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World Series of Poker 2021 - Covid Rules Piss Off Players!

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The World Series of Poker (WSOP) is no stranger to controversy – having witnessed erroneous Player of the Year calculations, a participant who dropped his pants in the middle of a tournament, and the self-aggrandizing tactics of Phil Hellmuth over the years. The latest decision by WSOP tournament organizers is guaranteed to leave many players seeing red, and, no, we're not talking about mountains of $5 casino chips. In a move seemingly calculated to upset everyone involved, poker's annual prestige series has decided that it will disqualify any entrant who tests positive for COVID-19 and remove them immediately from play without the possibility of any refund or prorated chip count payout.

This rule applies to all events in the 2021 World Series of Poker, scheduled for Sept. 30 through Nov. 23. Though this is the world's premier live poker series, it also appeals to those who tend to prefer online poker sites because many are usually willing to forgo their usual games to voyage to poker's Mecca for the annual series.

WSOP Disqualifying Players for COVID

About the New Rules

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This new COVID guidance came in the form of the annual World Series of Poker Official Tournament Rules, which were posted to the website on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. The relevant section reads:

115. In accordance with guidelines promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control, [Rio] reserves the right to remove any Participant from any WSOP Event at any time prior to or during the WSOP Event, in its sole and absolute discretion, for any health or safety related reasons, including but not limited to, if Participant is determined by [Rio] in its sole discretion, to have received a positive test result for COVID-19 or come into close proximity (within 6 feet for 15 cumulative minutes) of any person who has tested positive for COVID-19, or if Participant refuses to undergo any health and safety screening required by [Rio] to participate in a WSOP Event. If Participant is removed from a WSOP Event pursuant to this paragraph, and for no other reason, Participant shall not be entitled to any compensation or remuneration of any type other than what Participant had already been awarded prior to being removed from the WSOP Event. However, for the avoidance of doubt, should Participant be disqualified for any additional reason or reasons that subject Participant to penalties pursuant to the Official Rules, those penalties shall apply. Further, in the situation where one or more Participants is disqualified pursuant to this Paragraph, [Rio] reserves the right, in its sole and absolute discretion, to determine whether to proceed with any WSOP Event as scheduled or to postpone or reschedule a WSOP Event, or any portion of a WSOP Event, to a later date.

In short, this means that the Rio, at its own discretion, can remove any player from any WSOP event, either during play or even before the event begins, if that person tests positive for COVID-19. That player, as well as his or her chip stack, will be removed from play, and that individual will not be entitled to any prize or compensation except if the tourney is already in-the-money, in which case that player will receive the amount of the current prize for that stage of the tournament.

The part of this rule that has drawn the most comment from the player community is the section stating that those who have “come into close proximity (within 6 feet for 15 cumulative minutes) of any person who has tested positive for COVID-19” can be similarly disqualified as can anyone who refuses to participate in “any health and safety screening” required by management, which presumably refers to COVID tests.

Curiously, if a player independently decides to forfeit a tournament, for “health or other personal reasons,” without being prompted to do so by tournament staff, then that player's stack will remain in play and will be blinded off potentially allowing him or her to place more highly in the final tourney results.

Rio Hotel CasinoThe Rio Hotel Casino Hosts the World Series of Poker

[UPDATE: Aug. 28, 2021]

The WSOP has updated its coronavirus policies. Now, nobody will be able to enter any series events without providing proof of vaccination. The vaccination must have occurred at least 14 days prior in order to be valid. Note that a negative COVID-19 test result will not be sufficient; vaccination is required to participate.

This rule is in effect not just for numbered WSOP tournaments but also for satellites and cash games held during the festival. It applies to all players, media, staff, and vendors.

Players can use the CLEAR mobile health app to confirm that they have been vaccinated. Alternately, WSOP staff will be available onsite to verify vaccination cards and other documentation.

Participants who have shown proof of vaccination will not be subject to disqualification for coming into contact with someone who has the virus as long as they themselves are asymptomatic.

[UPDATE: Sept. 9, 2021]

The WSOP has announced that players will not be required to wear a mask while seated at a poker table. Although a Nevada mask mandate is in place, there is an exemption for events that require all participants to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Because the WSOP has decreed that all participants must be vaccinated, it is allowed to forego the use of masks.

However, this will apply only to individuals at a poker table who are seated. Anyone who leaves a table or is walking around the Rio Casino for any reason will still have to wear a mask.

How Could This Go Wrong?

Wondering Man

Unless the Rio subjects the entire field of a tournament to COVID-19 tests, it seems that there's no way for it to know for sure if any person is, in fact, infected. This means that enforcement is reliant upon the circumspection and honor of a group of live poker players. No doubt the faith the Rio is placing in its customers' integrity and honesty is entirely justified.

If the WSOP is serious about banning anyone who contracts coronavirus and anyone who has been in contact with them for as little as 15 minutes, then this would presumably mean that everyone who has played at a table with an infected individual would have to be disqualified. As tables break and players are moved from seat to seat, multiple tables and dozens of players could be affected – even if the majority of these people subsequently turn out not to have contracted the disease.

