Perhaps the decision whether to return to play live poker seems frivolous given everything else happening right now. But with most states decreasing restrictions, we are faced with myriad decisions around leisure activities. Do we go back and eat at our favorite restaurant that just re-opened? Does the advent of summer draw us back to busy oceans and lakes? Do we golf, bowl, play pick-up basketball, or walk and bike on crowded rail trails?
For some people, the answers are simple. At one end of the spectrum are people who want everything back to normal and see minimal risk. Others will continue to avoid any environment outside their home that is not critically life-sustaining. Most people, however, fall somewhere in the middle. The question whether to play live poker, or resume any activity, is dependent on the answers to a series of questions regarding conditions and risk factors.
As we approach the end of June 2020, most poker rooms in the United States remain closed. However, there are several rooms that have opened in the last couple of weeks. The areas with the greatest activity so far are Florida, Las Vegas, New Hampshire, and scattered sites around California. If you have been missing poker, and live in an area with open rooms: should you venture out?
While this is a personal decision for everyone, we wanted to give you a few thoughts and resources. We are in no way advocating playing live poker at this time. Health and safety are of utmost importance. Clearly, at the moment, the safest thing is to continue to stay home. However, if live poker is luring you out, here some things to consider
How is the pandemic currently impacting your area?
The variability from state to state, sometimes city to city, of the pandemic’s impact is extreme. A couple of months ago, the Northeast was beset by high numbers of cases and deaths. Today, as active cases in the Northeast have decreased, other areas have seen a sharp increase. Continued swings are likely, and you should be aware of the incidence rates in the areas around any poker room where you may play.
The Washington Post maintains an interactive graphic that allows you to see cases (and deaths) across the US and in your state. The COVID Tracking Project also has some useful data. Understanding this information is not always straightforward. Increased cases may be a result of specific (i.e., those related to specific sites) or general (i.e., difficult to target community transmission) outbreaks or a result of increased testing. Or both. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to know if your area has relatively few cases, or many.
You may also want to visit your state government’s health department homepage which may have county and town level data. Some city and town websites will also give you information on the most recent metrics or relevant news. Above all, know what level of risk you are dealing with before you decide to sit down to play.
What are the mask requirements?
Mask requirements also vary widely from state to state, city to city, and even poker room to poker room. They appear to be changing over time in response to shifting conditions. In our local market (Southern New Hampshire), most rooms are recommending, but not requiring, masks. However, The Boston Billiard Club and Casino in Nashua is under a mask order, and enforcing total compliance. Some rooms in Florida opened last month without mask requirements, but are now under mask laws given the spike in Florida cases over the past two weeks.
Personally, we are not prepared to play in a room that does not require masks of all players. However, opinions vary widely (and strongly) on this fact. We respect that everyone has to make a decision about their own comfort level in this area. Also note that some rooms, such as the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa Bay are installing Plexiglas dividers between players. Other rooms have announced enhanced extensive cleaning protocols. If any of these safety measures change your comfort level, then be sure to educate yourself about the specific accommodations of the room where you intend to play.
How many players are allowed at a table if you play live poker?
States are also instituting varying rules on the number of live poker players allowed per table at this time. Currently, New Hampshire allows six. Las Vegas generally allows only five, but the Bellagio installed Plexiglas and got permission to host six players at a table. Florida appears to be all over the place. Some rooms allow six, others seven. I have even heard of Florida rooms allowing eight players if everyone at the table agrees.
The number of players per table may impact the risk of contracting any illness, of course. In terms of disease, fewer players in close proximity is always going to be safer than more. However, a 6-handed tournament plays out very differently from a 9-handed (or even 10-handed) tournament. And of course, a 6 handed cash game makes it very difficult to beat the rake. Which brings us to…
Are there rake accommodations?
Another factor to consider is the additional rake impact of playing cash poker 6-handed (or less). As we have discussed previously, it is very hard to earn a profit playing poker if the rake is too high . So another important factor would be to know whether the room where you intend to play plans to offset the rake in any way to accommodate for the reduced number of players at the table. While we have heard anecdotally of rooms willing to make such accommodations in Florida, we have not seen it in our local southern New Hampshire rooms*.
So should you play live poker again?
Our conclusion is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It depends upon your own comfort level, your local conditions, and the answers you find to the questions above. Staying home, of course, is the safest option, but the need to socialize and have fun can be a powerful driver. If you do decide to venture back into the live poker scene, first consider the questions above. If you decide to stay home a while longer, we have gathered some ways to avoid total poker withdrawal.
*Update: As of 6/22 The Boston Billiards Club lowered their max rake to $4.
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