Don’t Hold Your Breath: Live Poker Not A Top Priority In Reopened PA Casinos Yet

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With the reopening of Rivers Casino Philadelphia last Friday, all 12 casinos in Pennsylvania are now back in business following temporary shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zero of the 12, however, are dealing live peer-vs.-peer poker.

One site in the state, PokerStars, is operational for online poker, and assorted poker-based player-vs.-house table games and video poker games are available at either brick-and-mortar or online casinos. But real live games of Texas hold’em, Omaha, seven-card stud, etc., aren’t happening at any regulated property.

When the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board shared its casino reopening protocols on May 19, the language about poker was direct:

“Poker rooms are not authorized to operate due to players handling cards and chips,” the PGCB document spelled out. “Poker room operations will be re-examined based upon changing CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and PA DOH (Department of Health) guidance.”

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Two months out from that statement and six weeks after Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh became the first in the state to again welcome customers, are we any closer to the return of live poker in Pennsylvania?

Divide (players) and conquer (COVID)

One factor possibly working in the favor of poker rooms reopening sooner rather than later is that experts’ understanding of the spread of the virus has evolved, and the “players handling cards and chips” element, as specified in the PGCB protocols, is now widely accepted to be less dangerous than was initially believed to be the case.

Fears of surface spread have diminished, as it has been observed that COVID-19 is mostly transmitted through airborne particles at close distances, particularly over extended periods of time and/or if masks covering the nose and mouth are not worn. So while it’s helpful to frequently sanitize hands, cards, and chips, and for poker players to avoid touching their faces, the primary concern is players breathing on one another and on the dealer.

At table games such as blackjack, this risk has been mitigated by the combination of mask requirements and plexiglass dividers.

It would seem something similar could be attempted at poker tables — and has been in some other states:

This is among the possibilities that PGCB Communications Director Doug Harbach says the board is looking into.

“There [have been]  conversations with casinos and health experts, and this matter is continually re-examined by the PGCB,” Harbach told Penn Bets. “Introducing appropriate shielding, disinfecting, table coverings, player limits, and social distancing are certainly discussion points on providing a safe poker environment, but that must be balanced against a game in which full tables are important to its success and financial viability.”

Worth it with player limits?

Harbach brings up a key consideration for casinos. Poker rooms are not huge money generators even under ideal circumstances. For the 10 Pennsylvania properties with poker rooms, rake in 2019 added up to $53.9 million, a mere 1.7% of the nearly $3.2 billion in total gaming revenue for those casinos.

The primary function of the poker room from a casino’s perspective is often to help drive business for other parts of the property. Maybe poker gets them in the door, and they take a detour to the table games on their way out or they bring along a significant other who will play the slots. Poker rooms are not, in and of themselves, huge profit drivers.

And the numbers become that much less attractive if the usual nine-seated tables, featuring plexiglass dividers, are capped at five or six players.

Wind Creek Bethlehem has not had any recent conversations with the PGCB about reopening its poker room, Executive Director of Brand Marketing Julia Corwin said, and even though the casino boasts one of the biggest and most popular poker rooms in the state, it’s not a top priority at this time.

“While we enjoy offering live poker at Wind Creek Bethlehem,” Corwin said, “our first priority is keeping our guests safe. Until guidelines are released that provide how we can keep our guests safe playing poker, the poker room will remain closed.”

Corwin added that Wind Creek has not begun internal discussions on the viability of offering poker if there is a cap on the number of players allowed per table.

PA poker playing small ball

What this strongly suggests is that the timeline for the return of casino poker rooms is not an especially short one. The ball has barely begun rolling.

The focus for the casinos is on keeping customers safe and avoiding another shutdown.

“Overall, we believe Wind Creek Bethlehem’s reopening has been well received by our team members and our guests,” Corwin said. “We have worked with various health officials to create ‘The Wind Creek Standard,’ which is being followed at all of Wind Creek Hospitality’s properties, and the feedback we’ve received has been very positive.”

Harbach echoed the same general sentiment, valuing a patient, cautious approach over a blind all-in shove.

“[The Pennsylvania casinos] are still pretty early in the re-opening stage, and they are not only continuing to adjust their safety protocols for patrons and employees surrounding the play of slots and table games, but have also been asked to adjust operating with mandatory patron masking, without smoking or beverage/alcohol, and with very limited food service,” Harbach noted. “Thus, while we and the casinos are hopeful that openings of poker rooms can occur in the not-too-distant future, it is still not possible to affix a timetable on that right now.”

If there’s no timetable yet, the smart money is on a second online poker site launching in the state before any live poker room welcomes back local rounders.

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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