It's even worse if a dealer tests positive. Because dealers typically only deal to a single table for half an hour at a time before moving to another one, a single dealer can interact with hundreds of players during a single shift. The prospect of hundreds of players being kicked from a tournament for something that's not their fault at all doesn't sit right with us, and the majority of the poker community agrees.

This entire situation creates a system of bizarre incentives whereby anyone ill with coronavirus would have every reason in the world to continue playing rather than seeking medical treatment and letting their condition become public knowledge. Not only that, but everyone present at any tables with such an individual would also be silently rooting for them to keep mum about their condition.

Participation Expected to Drop

With the various travel restrictions in effect throughout the world, industry experts foresee a decline in MTT field sizes as international players opt to stay at home. This is true regardless of what the Rio does or does not do, but the latest rules changes promise to magnify this effect. After all, why would someone book flights, pay for pricey accommodations, and fork over the not-insubstantial tournament buyins if their entire trip could be ruined based upon the whims of overzealous tournament personnel?

The phenomenon of people avoiding the series will not be quite as pronounced among the American population who will have easier access to the venue. Yet, domestic participation will be negatively impacted to some degree too.

WSOP Rules Working to Opposite Ends

There's another stipulation in the WSOP rulebook that appears to be working at odds with section 115. As noted elsewhere in the document:

55. Participants may not cover or conceal their facial identity. Tournament officials must be able to distinguish the identity of each Participant at all times and may instruct Participants to remove any material that inhibits their identification or is a distraction to other Participants or Tournament officials. Participants may wear sunglasses and sweat shirts with hoods, but may be asked to remove them if Tournament officials cannot identify them.

This language looks like it prohibits the wearing of facial masks. Clearly, this is inconsistent with the evident concern (some might say “alarm”) evinced by section 115's anti-coronavirus measures. How this will interact with the renewed Nevada mask mandate for indoor gatherings is also unclear. Even if Nevada relaxes the rules before the Series begins, some attendees will no doubt wish to wear masks on their own initiative anyway, which could potentially put them in violation of WSOP rule 55.

Walt WhitmanThe WSOP Evidently Follows the Walt Whitman Approach to Logic

Our Opinion

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We're aghast at the new COVID-related rules alterations made by the Rio and the World Series of Poker. The fact that merely being in contact with an infected person for 15 minutes is grounds for disqualification strikes us as being arbitrary and unfair. We're faced with the prospect of dozens or hundreds of players not only being booted from events for no fault of their own but also forfeiting the money they paid to enter too.

How tourney staff would know who has COVID-19 in the first place is uncertain. They could test every entrant in every tourney although this would be expensive and time-consuming. If they only test randomly or when a player appears to show symptoms, then this just adds “virus variance” to everyone's results whereby they'll have to fade the chance of people with whom they come into contact being detected to have the disease.

We sometimes hear players talking about a good table draw or a bad draw, referring to the caliber of opponents and the size of the stacks they're seated with. Well, now there's a new meaning to a good seat draw: a table where all opponents and dealers are in perfect health!

Perhaps we will see COVID insurance pools and bets being made amongst the participants. Everyone in a pool can chip in $100 or so, and at the end of the tournament, all participants disqualified for COVID-related reasons get to split up the pool.

Possible Solutions

At the very least, the stacks of the affected individuals should remain in play and be blinded off during the course of the tournament. This would allow some of these players to recoup some return on their investment although it's not an ideal situation by any means.

For persons who are disqualified before the tournament reaches the ITM phase, it would be trivial to remove their buyins from the prize pool and return them back to the player. If, for whatever reason, the Rio doesn't wish to offer refunds, then at least these participants could be invited to play, at a future time, in an online freeroll with a prize pool equal to the number of buyins paid by those players.

This solution wouldn't work once a tourney is in the money, but surely some accommodation could be made to safeguard the buyins of disqualified players especially given that these are not exactly inexpensive events.

Reaction From the Community

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Almost nobody is happy with these rules as announced by the WSOP. “William Lahti” (@LahtiWilliam) on Twitter shared his concerns:

Tweet About WSOP COVID Rules

Lahti concluded by noting that he's “way less inclined to go” under the current rules and predicting that the WSOP is headed toward “disaster.”

Many have speculated that these rules from the WSOP are not final and will likely change before the series actually runs. One proponent of this idea is “DMoogle” on the Twoplustwo forums:

Twoplustwo post about WSOP COVID rules

Quite a few observers are fed up with the whole situation, and many of them feel that the entire 2021 WSOP should just be canceled rather than having to put up with onerous restrictions. Typical of this sentiment are the comments by “The G.” (@StarwoodGLP) on Twitter:

Tweet About Possible WSOP Cancellation

Online Poker Avoids Live Poker Controversies


Whether you intend to brave the challenging rules situation for the World Series of Poker this year or you opt to stay at home, you can still enjoy poker over the internet. The online ecosystem is thriving unimpeded by coronavirus concerns or any of the logistical issues inherent in live poker.

You can read up on your options for online poker in this rundown of the top offshore poker sites for Americans. It's completely legal for you, as an individual player, to partake of these online services, and you can learn more about this in our guide to USA poker legality.

Alternatively, we could all just stay home this year in protest and play strip poker. It would probably be more rewarding!