This World Series of Poker in 2022 was anticipated to be the famous poker festival’s return to “normalcy” or at least as that word applies in the era of COVID-19.
The 2020 WSOP was a tortured version where a series of bracelet events were contested via online poker tourneys and then a weird hybrid Main Event was cobbled together, with scant attention paid to it much like horse racing’s Triple Crown races that year.
In 2021, the WSOP put together an in-person event in the familiar setting of the Rio All-Suites Resort and Casino but the tournament was deviled by controversy regarding mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. That produced predictable social media sniping and bickering, plus international players were largely absent.
So, this year was the year the WSOP was supposed to be back to the halcyon days of vying for bracelets and life-changing money as much of the gambling world, and certainly in Las Vegas, has been partying like it was, well, 2019.
No masks, no vax verifications — just good ol’ check, bet, raise, ship-it.
Uh, not so fast.
Some players at the WSOP have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, most notably — and to his credit, explicitly publicly — Phil Hellmuth, probably the most famous active poker player in the world (with apologies to Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey and the mostly-retired Doyle Brunson).
Hellmuth has taken leave temporarily from the WSOP, which is currently in furious action at the Bally’s-Paris casino complex on the Las Vegas Strip, and notified all with the following Tweet on June 7:
Just tested positive for Covid. Thought maybe I was immune (neither of my sons got it, nor did my Mom)…Good news: no cough. Not hungry all day! Mind is a little foggy as I slept “17 awful hours.” I feel like my best chance for a bracelet was todays @WSOP $10,000 Omaha 8/B, sigh pic.twitter.com/nAe2WSf4H8— phil_hellmuth (@phil_hellmuth) June 8, 2022
Before the virus drove him from the tables, Hellmuth reportedly played in two WSOP events so far and cashed in one. He finished 136th in the $1,500 Omaha Hi-Lo 8-or-better, for $2,400, according to the Hendon Mob database. (See full WSOP schedule here).
Some other pros have been identified in published reports as testing positive but have not been as public as Hellmuth.
In its lengthy rules, the WSOP addresses COVD-19, saying, in part, “All Players must comply with all rules and regulations, including, but not limited to, all applicable federal, state, and local laws, rules, regulations and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines relating to COVID-19 in effect at the time of the WSOP Events. Accordingly, Player acknowledges and agrees to leave a WSOP Event at any time and exit the WSOP Event facilities immediately if Player is required to quarantine or isolate pursuant to any applicable federal, state, and local law, rule, regulations or CDC guideline relating to COVID-19 in effect at the time of the WSOP Events.”
Days before the WSOP started on May 31, tournament officials, including WSOP president Jack Effel, who is best known as the tournament director, and WSOP executive director Ty Stewart, were part of a feel-good press conference enthusiastically announcing that the event the poker world knew and loved was back with its familiar excitement.
The question of COVID and protocols was raised in light of the close-quarters and the long hours of tournament play.
“We’re in a much better place than we were six months ago, two years ago and so forth,” Effel said then. “Nowadays, everything is open to everyone and we feel really good about where we’re at. And, yes, we have appropriate measures in the case somebody is sick or needs to seek an EMT or doesn’t feel well and that sort of thing. But we feel pretty good about where we are today and we hope it continues to get better whether cases fluctuate up or down. I think at this point, we’re all open, we’re all functioning (on a) daily basis knowing that it exists. We’re carrying on with our lives.”
Stewart added that anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they chose but the WSOP was following the same path as poker and gaming spaces elsewhere in Nevada.
There are no mask mandates in indoor spaces throughout Las Vegas and Nevada generally.