18 months ago, when Covid-19 first premiered on planet earth, live poker across the globe more or less ground to a halt. Several months later, once the world had adjusted to social distancing and mask wearing, some poker returned. However this initial reappearance was mostly characterised by plexiglas dividers, masks and restricted capacity cash games. The various tours, series, battles, cups and championships of the European poker scene have only just begun to re-emerge.
Live Events Go Online
While live poker was suffering, online poker was flourishing. Many live events reinvented themselves, at least temporarily, as online series.
Live event brands remained relevant and visible, as the online poker tournament scene heavily pivoted towards constant online series, keeping housebound players attention on the virtual felt for as long as possible.
Live poker has always been a part of the overall poker player experience and in the short history of the game going digital, online booms tend to have been accompanied by live booms.
Despite the resurgence of online poker, with liquidity bursting from the seams, it was inevitable that players would want to return to the live environment when permitted to do so. In addition to those raring to get back to where they once belonged, there are also many new players who took up the game online during the pandemic, now eagerly awaiting their first live experience.
Demand for the events that have taken place so far has been high, however getting started again hasn’t been easy. Live event operators, eager to get their businesses off the ground again are facing many challenges.
Restrictions are easing but also being reimposed, resulting in changeable factors in each location, for each event. Many dealers have left the profession and moved onto other things, making hiring enough experienced staff more difficult. Lower maximum capacities per table restrictions also have an impact, as live poker already operates on quite a tight profit margin.
Poker Industry News caught up with Teresa Nouisianen, Thomas Lamatsch, Toby Stone and Alex Henry, aka some of Europe’s best known live operators and tournament directors; to find out more about their thoughts and approach to restarting live poker events.
What have been the difficulties and challenges of restarting live poker events?
The Tallinn Summer Showdown, which took place from 19-25 July was one of the first European events to allow mask free live poker. Tournament Director Teresa Nousiainen, listed several of the issues they faced to get the show back up and running again:
Teresa Nousiainen, Tournament Director for events at Olympic Casino, Tallinn, picture by Jukka Mykkänen
“Keeping up with the constantly changing restrictions; making sure players feel safe about coming back to play; can we advertise/should we advertise; is it too early for live events to be back, or not; how many staff to hire, given the uncertainty of how many players there will be; venue hire cost concerns in case of cancellation.”
Despite easing off on covid restrictions at the recent event, some restrictions will be reimposed for the next event to grace the Estonian capital, when Kings of Tallinn takes place from 19-25 September, 2021. For this event players will need to show proof of vaccination or have a negative test result. Health officials will also be present and rapid tests will be available for €5 (the casino will refund this with a voucher)
Another event series that made an early return to the live scene was the Unibet Deepstack Open (DSO). Founder and owner Alex Henry also also noted the difficulties in getting the Paris event off the ground:
“Finding a place where there would be demand, as it is still complicated to travel in 2021, but also enough staff to work on, and most importantly: that the place is and stays open! I have been organising poker events for the last 13 years, facing all sort human or logistical issues; this is by far the most challenging event I have ever had to set up”
Deepstack Open Founder and Owner Alex Henry (picture supplied by Deepstack Open)
Just as soon as the Paris event had been concluded Henry was forced to cancel the next DSO event (intended to be in Gujan Mestras) as local authorities have insisted that poker tables are maximum 5-handed.
International Tournament Director and Gaming Consultant Thomas Lamatsch manages events for Prague Casino RebuyStars. While RebuyStars have restarted local poker events, as of the beginning of August, they have not yet been able to schedule any events that would appeal to traveling players. Lamatsch explains:
“Regulations are constantly changing, especially travel regulations and capacities. So you can’t plan for the long term and international partners can’t make commitments”
PokerStars also have yet to restart the majority of their live events, with tournaments at the London Hippodrome and EPTs in Sochi being the only ones they are currently scheduling. Toby Stone, PokerStars Live’s Tournament Director in Europe explains why most live poker events (not just those run by PokerStars) have been slow to return:
“It is going to cost the operator much much more to run an event, and it is also much more difficult to plan an event, because things change so fast. It can take 6 to 12 months to plan events, and once all the work has been put into it, it could cancel it at any moment, that is not the best environment for a company to plan a live event.”
The Covid pandemic has highlighted health and safety to players, in particular that live poker is quite a high risk activity when it comes to easily transmittable diseases. You sit with up to 10 strangers, in close proximity, all facing each other around a small table, passing chips back and forth and handling cards that are redistributed every couple of minutes. At the break players go to bathroom then rush back, often without washing their hands, maybe hi-fiving a couple of friends and grabbing a handful of peanuts from the finger food bowl at the bar before they retake their seat.
