Vaccination mandate: The WSOP did the right thing

Vaccination mandate: The WSOP did the right thing

  • Scott Long, CDC Gaming Reports
August 30, 2021 10:40 PM
  • Scott Long, CDC Gaming Reports

It was the announcement most of the poker world knew was coming. The only question was when the World Series of Poker would mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for players. That came on Friday. How it plays out is anyone’s guess.

There was just too much at stake for poker’s largest event not to make this announcement, as COVID cases continue to surge: high-profile players balking at attending; the potential for worldwide bad press for Caesars Entertainment if a massive COVID breakout happened at the Rio Las Vegas; an extremely lucrative television contract at risk.

Signs were pointing to this decision. Other big Vegas events have been struggling with what to do with their hordes of people. The massive CES convention in January is requiring vaccinations, while G2E, as of now, is standing pat on just a mask mandate. But neither has attendees in such tight spaces for long periods of time as the WSOP does. Elsewhere around the country, at least two venues hosting the World Poker Tour have postponed their events. A number of other casinos have not yet resumed tournament series. At some, even daily tournaments haven’t returned.

The WSOP waited as long as it could to make this move. To be sure, this was not an easy decision. As divided as the world is on vaccinations, it is sure to cost Caesars Entertainment some money. Perhaps lots. But with all players needing to be “fully vaccinated,” meaning their final shot two weeks prior to attending, time is of the essence for unvaccinated players who wish to enter to get their shots. Waiting another week to make the announcement just wasn’t possible for the WSOP.

So now, the Twitter wars will begin. Criticism is sure to be swift and vicious, as it has been in all walks of life as businesses do their best to navigate the impossible-to-win COVID world. One early criticism is not giving unvaccinated players the option of providing a negative test. The WSOP noted that the length of the series made that option, common for other businesses with a vaccination mandate, unworkable. Surely, another criticism will be that the WSOP is eerily silent on whether employees will need to be vaccinated. The press release and FAQs indicated that players, spectators, media, and vendors need to be vaccinated, but it didn’t mention staff, except to say they — and everyone else — will need to wear masks. That could remain an issue for some players.

The author playing HORSE, 2020

Several big-name players had previously said they were skipping this year’s event, or at least considering it, without a vaccination mandate. Among them: Chris Moneymaker, the Poker Hall of Famer who deserves considerable credit for the WSOP’s surge in popularity after his David and Goliath victory in 2003. It remains to be seen how many will change their minds now, though the announcement does take some of the heat off the WSOP for its controversial Rule 115, announced recently, that would remove from any event without a refund any player who had come into contact with someone testing positive and who were exhibiting COVID symptoms themselves. With breakthrough cases on the rise for the vaccinated, it would have been risky for even vaccinated players to gamble on entering events, knowing they’d be elbow to elbow all day with players who hadn’t been vaccinated. Friday’s announcement should dull many, though not all, of those concerns.

Also interesting to watch is whether other Las Vegas poker tournaments, which normally run at the same time as the WSOP, will make the same decision, or whether they see an opportunity to appeal to unvaccinated players who will continue to resist getting their shots and are now frozen out of the WSOP.

Despite all of this, all eyes will remain focused on the nearly two-month-long event. It’s impossible to assume that even with the vaccination requirement, COVID won’t play a role in some way on poker’s biggest stage. That will likely mean a lot of sleepless nights for the WSOP brass. But for now, they should rest easy knowing they did the right thing.

Scott Long is co-publisher of Ante Up Poker Media and an editor at CDC Gaming Reports. He was previously an editor at Florida’s St. Petersburg Times.