RETURN TO THE FELT: Casinos, Operators, & Players Reviving the Live Tournament Scene

The Coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented online poker boom. Every operator has reported massive turnouts and that has continued for months.

However, many players may be craving the feel of some chips in their hands and the fun of a live tournament. After months of cancellations and postponements around the world, live tournaments seem to be slowly returning.

A full slate of events still may be months away. However, Coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations are declining in many countries and live events are slowly gaining some traction.

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888poker hits tournament trail, hopes to lead efforts at returning

One of the first operators to get back in the live tournament game has been 888poker. The company held its first live series since the pandemic on Sept. 1-7 at Olympic Park Casino in Tallinn, Estonia.

The series featured 15 events with an €888 Main Event that  brought in 91 entries for a €71,320 prize pool. Latvia’s Edijs Laugals took the title for €19,982.

Like other events held in a COVID-19 environment, numerous precautions were in place. An 888 executive says all upcoming live events will be in line with scientific advice of local governments.

Company officials are constantly monitoring the health situation in each country, adjusting plans as needed for a safe environment. 888 sees the Estonia series as a good start and hopes this expands to some of its bigger signature events.

“The Tallinn event is an important step toward bringing live poker action back for fans around the world,” an 888poker rep said, “and we are happy that 888poker will be one of the first brands to host such an event.

“It will also be an important milestone for both our brand and our players as we work toward future events like the 888poker LIVE Sochi weekend and London Festival. We hope to run these in the coming months, in full compliance with government guidance.” 

In Estonia, players found a similar experience as past events including brand ambassadors onsite. Buy-ins ranged from €55 to €2,000 with most events in the €55 to €220 range but without guarantees.

“Together with affordable buy-ins and our great structure to assure the best live poker experience for all players,” the 888poker executive said, “we hope that our 888poker Live Tallinn event will be the starting point for getting live poker back in the new-normal state.”

WPT sees nice results with series in Japan

World Poker Tour regulars have had to make due with international events via partypoker in recent months. Events like the World Online Championships have attempted to fill the void and even award official WPT titles, prizes, and Tournament of Champions packages.

In the US, the tour has partnered to promote New Jersey events with the partypoker US Network. However, the company held the live WPT Japan on Aug. 10-16 at the Hotel Gajoen in Tokyo.

The tour considers the tournament series a “Special Event.” Gambling is illegal in Japan, so players are invited or qualify through local events. 

Like other live series have reported recently, demand was high. The main event attracted a record 726 entries, up about 35% from last year.

“It also serves as an excellent example for health and safety standards since it is the first live event in post-COVID era,” WPTDeepStacks director Cathy Zhao said.

The scene at the recent WPT Japan event. (photo courtesy Japan Poker Union)

Numerous safety measures were in place to ensure a safe environment. That included:

  • Thorough cleaning and the use of masks throughout the hotel
  • Mandatory mask usage during the tournament
  • Temperature checks prior to entering the tournament area
  • Disinfection measures at the entrance
  • Acrylic partition dividers and social distancing at registration counters
  • Limited numbers of people in the smoking area
  • “Bring your own” bottled drinks only

Another WPT event is also on the horizon in Asia. The tour and its partner, the Chinese Texas Hold’em Poker Association, plans to proceed with WPTDeepstacks Taiwan in December.

“Taiwan has a thriving local poker market and to date has successfully handled COVID-19,” Zhao said. “So the event can proceed even if international travel restrictions remain in place.”

Despite those events, no US tournament dates have been announced. WPT officials continue to work with partner casinos on when some of those postponed events might return.

Returning tournaments seeing massive numbers

There is still a long way to go for the live tournament scene. The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas was postponed to the fall and no date has been announced.

However, there has been some progress. In the US, the Mid-States Poker Tour became one of the first tours to return to the felt in August. The MSPT held a $1,100 tournament at Grand Falls Casino in Larchwood, Iowa.

The event attracted 538 entries, smashing the event’s previous record of 238. That total set a state record for an event priced at $1,000 or more.

In Las Vegas, the Venetian’s Deepstack Showdown is currently running and continues through Sept. 27. The festival features 32 events and a total guarantee of $400,000. Not quite sure what to expect, event organizers lowered normal guarantees for the series.

So far, turnout has been massive with most tournaments easily topping guarantees. For example, the $250 SuperStack on Sept. 13 guaranteed $10,000. However, 254 entries produced a prize pool of $52,070. Other events have seen similar results.


The Venetian reopened for business on June 4 with the poker room opening a day later. Like most casinos reopening around the world, the casino has put major safety measures in place.

That includes mandatory mask usage and Plexiglass dividers between players. The new series came after seeing nice turnouts from players and other festivals are already in the works.

“Our one-day poker tournaments have seen tremendous support even with lower guarantees since we resumed on July 24,” tournament director Tommy LaRosa told USPoker.

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Casinos reviving live poker festivals

Other operators are stepping up to grow the returning live tournament scene. In the US, the Seminole Hard Rock casinos in Florida have reopened poker rooms in Tampa, Coconut Creek, and Hollywood.

The casinos offer a vibrant poker scene with regular events on the WPT and WSOP Circuit. All three properties reopened in May and June, and have seen nice demand since getting cards back in the air.

Florida has seen greatly declining COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations in recent months. That has been a shot in the arm for live poker players.

Daily tournaments resumed at the Hard Rock properties on Aug. 1. Those events have seen nice results and now the Seminoles are adding some festivals to the mix.

The first of those begin in October, with Hard Rock’s “Safe & Sound” program in place. That includes high cleanliness standards, mandatory masks, and more.

Other online operators also scheduling live events

The live tournament arms of online poker operators have also been slowly moving back to offer live series.

Partypoker LIVE returns to action Sept. 18-27. The Eurasian Poker Tour returns to the Casino Altai Palace in Altai Krai, Russia, with 29 events and more than $120,000 guaranteed.

The series features a $40,000 guaranteed Main Event and also hosts the Russian Poker Championship. Other partypoker LIVE events are currently postponed, but more could be added in the coming months.

Russia will also play host to PokerStars’ return to the live felt. The company hosts the European Poker Tour Sochi event Oct. 2-11 at the Marriott Hotel and Casino.

The festival boasts 25 events and a $1.6 million guarantee. That’s not the only PokerStars Live event in the works. Two events on the PokerStars Spanish Poker Championship series will be held in October and November in Marbella and Peralada.

Many in the industry are watching to see how some of these events turn out. There are certainly some struggles and adjustments ahead. But many players and tournament operators are ready for the challenge.

Lead image courtesy Japan Poker Union