Referencing the new efforts to keep poker equipment clean and safe for players, Lamatsch notes:
“This is probably the only positive thing in this crisis, that now organisers are forced to clean the gaming equipment more often. I think such hygienic measures will stay in the casino business for a long time.”
Thomas Lamatsch, International Tournament Director and Gaming Consultant (picture supplied by subject)
Toby Stone, PokerStars Live’s Tournament Director in Europe also agrees that hygiene is an important factor for the future of live poker.
“I hope enhanced cleaning measures will remain once the pandemic is over. Live poker environments are not the cleanest places in the world, and we have all seen that player running from the toilet straight back to the table! From a player perspective, I think they are much more aware of cleanliness than before”
Plenty of fish left in the live poker sea?
On the question of whether players will return in the same numbers as before, Lamatsch is confident:
“Absolutely. All the events that are already running or have run have broken the old records. The problem in Europe is that we have too many laws, regulations and fears, and as a result Europe is again lagging far behind. But players are eagerly waiting for live poker and it is getting stronger than before, also because players are now fed up with sitting in front of the screen.”
Toby Stone agrees:
“I think there is a pent-up demand that has built up over the last couple of years, and Live events will come back just as strong as before, and maybe even stronger in certain regions. Our events in Sochi, are as busy now as they were pre-pandemic, so there is some precedent there.”
Alex Henry gives further insight into who might be returning to the tables, as not every type of player has resurfaced:
“The economic crisis did hit many players, especially many (small) business owners who will not come back right now, yet I can feel that the players who are coming are really missing live poker and they are coming to play as much as they can.”
Fresh out of Tallinn, Teresa Nousiainen’s commented that:
“Well executed events with good staff are absolutely wanted at the moment. Players were very happy to be back live and a lot of them came over and thanked us for providing a good poker week.”
However Lamatsch also points out that it may still take some time before there is much live poker available:
“I think it will still be very quiet in 2021 as the measures are tightened again in almost all European countries. I had planned a big event in mid-November, but last week it was postponed again, because the partner cannot guarantee that the players can or are allowed to travel. Every good tournament needs 3-6 months of planning and therefore I don’t expect a normalisation before spring 2022.”
Is the golden era of live poker over, or will there be another boom?
“There are a lot of new younger players that I’ve never met in the main destinations I used to go. Many 18+ players discovered poker online during the pandemic and they are about to play their first live event!”
“Back in the 2000s, live poker boomed due to the Moneymaker effect and the fact that online poker became so prolific. We reached market saturation a while ago and live poker was declining in general. But poker is here to stay of course, people love to play games and that will never change, the game may evolve, as it has done (before). Will there be another huge boom? I doubt it, but I hope I’m wrong on this one.”
“The golden times we experienced will no longer exist, the focus is now too much on profit. Live poker used to be a marketing tool and therefore the player experience was in the foreground. But the players love live poker and therefore there will always be new records and new events, because online poker cannot do without live poker.”
Everybody be Cool, You be Cool!
Poker may be back, but is far from fully revived. PokerStars are yet to relaunch any significant events, Party Poker has announced a Millions event with €3m guaranteed in Cyprus, but Dusk Till Dawn (DTD), the home of Party Poker Live and WPT events in the UK has still not yet reopened. In a July tweet, DTD owner Rob Yong asked players to be patient and confirmed that despite much pressure to re-open, the club will remain closed for now. A few days later, in a further tweet, Yong clarified that the club is looking to reopen its doors, but a date when that will happen has not yet been announced.
Perhaps the rules that some countries have applied to allow casinos to reopen haven’t fully considered these differences between table games and poker. Poker presents a greater risk compared with regular casino gaming in the spread of COVID – larger numbers of players in close contact with each other for significant periods of time. High capacity tournaments certainly have potential to be super-spreader events, therefore significant precautions must be put in place to minimise dangers to players willing to risk their health and shilling to play again.
The latest World Series of Poker rule clarification means that any player who even comes into contact with someone who has tested positive could be disqualified from a WSOP tournament they are playing in. This along with the recent spate of cancellations both sides of the Atlantic must surely bring the viability of holding the autumn scheduled WSOP events in Las Vegas and Rozvadov into question.
There may be a few false restarts before the European live poker calendar is both lively and stable again.
Coming Soon….Back to the Future Part 3