A Poker World Series Vet Runs the Odds Against Covid
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Today, in Las Vegas, the World Series of Poker recommences after a 16-month interruption. The 2020 series was canceled because of Covid, the first time the live tournaments failed to occur since they were launched at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970. In August, the team running things at the Rio Hotel, where the series will take place this year, decided to require players to show proof of vaccination.
“This is not a decision we have taken lightly,” said Executive Director Ty Stewart. “We want players to be excited for their return to the WSOP, while offering the greatest level of protection and limiting complications.”
Prospective players may well be excited, but they must now assess a new kind of risk, long before reckoning pot odds or the fold equity of shoving 13 big blinds from the cutoff.
To play or not to play is the question, made trickier by two head-scratching wrinkles in the tournament’s Covid restrictions. Dealers, who change tables every 30 minutes, are encouraged but not required to be vaccinated, though all will be masked. Players must be masked in hallways and bathrooms but may go maskless at the table, where we’re elbow-to-elbow, sharing cards and chips and air with the dealers, up to 12 hours a day.
At 70, with zero WSOP bracelets and a couple of co-morbidities, I’m vaccinated and boostered, so my plan is to probably play from mid-October through the main event in November. To help clinch my decision, I’ve talked to doctors and surveyed my more mature poker friends.
Attorney Jim Karamanis enters a few WSOP events every year. Because he’s 64 with his own health issues, his physician daughter recommended that he not play this fall. But as much as he respects her opinion, he still hasn’t canceled his air or hotel reservations, which cover enough days to complete the main event. “It’s something I look forward to for months, especially after they canceled 2020,” he said. “I’ve been vaccinated twice and plan to get a booster this week. But I’m not gonna lie. It’s still a little scary.”
Media maven Eric Adelstein usually enters at least a few events. He just received his third shot but is still debating whether to play. He’s less concerned about getting Covid than about hospital capacity in Las Vegas if he, or anyone, needs urgent care. “It’s all about risk capacity and living our lives. This is the new normal.”
Curt Kohlberg has never been normal. He retired at 55 to mentor underprivileged entrepreneurs and does freakishly well at the few poker tournaments he plays every year. Nicknamed the Psycho Ninja for his startling final-table costumes and “crazy” Hold ’em tactics yielding more than $3.3 million in prize money, he recently had his right knee replaced with one made of cobalt-chrome and polyethylene. Sixty-four and vaccinated, he also claims bionic ninjas are immune to begin with. He’s playing.
Naomi Pazol is a tournament regular who serves on the board of the Poker League of Nations, which supports women players. She’s happy with the vax mandate, calling it “a loose insurance policy against Covid running rampant across the large conference rooms of the Rio, turning it into a super-spreader event.” She has two trips penciled in but remains undecided. “I’d say seventy percent chance I go, wear a mask, and trust the science behind the vaccines,” she said via text.
This puts her in the sizable group still on the fence but leaning toward playing. It’s impossible to know how many are thinking this way, but a Card Player poll found that almost 41% of respondents were more likely to play with the vaccination mandate in place, against only 22% percent who were less likely.
Even so, participation is all but certain to dip, if not plunge. The 2019 series drew 187,298 entries and paid $293,183,345 in prize money. Its main event drew 8,569, the most since 2006, and paid 1,286 finishers at least $15,000, up to a cool $10 million for German pro Hossein Ensan. No one thinks the numbers will be close to those this year. In addition to Covid fears, fewer amateurs can get vacation time during the fall, the pokonomy is depressed and many international players face insurmountable obstacles. The upside will be less densely jammed hallways, shorter lines to bathrooms and somewhat better shots at a bracelet.
Most young, healthy pros will be there, of course, while a few, including Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell, have asked fellow players to protest the mandate and implied that they’ll boycott the series. Dublin-based bracelet-winner Max Silver, meanwhile, is “Looking to bet on several vocal vaccine critics to play.”
Rock musician Steve Albini has fronted several terrific bands and produced — though he humbly calls himself a “recording engineer”— ferociously raw albums for Nirvana, the Stooges, Jimmy Page, and many others. Albini also plays enough tough seven-stud to have won a WSOP bracelet. “In a normal year, you’d have to turn a hose on me to keep me away,” he told me via email. “I was about 40% to go before they required masks & vaxx. Now I’m about 70%.”
As a fellow 70-percenter, I’ve already booked a room for a month but will monitor coverage in early October before I’ll have to decide. Any ad hoc rule changes or inane interpretations? Any players DQ’d? After showing what symptoms? If they were already in the money, even at a final table, what then?
James McGeorge, a Welsh online pro who is vaccinated, still will not risk it, even if it means missing what he calls “our Super Bowl.” He supports the mandate but notes: “if dealers don’t have to get shots it renders it near pointless. One infected dealer could infect a very large number of players because they’re changing tables every half hour, calling the action, touching all the cards.” He went on: “The WSOP have made every reasonable move, but I play poker to live a better life, I don’t gamble with my life to play poker.”
I’ve taken poker-related risks for most of my life, but the stakes are higher this time. What are my true odds of catching a bad enough case to need an ICU bed that might already be occupied? Two percent? Twenty? When I recently checked, the Sahara campus of Kindred Hospital, the one nearest the Rio, had a daily average of 3.6 out of twelve ICU beds available. The city’s other ICUs were closer to 90% full. Like most gamblers, I need to put a number on things, one that’s at least in the ballpark, but this equation has too many variables, including the fact that this could be my last chance to play for a bracelet. That’s always true, but more so every year.
Returning to Google, there’s this: “According to the CDC, 99.5 percent of those dying of the China Flu are unvaccinated. So even if they’re lying or exaggerating, even if it’s 75 or 80 percent, those numbers are pretty stark.” Wait. This is who? John Nolte, a Breitbart News editor. “Could it possibly be that the left has manipulated huge swaths of Trump voters into believing they are owning the left by not taking the life-saving Trump vaccine?” Nolte says yes, confidently insisting that Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and CNN are “deliberately looking to manipulate Trump supporters into not getting vaccinated.”
So it’s come to this, the Trumpification of every last living and maybe soon-to-be-dead thing on Earth — not only climate and race, science and democracy, but personal health and should-I-play-poker decisions. Potentially thousands of the former president’s poker-loving fans could renounce their favorite annual pastime and/or source of income to “own” those supporting a mandate.
Almost literally smacking my forehead over the insanity of our 1861-like moment, I happen across @electricalWSOP, the poker handle of Steve Albini, encouraging kindness and empathy. In a 19-tweet thread, he calls the “They’re stupid, we can trick them!” attitude toward vax resisters “callous, mean, and the opposite of engagement. A lot of them will get sick, some will die, and they deserve our care and sympathy then. In the meantime we should not help harden them as subterfuge, we should facilitate their protection.”
“Why do I care?” he continues. “Because these are people, and like all of humanity they are my blood relations and I love them. I want them to be safe. I want them to help keep the rest of us safe, and you can’t do that by telling them they are right to hate us and disengage from reality.”
I’m actually feeling so bucked up by the wisdom of this thread that I might be 90% or even 95% percent to play now. And it would definitely make more sense to be aggressive with my chips — to, if not go for broke, then refuse to settle for my usual sad series of min-cashes. Attacking pots with my draws, not waiting to see if I get there. Stealing blinds and building my stack near the bubble instead of folding like a tight old man to squeak into the money. With so much else at stake in my last, or one of my last, World Series, I might as well leave nothing on the table.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street" and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker." He has written about the game for the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Esquire and Grantland. He teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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