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One way or another, it’s going to be a weird year for the World Series of Poker.
Last year’s series didn’t happen at all. Indeed, the only in-person play with a bracelet at stake amounted to two final tables and a heads-up match for an impromptu Main Event at the end of the year, all but the tail end of which took place online.
This year’s will take place in at a weird time, four months later than the usual time. Instead of starting at the end of May, it kicks off on Sep. 30, exactly one month from now. Aside from that, the schedule is normal enough in terms of duration and composition. However, there has been a lot of uncertainty about exactly how things would play out. The full schedule only came out in July, rather than late January as usual.
Since then, WSOP has made a few tweaks and clarifications about its COVID-related policies. There could even be more twists to come in the next four weeks.
In truth, the only thing we can be sure of is that this series will be without precedent. That means no one knows what to expect, but is keen on speculating. Here are five major stories to watch for, and Online Poker Report’s predictions for how they’ll play out. These are, of course, just educated guesses and things may play out quite differently in reality.
Even in normal years, the impending arrival of the WSOP brings speculation about whether field sizes will be up or down. Attendance for the Main Event rose steadily from the series’ inception until 2006 when it peaked at 8,773 players. The passing of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act that year put the brakes on online poker in the US, which impacted the popularity of live play as well. As a result, the next few years were slower, but the Main Event and the series as a whole have been growing again since 2014.
There are arguments to be made either way for this year’s attendance.
On the plus side is pent up demand. There was very little live poker at all in 2020, and tournaments in particular have been slow to make a comeback this year. The live tournament crowd is, by and large, extremely excited for the return of the series. That enthusiasm could boost field sizes.
However, there are two COVID-related factors dragging numbers in the opposite direction. First is the recently-announced mandatory vaccination policy. Just a few days ago, with weeks to go before cards are in the air, the series announced that masks and proof of full vaccination will be a requirement to play. That, on its own, excludes almost half the US population.
Secondly, many people are reluctant to fly, even those who’ve been vaccinated. The vaccine doesn’t offer full protection from contracting the disease, and developing symptoms means forfeiting any tournament one’s playing in. This could put a big damper on international attendance, as well as players traveling from the east coast or anywhere else too far to drive.
Attendance will be significantly down due to the latter factors. Many of those who are most excited about the return of live poker are regular WSOP attendees to begin with. Meanwhile, there’s significant overlap between poker players, libertarian politics, and resistance to vaccine mandates.
When it comes to international travel, many of those who’ve taken the vaccine remain scared of the disease and may actually be less inclined to fly than those who are unvaccinated. Thus, the combined requirements of willingness to fly and full vaccination will exclude a majority of potential international attendees. It’s hard to imagine pent-up demand alone overcoming those factors.
Even with the vaccination mandate, the risk of a major COVID outbreak is still present. In particular, certain variants like Delta are more resistant to the vaccine than others.
Meanwhile, those who exhibit symptoms will have to get tested, and positive players will have to drop out of their tournaments, potentially forfeiting a lot of equity in the process. It’s almost inevitable that this will happen to a few players. The question is whether there’s a certain percentage of COVID-related disqualifications that would put an early end to the series.
That could come about one of two ways. Either WSOP could elect to pull the plug of its own accord (at great cost), or attendance could start dropping at such an alarming rate that continuing becomes impossible.
It’s unlikely that the remainder of the series gets cancelled entirely prior to the Main Event unless there’s uncontrolled spread and double-digit positivity rates. The cost to WSOP would be so great they will attempt to avoid this any way they can. It’s more plausible, though still unlikely, that events starting after the Main Event get cancelled.
In relative terms, smaller scale disruptions or changes of plan are a much more likely scenario. This could include things like:
The Las Vegas rumor mill is powerful. In recent weeks, word on the street has been that WSOP will have a hard time finding enough dealers for the bigger events in the series. Poker News Executive Editor USA Chad Holloway tweeted that he’d heard WSOP owner Caesars Casino will close some of its poker rooms to free up staff to help out.
There have occasionally been similar rumors in normal times, such as in 2007, after the previous year’s record turnouts. It has never been enough of a problem to limit the number of events running. The effects have been limited to dealers complaining about workload, or players complaining about the quality of the available dealers. However, in an unprecedented year, nothing is impossible. Many career dealers may have also found other employment during the casino shutdowns, and not returned to dealing.
This may be largely self-correcting if attendance does indeed drop significantly. The issues that may limit the number of dealers WSOP can find are mostly the same ones that may stop players from attending.
If there is a sufficient shortage that WSOP needs to act, the remedies are likewise much the same as for dealing with large numbers of COVID cases: moving some events online, breaking up starting flights, or capping attendance. If such changes do happen, it may not even be clear to the players whether it’s more to do with mitigating COVID spread, a dealer shortage or both.
Since 2015, WSOP has had an online component to each summer’s series. Initially, that was just a single online bracelet event and grew slowly from there. In 2019, the number of such events jumped from four to nine. The 2020 series, before it was cancelled, was expected to have 14.
However, this year’s has none on the schedule. That’s because WSOP elected to repeat last year’s online bracelet series instead. What was originally a compromise to make up for the cancellation of the live series proved so popular that it may become a regular feature.
Not everyone in the US could participate in those events, however. Only those in New Jersey or Nevada had access, though online poker players in Pennsylvania got a bracelet mini-series of their own. What about those from other states who travel to Las Vegas for the summer series, but enjoy playing some online poker while they do so? Will they get to try for an online bracelet this fall?
If WSOP definitively expected to have online bracelets up for grabs during the fall series, it would have announced this already. However, the site runs quarterly Championship series, and will probably time the Fall Championships to coincide with the live series, just as it does with the Summer Championships in a normal year. If there are to be any online bracelets awarded during the series, it will likely be by way of a spur-of-the-moment decision to move certain events online due to COVID or a shortage of dealers.
Another perennial Las Vegas rumor has been that the WSOP’s days at the Rio are limited. This year, however, much more than in the past, there’s mounting evidence that it is in fact the last time the WSOP will take place at what has been its home for the past 15 years.
For one thing, Caesars sold the Rio a couple of years ago. Its new owner announced earlier this year that it would become a Hyatt hotel. More recently, a pool tournament organizer posted on Facebook that its annual event would be moving out of Bally’s Las Vegas in 2022 in order to make room for the WSOP.
Neither WSOP nor Caesars has confirmed that. However, if the cat’s already out of the bag, might they take this opportunity to make the formal announcement?
Flip a coin on this one. On the one hand, nostalgia is strong. It would make sense for WSOP to bid farewell to the Rio during the last series to be held there, if this is indeed that moment. Some time during the Main Event would be ideal, whether at the beginning, after all the Day One flights have finished, or just prior to the final table.
On the other hand, WSOP has a tendency to be tight-fisted with information until it’s sure of its plans. At this point, it’s too early to know what the situation will be like next summer and whether the series will take place at the usual time. Indeed, WSOP will be looking at the outcome of this year’s series to make its decisions for next year. It may not want to announce a new venue – or its departure from the current one – until it can set firm dates for the 2022 series.
Ordinarily, that would happen some time in December. However, remaining uncertainty and the need to do a post mortem on how the 2021 series plays out may well push that back a few months. WSOP could equally take the middle path and do a “Farewell to the Rio” presentation, but reserve the announcement of the new venue until it is prepared to provide dates as well.