While it’s still too early to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, the global roll-out of a vaccine suggested to us that it would be a good time to review the state of poker in a post-pandemic world. In what follows, we summarize how poker is bouncing back in the major live markets, give a brief account of online play, and wrap up with some speculations for the immediate future of poker.
Red Chip Poker is a Vegas-based company, so let’s start in our own backyard. As noted in our article on poker rooms of The Strip, the pandemic led to multiple closures, some of which have been declared permanent. Despite this, recent signs indicate poker normality may be returning. All rooms in the city are now operating either eight- or nine-handed, with Plexiglas dividers in place. Floor staff and management are keen to point out to customers the extra precautions they are taking, including disinfecting chips and other hygiene measures.
In terms of poker action, the lack of major conventions continues to depress traffic on casino floors in general. There are, however, plenty of cash games at the larger rooms. Perhaps more impressively, the Venetian recently concluded it’s February DeepStack Extravaganza with a two million dollar guaranteed prize pool, and in March the Wynn is scheduled to have a $2.5 million guarantee.
In Los Angeles
The situation is also encouraging. The Bike, for example, reopened on January 27th, and action has been as fast and furious as ever. Given that the player base relies far less on tourists than Las Vegas, this is perhaps not surprising. However, our contributor who plays regularly at The Bike tells us even bigger and wilder games are running than before lockdown.
The situation in the rest of the country seems similarly positive, with behemoths like the Atlantic City Borgata also back in action. There have been multiple room closures in many states, and in some cases the reopened rooms are still only operating five-handed. It will be several months before a more detailed picture emerges through published casino revenue, but so far it seems there is room for optimism.
Austin despite the uniquely challenging weather and power situation has been putting up record tournament numbers in some of their rooms.
Rest of the World
Moving further afield, there is enormous country-to-country variation in poker action arising from the severity of COVID-19 in the host nation. Macau, now often regarded as the gambling capital of the world, took a major hit in 2020, but here too gaming is returning to pre-pandemic levels. The large UK market, which was another that was closed down completely for months, is set to reopen in May.
When the effects of the pandemic started to bite, there was immediate speculation within the poker community that online action would pick up. With regulated poker in the U.S. being restricted to a handful of states, some of the evidence for such a mini-boom is primarily anecdotal. It has certainly been the case that WSOP.com in Nevada has seen an increase in traffic, with a wider variety of games running. In New Jersey, where more detailed figures are available, online poker revenue in fall 2020 was more than twice that recorded in the previous year. Pennsylvania has also seen more online action.
When it comes to projecting poker trends over the medium term, opinions are divided.
The global recession of a decade ago had a profound impact on Las Vegas, and the local poker community is thus keenly aware of the link between the health of poker and the that of the economy. Unfortunately, different institutions and pundits are predicting a broad range of possible economic scenarios for 2021 and beyond. But with some published outlooks suggesting scenarios as bad as anything since World War II, there is obvious cause for concern.
A contrarian view, which a cynic might argue is rooted mostly in wishful thinking, is that once freed from the shackles of lockdown, people will flock to tourist destinations such as Las Vegas to let off steam. In this vision of the future, live poker is anticipated to see a renaissance. Maybe the fast poker action in L.A. described above is a symptom of such a post-COVID bounce.
There has also been some positive sentiment that the significant uptick in online poker traffic might continue even as live poker becomes readily available. This stems from a much broader societal trend. During lockdown, many people who were “forced” to work from home discovered that not commuting every day was pretty decent. Further, games across the spectrum from chess to Animal Crossing have seen a massive boost in interest from a population with reduced work and more free time.
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Another question in the online realm is whether the additional online poker players were live transplants, or if some of them were just looking for something new to do, or at least a renewal of a hobby they had previously abandoned. Here at Red Chip we’ve noticed many of our new subscribers have similar stories. “I quit poker after Black Friday, but COVID encouraged me to take it up again.”
It would be ironic if this awful disease, which has produced misery for so many people worldwide, played a part in leading some to (re)discover the joy contained within the beautiful game of poker.