A Pandemic’s Effect on Poker

What will the future look like?

Photo by Christian Lambert on Unsplash

Poker before the flood

Even before it became uber-famous at the turn of the 21st century, poker had always been a sort of oddball in the world of legalized gambling.

In this unparalleled game, players face off against each other, instead of the all-powerful house. Aside from minimal blinds — and sometimes antes — the game’s no-limit variety allows individuals to wager as much or little of their playable money as they choose. And even though it’s not the most profitable game for casinos, certain poker tournaments are some of the world’s grandest, high-profile events.

While poker today may be less renowned than at its peak in the late aughts, it continues to prosper as a popular, often sought out casino game.

Poker is not unlike Kevin Hart. He isn’t Hollywood’s biggest star. His movies — at least ones that don’t feature The Rock — aren’t considered blockbusters or even sleeper hits. But people seem to like him, so the studios see no harm in keeping the jittery little guy around.

Poker became gambling’s Kevin Hart back in 2003 when semi-amateur Chris Moneymaker stumbled into first place and $2.5 million dollars at the World Series of Poker’s main event. Since then, people have been unceremoniously drawn to the game, and for some it has even replaced the lottery as their “get rich quick” option. Poker promises all the frills of a series of balls getting sucked at random into a tube, but with an added level of skill.

Of course, many players dive headfirst into the game without ever learning the proper skill set, making the odds of winning big at Texas Hold ’Em about the same as hitting a Powerball jackpot.

Due to this “Moneymaker Effect,” hotels and casinos around the world often find it prudent, even necessary, to provide at least a small poker room. Over time, more and more customers have come to expect poker to be offered on-site. Owners aim to accommodate these players at the risk of losing their business to other establishments that readily offer their game of choice.

Photo by maorix on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Post-pandemic scrambling

The international spread of Covid-19 in early 2020 dealt poker a very nasty hand. Not as nasty as seven-deuce unsuited, but nasty nevertheless. All over the world, casinos were forced to close at a time when the viral threat was projected to hit individual communities and regions the worst. In March 2020, Las Vegas, the world’s epicenter for legal gambling, shut down all its casinos, including the multi-million dollar, luxury structures that line the famous Las Vegas Strip.

While the most extravagant places hemorrhaged millions of dollars during the three-month closure, every casino in the world took a massive hit during the shutdown. Gambling establishments cannot survive without customers to prime the pump. Since poker isn’t a considerable moneymaker for the house (no pun intended), most casinos are primarily focusing on reopening their slot machines and high-volume table games.

So what of those customers who expect and even demand their favorite game? In Las Vegas, at least during the first stage of reopening, most, if not all, poker rooms will remain closed. The idea is to handle the rollout slowly in order to get as many customers into casinos as possible without violating safety protocols approved by the state gaming board. Reopening in general is going to be a difficult feat, and poker doesn’t tidily fit into the scheme.

But one only needs to look to Louisiana to see the inevitable future of gaming. Select casinos have been testing gaming table “sneeze guards” since at least April 2020.

Photo by Jim Lynch, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An odd hill to die on

The “sneeze guards” look and work exactly how you’d imagine. Regular table games — including poker — are played as normal, expect with clear shields separating the dealer and players from each other. And while this may make sense for table games where nobody except the dealer touches the cards, it doesn’t appear very effective when it comes to poker.

Cards and chips are handled regularly throughout the game. That would be hard to chance since the players are battling each other, not the house. In a table game where the dealer is the primary competition, it doesn’t matter whether or not They can see your cards. The house is forced to play by an unwavering set of rules.

Part of the thrill of poker is its absence of rules. It’s such a unique casino game because there is no sure-fire method to give you “the best edge.” Even if you come to the table with your own amazing strategy, there’s a chance your opponent may have a better one. Or, you could lose to an inferior player, due to a run of bad luck.

Allowing fewer players per table, having them sit farther apart from each other, and encouraging everyone to wear masks, are reasonable and responsible steps aimed to promote safety in a semi-crowded area. While this may change certain dynamics of the game, casinos would look clownish if they didn’t incorporate such measures whenever they decide to reopen the poker rooms.

But sneeze guards are a bridge too far. Based on the hands-on factor, and since people will already be distancing and wearing masks, these germ-catching layers of plastic (or glass if they’re fancy), would only serve to ostracize, irritate, and even anger players who once enjoyed a personalized niche in casinos all over the world. And this is where the headaches begin.

An editor, writer, journalist, and foppish socialite obsessed with creating and helping others tell their best stories. Co-founder of

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