Is the Coronavirus a Threat to the 2020 WSOP?

This has been one hell of a week. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is picking up steam globally. World financial markets have tanked. People around the world are nervous. This thing is spreading and it’s spreading pretty darn fast. As such, the poker community has started to wonder: is it possible that the 2020 World Series of Poker (WSOP) could be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic?

I suspect a lot of people’s first reaction to that question would be, “Pfft. Whatever. No way.”

Coronavirus statistics

But it’s not a dumb question. Look at the situation so far. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) February 28th situation report lists the number of confirmed coronavirus cases globally at 83,652, most of those in China so far. Over 2,800 people have died from the illness. Global risk assessment is set at “Very High.”

And while China has been hit the hardest – COVID-19 started there, after all – the virus is spreading quickly. There have been well over 2,000 confirmed cases in the Republic of Korea, 210 in Japan, and nearly 100 in Singapore.

In Europe, Italy is under fire, with 650 confirmed cases of coronavirus. France, Germany, the UK, and Spain have all seen double-digit cases.

Iran is the other hotbed right now, with 245 confirmed cases as of the February 28th report.

And lest we think it couldn’t happen here, as of the morning of February 29th, there are more than 60 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, a few of which have no know origin. That last bit is important. People have started to contract the virus without having any risk factors, like traveling to China or knowingly coming into direct contact with someone who had it. It is potentially “in the wild” in the U.S.

Hell, I’ve been sick for a week and now I’m even sitting here wondering if I’ve contracted coronavirus (spoiler: my symptoms don’t match – I’m 99.9% positive it’s just a nagging cold). The skin on my hands is cracking from so much hand-washing.

And keep in mind, the above numbers are just from yesterday’s report. Who knows what they are right now (the U.S. figure was 59 in Friday’s report).

Will poker players want to travel?

I’m not trying to scare anybody with what I just wrote. I’m just making a point. The coronavirus is spreading throughout the world. It’s not just a China thing anymore. And guess what? The World Series of Poker is an international event. People fly in from around the globe to hang out at the Rio for weeks. If the coronavirus hasn’t been solved within the next three months – and despite what Doctor Donald Trump says, it probably won’t be – do we really think people are going to be extremely eager to come to the WSOP?

Airlines have already reduced flights to Asia; some have cancelled routes altogether. Major companies are restricting employee travel. If the coronavirus pandemic gets worse into the spring (I’m not saying it definitely will, but we just don’t know), why would poker players take the risk going to Las Vegas.

As much fun as the World Series of Poker is, it’s a giant petri dish. Poker is a disgusting pastime when you think about it. Poker players are crammed around poker tables for hours upon hours every day. Everyone is touching the chips and cards – have you looked at poker chips? I have a few casino chips on my desk right here and a few of them have stains from people’s filthy fingers. And the WSOP, in particular, is chock full of people who are just gross, who clearly don’t both with hygiene.

Now multiply one table of players times a few hundred. For two months. The World Series of Poker is like the Field of Dreams for viruses.

Caesars could be forced to make a tough decision

What I’m wondering is what sort of depressed advance registrations it would take for Caesars to call off the WSOP. What if airlines continue to cancel flights? What if governments impose strict travel restrictions?

There are clearly tons of sunk costs already – chances are that the massive rooms used for the tournament at the Rio would be empty for most of the summer if the WSOP is cancelled so close to show time. But at some point, a line could be crossed that would make it worse financially to hold the Series than to just cancel it.

And beyond just thinking of the financial Rubicon, Caesars would be irresponsible if it doesn’t consider the safety of the poker players and staff. If the World Series of Poker were to start next week, things would probably be fine, though if even one player is carrying the virus without knowing it, it could spread rapidly. But the WSOP is three months out. If the cases keep multiplying, especially in the U.S., the right thing to do might just be to cancel the Series. Perhaps make it an all-online World Series this year and team up with 888poker to include international players.

These are things worth thinking about. Again, there’s no reason to be in panic mode right now, but Caesars, the Rio, and WSOP officials would be silly not to have cancellation as at least a slim possibility at this point. And in their defense, they are aware of things. A month ago, Caesars put out a statement saying everything was still on track and they are monitoring the situation. But that was a month ago.

The World Poker Tour cancelled its upcoming WPT Vietnam stop and postponed WPT Taiwan. The Triton Poker Super High Roller Series in Jeju was also cancelled.

A couple poker pros are so confident that the WSOP will be called off that they are putting money on it. Both Mike McDonald and Doug Polk put out tweets this week, offering to bet on the cancellation of the Series. Now, they aren’t so confident that they don’t want significant odds, but they are still offering to wager thousands of dollars on it.

Polk wants 20:1 odds, saying, “I think there is a real chance of WSOP being canceled,” he tweeted the previous day. “There are just so many countries that fly in and with severe travel restrictions it might not be realistic.”

And McDonald said he’ll take 12:1 odds. For his bet, if even one WSOP bracelet event is “run on American soil in 2020,” his opponent wins. I am going to assume that doesn’t count any of the 14 online bracelet events, but he should probably clarify that.


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