The Nevada Gaming Control Board released regulations directing casinos on how to keep properties as sterile and safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Limiting live poker tables to four players is one of the directives.
Poker players and industry followers immediately noted that this plan is not feasible. Most players will not want to sit in a four-handed game. The rake and tips, even if reduced for the faster games, become unbeatable to most at this level. It also takes the social aspect out of live poker.
Will any Las Vegas poker rooms deal four-handed games?
It is apparent that most Las Vegas poker rooms will not reopen under the conditions required by gaming regulators. On the same day as the poker player table limit announcement, there were reports of Station Casinos laying off all its poker employees. Other casinos showed a lack of interest in spreading shorthanded poker before the mandatory closure by shuttering rooms early. For example, Venetian attempted three-handed tables but gave up before the closure order.
There may be some exceptions to this. According to data on Bravo Poker at the time, South Point spread games until the last hour before the forced closure on March 17. Its games were five-handed at the time. The Orleans dealt long into March 17 with the same five-handed policy. Two other Boyd Gaming poker rooms – Cannery and Sam’s Town – also stayed open until nearly the end. Golden Nugget dealt six-handed games.
If any Las Vegas poker room attempts to deal four-handed poker, I feel like these are the big favorites to do it: South Point has the biggest chance. The Orleans is a close second place.
Several Station Casinos poker rooms dealt into the last day. Red Rock Resort was the last to close before South Point. It spread seven-handed games and has reportedly already laid off its poker staff, making it highly unlikely it will restart poker any time soon.
Las Vegas Strip poker rooms unlikely to reopen in first phase
I do not believe any Las Vegas Strip casinos will launch poker immediately upon reopening. These resorts will try to generate as much cash flow with as few employees as possible due to the massive cash burns experienced during the closure.
Poker rooms, especially four-handed ones, are not conducive to generating rake that could help the bottom line in any meaningful way. I do not think any Las Vegas Strip poker room will deal a hand until the restrictions are relaxed to at least six-handed tables.
Will Las Vegas poker rooms survive?
This is all an educated guess. I have watched Las Vegas poker rooms closely for nearly 10 years and drew some conclusions from that experience.
A poker room not immediately reopening is not a cause for concern, even if the space is converted into slots. I believe some casinos will do this to help spread the machines out to comply with social distancing in the interim but will not mean permanent death for poker at that casino. Other poker rooms that do not reopen in the coming months will be walled or roped off. This allows the casino to easily bring poker back when conditions improve.
Las Vegas poker room prediction
There has been a trend of Las Vegas casinos dumping poker rooms in the last decade. I counted 27 in an article I wrote after the one at Strat closed last year. This shutdown will make that number skyrocket. I predict about 12 of the 31 Las Vegas poker rooms open in March never return. Some that do come back may be closed for a year or longer.
The poker rooms best suited to survive are destination and locals ones. I feel that Aria, Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Golden Nugget, Venetian and Wynn/Encore are huge favorites to keep poker rooms.
Others likely to retain poker are smaller locals casinos where the space inside the property is already underutilized and there is no need to remove tables. This includes most or all the casinos along Boulder Highway and in Henderson, like Boulder Station, Club Fortune, Green Valley Ranch, Sam’s Town and Skyline. The two in North Las Vegas – Cannery and Poker Palace – are also likely to be safe. Orleans, South Point and Red Rock are examples of large Las Vegas locals poker rooms that I expect to return when the dust settles.
That leaves small poker rooms, mostly along the Strip. I expect Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts to consolidate a few rooms. This will depend on the demand these companies see at the flagship poker rooms. This list includes Bally’s, Flamingo, Harrah’s, Planet Hollywood and Rio for Caesars. I think it is about guaranteed that the Rio poker room never reopens unless the World Series of Poker returns before the two-year leaseback ends. Small MGM Resorts poker rooms are Excalibur, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Mirage.
The balance of rooms left in Las Vegas are small and mostly at independent casinos. This list includes Binion’s, Palace Station, Sahara, Santa Fe Station, Silver 7’s and Westgate.
The two Station Casinos poker rooms are presumably closed indefinitely, though one or both probably comes back in the end. The others all feel like underdogs to relaunch.
I want to be wrong
I hope I am wrong. I do not want to see any poker room close or any employee lose a job. However, I am also more optimistic than most seem to be. When I predicted 20 Las Vegas poker rooms would survive this on Twitter, most replies took the under.
Regardless, the market will have ample space for the demand. There may just be fewer small rooms for players that prefer that setting over a large destination poker room.