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Poker In the Time of Corona



I stated in a previous blog that I believed that poker in the city of Las Vegas was dead as we knew it in light of the Corona pandemic. As gaming regulators had initially stated that poker tables could not accommodate more than 4 players per table, I felt the game could not survive under those conditions. But games in Sin City have already allowed for 5 or 6 players and it probably will not be too long until they are back to full ring. And as countries like America reopen and casinos come back, poker may have found a second life yet. The game has continued to grow online during this time and even live games have managed to survive in certain parts of the world, including here in Cambodia. If a certain amount of momentum can be built going forward, there may be a road map for poker to make a big comeback.

As casinos all around the world closed during the pandemic, poker rooms went dark and ceased operations. With no other options left players flocked to online sites, both traditional and also new platforms that have arisen in the last few years. Mobile apps originating from Asia have gained in popularity and with players having to quarantine the world over, traffic on these networks soared. And while the initial bump in traffic was largely comprised of regular players and grinders, the tables soon were filled also with recreational players who all of a sudden found themselves with more time. Games online grew softer, leading to a revival in the popularity of the game and has created a bit of a second boom. In the first boom it was a man by the name of Moneymaker and a $40 online satellite the created the circumstances of the first explosion of poker back in 2003. This led to the popularity and growth of sites such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt and the game of poker reached heights never seen before. And while the names and actors may be different this time around, the growth and survival of the game goes on in online platforms and is once again leading the charge into a second revival.

Of course not all live poker rooms were closed during this time. While the Nagaworld Casino here in Phnom Penh has been closed for a few months, games have continued in a couple of private poker clubs in town. But while games live on, they have not necessarily thrived during the pandemic. Businesses for the most part remain open and life is close to normal in Cambodia. But the country does remain closed to the rest of the world and this has meant there has not been an influx of new players into Cambodia. Thus the remaining games have had to compete and survive with remaining players that are basically stuck as they cannot fly into their home countries. Omaha games have remained soft but hold'em games have struggled to maintain consistent games above the smallest of stakes. The fact that the most popular game in town is a $1-$1 hold'em game is very telling, even though the rake for that game is capped at an astounding $10! Businesses outside of poker have remained open in Phnom Penh for the most part and life has remained close to normal. Such a situation remains attractive to potential tourists but as they cannot enter the country easily at the moment means games will continue to be in survival mode for the time being. But when airports and borders do open back up, Cambodia should once again be an attractive option for those looking to play live poker.

There does appear to be a plethora of indications outside of Cambodia that live poker will make a comeback. As casinos and poker rooms slowly start to reopen all around the world many rooms are reporting full tables and long waiting lists as those who have longed for the live game come back in droves. In Las Vegas rooms will have to remain open if for no other reason to pay back to players the bonus money they collected previous to the covid closure. And while games there are coming back slowly, they still have the potential of a rescheduled World Series of Poker to look forward to. If the poker rooms in Vegas are able to maintain any sort of momentum heading towards the event's potential return, it can build on this to further propel itself towards future growth. But not all is good news as recent reports have stated that not all Genting casinos in England will be reopening and of those that do not all will bring back poker. And even for those casinos that do decide to reopen their poker rooms, they will be acutely aware of the revenue they missed out on during the closure and also of how little poker rooms make in comparison to other games on the floor. This may lead casinos to use their floor space for more profitable games, or bring poker back but with a rake that might prove prohibitively high for players to overcome. I have already mentioned that a poker club here in Phnom Penh has decided to increase their rake in a game as small as $1-$1 to a $10 cap. It will be interesting to see what the rake in the casino game will be here once it reopens.

As I stated earlier there does exist a road map for live poker to make a comeback. But much will depend on whether or not those operating live rooms remain on course with said map. It is often said that poker is a game of skill as it remains for the most part beatable by those who can become adept at the game. But this does not necessarily have to be the case as this notion largely depends on how much players are charged to play. For example in Los Angeles, the rake for games below $5-$10 is so high that players are basically no better off than if they were playing blackjack or baccarat. While games continue to run in my region of the world, the trend has become one of alarming increases in the commission charged to players. In Vegas poker rooms have decided to discount the rake as they make their way back slowly. It will be interesting to see if live rooms in this and other parts of the world follow suit or decided to head in the opposite direction.
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