Table game players adjust to new normal during pandemic Rege Behe, CDC Gaming Reports · October 17, 2020 at 5:42 pm When the COVID-19 pandemic closed commercial and tribal casinos across the country, Willy Neuman couldn’t enjoy his favorite pastime. Instead of playing live games at poker rooms in Illinois and Arizona, the 78-year-old resident of Batavia, Ill., had to play online to satisfy his need for competitive poker. But one element was missing. “Well, you’d expect me to say winning,” Neuman says with a laugh. “But in all honesty, I enjoy the social aspect of the game. I like people, I’m a people person, and I enjoy the camaraderie of being with people who enjoy the same thing.” For many poker and blackjack enthusiasts, the thrill of live games can’t be duplicated online. The table talk and fellowship that happens when gamblers sit at tables is why they travel to brick-and-mortar sites. And for serious players, the tells and reads that poker players rely on can’t be replicated on laptops, tablets, or phones. Professional Poker Player Kristy Arnett Moreno. Patrick Curran/Live at the Bike “One of my favorite aspects about poker is that it’s a game of mental warfare and storytelling,” says Kristy Arnett Moreno, a poker professional from Los Angeles. “When you can sit across from someone and watch their buttons get pushed, you can feel when they are about to do something out of character. If you’re paying attention, you can sense they’ve reached their breaking point. You can read if the story they’re telling makes sense. You can experience a player’s ability to handle adversity. This fascinates me, which is why I miss playing poker live and don’t want to play online.” ***** As brick-and-mortar casinos gradually reopen, some table games players must weigh the risk of playing live games versus health concerns. Robert Grupp, a retired bartender who lives in Orlando, FL, has an early form of COPD and uses a portable breathing machine. “If I get [COVID-19], I could die,” he admits. About twice a month, Grupp drives across the state to play blackjack at casinos near Tampa. He might place a bet on a NFL game if a sportsbook is open, and will play blackjack for about an hour. The safety restrictions in place at blackjack tables – patrons sitting one seat apart from each other with plexiglass dividers – are enough for him to feel safe, even if the games are less collegial. “It’s not quite the same, but it’s not a dealbreaker,” Grupp says of the safety measures. “You can’t really speak with people clearly with a plastic partition there. You can still do a high five up to the glass, but that’s not the same. Talking is very difficult. It definitely takes away from the human part of it, if you just want to go and meet people and talk and have fun. That’s all kind of fallen by the wayside.” When casinos started to reopen earlier this year, venues instituted a range of safety measures. Many table games, including blackjack, roulette and craps, resumed with mandatory plexiglass dividers and social distancing, and some casinos required temperature checks upon entrance and banned smoking. Scott Long of Ante Up Magazine But because poker features as many as ten players and a dealer crowded around a table, most poker rooms remained shuttered. It’s only over the last few months that poker has again been offered. As of Oct. 9, Ante Up magazine listed 188 poker rooms open, with conditions that include: six-handed games with mandatory masks and temperature checks at Casino Miami in Florida; mandatory masks, temperature checks and liability waivers at Portland Meadows in Oregon; and six-handed games with dividers and no food available at the Aria Las Vegas. Scott Long, publisher of Ante Up, says the feedback he’s received from online poker forums indicates that “people are just happy to be playing” and willing to tolerate any requirements, including the mandatory use of masks. “One of the things I was most surprised about is I haven’t heard a lot of brushback on the plexiglass dividers,” Long says, noting that there was initial resistance to the barriers. “It’s funny, but more than half the rooms have installed plexiglass dividers and I’ve heard zero complaints from players. In fact, I’ve heard some people actually kind of like them. “ ***** Before the pandemic, poker enthusiast Carmen Brunette divided her time between Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, JACK Cleveland Casino, and other poker rooms across the United States. As COVID-19 made live games impossible, she tried to play online poker using heads-up display (HUD) software and taking notes on each player. But she found online games lacking. “One of my favorite poker (sayings) is that poker is not a card game you play with people, but a people game you play with cards,” says Brunette, who lives in Moon Township, just outside of Pittsburgh. “You lose ninety percent of that online.” The safety precautions have caused changes in the quality of play. Grupp, the blackjack player from Orlando, says the pace of play “is definitely slower. And there’s obviously less money coming in for the casino.” In California, most of the poker rooms that have reopened feature outdoor tables. Arnett Moreno moved to Los Angeles in late 2019 with her husband, poker pro Andrew Moreno, specifically for the proximity to poker rooms including the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and Commerce Casino. After a long hiatus during which she concentrated on writing a book about poker and her life, Arnett Moreno recently played in couple of games that implemented safety measures where she felt “100 percent safe.” “But without requiring masks and plexiglass dividers, poker is such a germ-infested cesspool that without [those requirements] I wouldn’t play,” Arnett Moreno says.