The world of poker has been upended over the past year. A game played by those indoors sitting at a table in tight quarters was not a good fit for social distancing requirements.
Poker had to change on the fly in order to stay afloat and embrace the online version of real money Texas Holdem and, for the most part, it managed that feat with aplomb.
The Return to Normal?
This week’s announcement by the CDC that individuals fully vaccinated against the virus need not wear masks in most settings seems to have opened the door to a return to normalcy for poker.
It didn’t take long after the announcement for many casinos to react. Las Vegas, the unofficial home of poker, quickly adjusted with the announcement of the removal of plexiglass dividers that had been in use at their tables.
In other states, the announcement could mean that poker rooms which have been shuttered will come back into existence. For some casinos where the loss of poker was acutely felt, this is big news indeed.
What will be interesting will be to see if the game is changed in any way going forward by some of the trends that popped up during the time when regular, in-person poker was largely on hiatus or altered by restrictions. Some of these trends seem to be worthwhile and a good thing for the game as a while. But time will have to tell.
What the Announcement Means
In terms of the Vegas casinos, where much of the top action in the world takes place, the plexiglass dividers have been removed by most of the major establishments.
These dividers were a decent solution to bring live play back to the fore. But it also meant that some of the communication between players, which can be a big part of the action, was somewhat stilted.
The big news is restrictions lifting from casinos that have removed their mask requirements for those who are vaccinated.
That’s another obstacle to normalcy that has been removed. And most casinos are also back to the point where they have their tables at full capacity (eight or nine-handed play), as opposed to the four or five-handed action on which many casinos relied when they first opened their doors back up last summer.
In terms of professional play, the biggest impact of all should come with respect to the World Series of Poker.
It had already been announced for September of this year, a return to live action after last year the best the WSOP could do was to have their final tables conducted live in a kind of hybrid online/in-person event.
The question now is how much poker has been altered by the trends that rose to the fore over the past year or so. In some cases, there are positives that should continue being a part of the sport heading into this new frontier. And there are a few things we wouldn’t mind falling by the wayside.
Good and Bad Trends
One of the obvious changes that took place over the past 15 months was a reliance on online play. That was true for the amateur casino-goers who didn’t have their tables at local casinos available to them. But it also meant that professional tournaments largely went the online route.
When the World Series of Poker conducted its online-only series late last summer, the interest from players was intense. This was despite the fact that, in the US version, players had to be located in either New Jersey or Nevada to participate.
There were some grumblings about the re-buy option available in the Main Event, and there were some technical glitches that occurred from time to time, but mostly, the event was successful.
In fact, it went well enough that the WSOP has doubled down on the trend with a series of bracelet events to be conducted in the online sphere. As the main source of the action, online WSOP play was a bit imperfect.
But as a supplement to the live series, it’s a chance for more players to get involved and possibly own the title of World Series of Poker bracelet winner.
One thing that does dampen the enthusiasm for online play, at least among those watching, is that you can never replicate the intensity and entertainment of having players sitting live at a table.
This is especially true when you’ve got great players with over-the-top personalities. That’s part of the reason why the return of High Stakes Poker, the much-beloved television property that returned this year as a streaming series, was so welcome among fans of the game.
While we could do without some of the histrionics between players during their social media interactions prior to the actual action, there is no doubt that these high-profile showdowns have been entertaining.
You could say that they were more memorable than any big-money tournament that took place in the same period of time.
Looking ahead, it would be nice to see more poker on TV again in prime real estate. Streaming is fine, but it’s hard to draw in the casual fan in that manner.
Perhaps now that the game is returning to its live roots, there will be more of an interest from some network to create a format that really brings out the best, most entertaining parts of the game.
Back to the Tables
One thing that we can say for sure is that this week’s announcement should spur a lot more action at tables around the country.
It’s hard to say if it will be a complete 180-degree turn back to what the history of poker was like before March of 2020.
But some folks who had been wary might feel emboldened by the latest news to get back to it in the old familiar setting, even as they probably still continue to enjoy the convenience of online play now and again.
We’ll be watching to see how poker handles its newfound freedom. It can certainly create a comfort level among the game’s enthusiasts if things go back to the way it used to be.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to usher out the new innovations that came to the fore because some of those deserve to be a part of poker well into the future.
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