World Series of Poker postponed; online options limited, players struggling to make their living

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The World Series of Poker is shuffling things up, but there's no telling when it will actually start dealing.

The monstrous Las Vegas-based annual circuit of tournaments, which was set to run from late May through mid-July, has been postponed indefinitely, the WSOP announced Tuesday.

That leaves nearly 200,000 poker players, amateurs and professionals in limbo amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Sterling Heights' Chris Moon had a monster showing in poker in 2019.

“We are committed to running the World Series of Poker this year but need additional time to proceed on our traditional scale while prioritizing guest and staff well-being,” Ty Stewart, the executive director of the WSOP, said in a statement.

The WSOP in 2019 hosted 89 tournaments, mostly in-person, with 187,298 entrants from 118 countries. In its 50 years running the tournament, the WSOP has doled out more than $3 billion in prize money.

Nationwide, the poker industry says it has nearly 60 million players, mostly playing recreationally. But since March, as the coronavirus started gripping the United States, casinos have been closed.

Chris Moon, who's from Sterling Heights and now lives in New Hudson, said he last played in-person around Thanksgiving in St. Louis. Shortly thereafter, warnings about the coronavirus started heating up.

"It's crazy how quick it became, like, I would not travel for any poker," said Moon, who turns 31 this week.

Moon had a breakthrough year in 2019, winning back-to-back tournaments ahead of his trip to Vegas to compete in the WSOP — $183,899 paid out for the first one, which he had to split up a bit to those who helped stake him, and $258,407 for the second one, which was all him.

He had planned to return to Vegas this spring and summer, for at least part of the circuit.

But for now, he's doing what so many others are: Biding his time playing online. Same for Ryan Riess, of Clarkston, the 2013 WSOP Main Event champion who now claims nearly $15 million in live earnings. Since winning $8,361,570 for the 2013 Main Event title, he's been a traveling machine, playing poker, and making big bucks, all across the globe. Now, he's quarantined in Vegas with his girlfriend and two young daughters.

Riess is in a good place financially. Many poker players are most certainly not.

"It's such an unfortunate circumstance for a lot of businesses, casinos, restaurants, hotels, everyone has their own personal interest," said Riess, 29. "It's bad. For a lot of people (poker players), this is their job. Just like in other industries, there are people that go to the casino every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and play live cash games or travel and play tournaments, and they can't work."

Again, there is the online option, which is legal in Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with other states, like Michigan and West Virginia, set to join the club in the coming years.

But there are limitations to the United States' online poker circle. U.S. players only can play in the nation's network and don't have access to the much more lucrative global games — outside of a few recent U.S. online tournaments that have been able to pump up the guaranteed prize money into the millions.

"It's very unfortunate," Riess said. "But there's not much we can really do other than wait it out."

Ryan Riess and daughters Mila, right, and Sandra, left, and girlfriend Liubov. They've been quarantined together in Las Vegas.

There is one upside, for some, to the move to all-online — in that the experienced online players are finding it easier to turn a profit, given the big increase in players not very seasoned outside of live play.

There's a whole new pool of "fish," in other words.

"There's a lot of people playing on their phones now," Moon said. "You might catch them saying, 'Screw it, I'm going to go all-in and win this pot now, or go to bed.'"

Moon, meanwhile, is considering using some of last year's winnings to get a place in Canada. That's what Joe Cada, the Shelby Township native who's won four WSOP bracelets including the 2009 Main Event and has collected made than $14 million in live games, used to do — leading to millions more in earnings. He's not in Canada anymore, but he still maintains a poker presence by streaming some play on Twitch.

In states that haven't launched legal online poker, there are smaller apps that allow "free" play. Many recreational players are getting around the no-money regulations by playing tournaments with other quarantined friends, and Venmo'ing the money back and forth.

But for the pros, it's a harder wait — though there is a potential upside to the WSOP's Tuesday news.

"Ironically, it might get scheduled to a way more convenient time for everybody," said Moon, who also is using this downtime to study up on the game (yes, there is a lot of studying in poker). "People complain every year, why are we going to Vegas, the hottest place on Earth, at the hottest point of the year?

"Necessity might actually drive innovation at this point."

The poker crush also affects several tours smaller than the WSOP circuit, the Mid-States Poker Tour among them. The next non-postponed or canceled tournament on its schedule is the Main Event at Firekeepers in Battle Creek from May 14-17.

The casinos throughout the country did all they could to stay open amid the early coronavirus spread, even shutting off some slot machines to create distance. The Venetian, in Las Vegas, even at one point limited poker tables to three players, a move that was scoffed at by industry insiders before eventually relenting.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984