term prognosis is bleak, but looking further into 2022, there is reason for optimism. Early studies from South Africa and Denmark suggest that Omicron is more transmissible (R number of 5) but less lethal. If that turns out to be true, most people will catch the virus well before there is an efficacious vaccine. 

If we project into the middle of next spring, mass gatherings like live poker events could be back on the agenda. One issue that could crop up again then is what happens to the stacks of players who test positive for COVID mid-tournament. The WSOP decided that immediate disqualification would be their policy, setting a precedent when Upeshka De Silva was given 9th place in the 2020 Hybrid Main Event. 

At this year’s WSOP, there were examples of players voluntarily abandoning their stacks as soon as they discovered that they had COVID: 

There are, of course, two ways to create a level playing field on this issue. Organizers can adopt a disqualification policy (although it baffles the mind how the player is not at least entitled to have their stack blind out) or they can try to figure out a way to protect, even partially, the equity of the unfortunate player. 

Bonomo calls for a solution

In the $100,000 buy-in WSOP Highroller, players signed a piece of paper agreeing to pay out anyone who tested positive the full ICM value of their stack. In recent days, the winningest live tournament player in history Justin Bonomo was adamant that operators figure out a system for this scenario: 

Isaac Haxton agreed: 

A formula whereby a player who is removed from play due to testing positive for COVID receives 70-80% of their stack’s ICM value is in the ballpark of what is fair to all but also discourages possible angle-shoots. 

Encouragingly, tournament director Sean McCormack expressed a willingness to work with the players on a solution:

Things are as they are

Once the ‘First Snow’ comes to Cicely, Alaska, the townspeople know that they are in for several months of life spent predominantly indoors as they shelter from the storms and freezing temperatures. Their hibernation is a part of their life, part of their reality. Simply put, they accept that things are as they are. 

figure out a system for remunerating our fallen comrades

A similar fate is upon us now and will likely remain for several years. We do, however, have choices about how we can best adapt to the changing landscape. Do we bullishly continue to schedule live events in the Winter and respond in draconian fashion to players who catch COVID? Or do we accept the new reality, schedule an eight or nine month live season and figure out a system for remunerating our fallen comrades. 

Of course, we are all foes at the poker table but I say ‘comrades’ here on purpose, for when it comes to our collective health and the health of the game, we are all in this together. 

You’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.

 – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao Of Pooh