Drawing Dead: COVID-19 and the World Series of Poker

Let's not let the WSOP stand for the "Welcome Spreader Of Pandemics."

Posted Apr 05, 2020

The World Series of Poker is the longest-running, best-attended poker tournament on the planet. It is held in Las Vegas at the Rio Hotel and Casino. Last year, it drew 187,298 players from approximately 100 countries: enough entries to "...fill an average-sized Minor League Baseball park... 90 times" (Jon Sofen, CardsChat News, July 18, 2019).

The 2020 WSOP is scheduled to begin May 26 and run 51 consecutive days through July 15. I know the dates well, as I have already made plans to play the "main event" in a room the size of a football field where 2,000 participants sit elbow to elbow at hundreds of tables (9 or 10 to a table) for 10 hours a day.

Is there anything wrong with this picture?

In normal times, no. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, very definitely. At a time when all major mass gathering events have been canceled or postponed, those in charge of the WSOP continue to remain steadfast in maintaining its starting date.

As reported on cardplayer.com, the following exchange took place between interviewer Erik Fast and Seth Palansky (VP of Corporate Communications for the WSOP).

Fast: "Last Week you told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that WSOP officials would 'continue to monitor developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic, but we're still working as if the WSOP will be held as scheduled.' As of today, is that still the case?"

Palansky: "So far, there has been no update on what we said then."

Later in the interview, Fast asks Palansky: "Is there a target date that you need to make a decision by [concerning the tournament dates]?"

Palansky: "No definitive date. But sometime next month would be the expected earliest."

Seeing that the article was published on April 3, that would mean the decision would be made in May (unless the interview was held in March, which would mean sometime later in April). Either way, this answer is astonishing. And inappropriate.

Poker: A Petri Dish for Pandemics

With COVID-19 not even expected to spike in some parts of the USA before May, how can any thoughtful human being think it is possible to hold a major poker tournament in the same month? Tournament poker—with its long hours, multiple tables full of players all sitting next to each other at close quarters sharing chips and cards, and facing short bathroom breaks that guarantee reduced sanitary conditions and handwashing—is an ideal transmission zone for the spread of disease. That is particularly true for an illness like COVID-19, which is easily spread by close human contact and the sharing of common objects by numerous individuals.

I've been looking forward to playing the WSOP this summer, as I do every summer. It is a highlight of my year. I certainly don't want to miss it, but I also don't want to risk my life to be there.

In poker, when a hand is not yet over, but a player has no chance to win—regardless of what cards are yet to come—he or she is said to be "drawing dead."

If some action is not taken soon to reschedule the WSOP at a later, safer date, we might be faced with the sad reality that a player can be dealt a winning hand and end up dead anyway.