Four months ago, in March of 2020, the Great Pandemic shut everything down in New England (New England is the northeast region of the United States and includes the following states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont). Stores, schools, restaurants, businesses of all types, and even casinos locked down as we isolated in avoidance of the dreaded and deadly COVID-19 virus. People stayed home, worked remotely (if they worked at all), and largely changed their lives. We all wondered when and if things would return to normal, and many of us even turned to play online casino games as a leisure activity.

Now it is late July. Though the virus still rages in much of the world and much of the United States, we in New England are seeing a marked diminishment of new COVID-19 cases, as well as a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. In general, New England is starting, slowly, to return to normalcy. Restaurants have gone from being fully closed, to open for take out and delivery, to open for outdoor dining, to now being open in many cases for in-restaurant dining – with some social distancing guidelines, and masks for servers. Businesses have started to open up, though often with restrictions on occupancy, and with customers and staff required to wear masks.

New England casinos, too, are starting to open – though it is a mixed bag with regard to poker. Though some of the New Hampshire poker rooms are open, the rest of New England has not been as fortunate with regard to poker. No poker rooms outside of New Hampshire are open. Here’s a status report on all remaining New England casinos with poker rooms, and the status of when those card rooms.

New England

CONNECTICUT

Foxwoods Resort Casino

Poker is temporarily closed. They say they are definitely reopening, but they have “no idea” when that will be. The rest of the casino is open, including the hotel, but with limited casino games, social distancing, and some restaurants open for dining.

Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort

Poker is temporarily closed. They do not know when the poker room will open, though they insist the closure is temporary. The rest of the casino is open on a limited basis, and with social distancing requirements in place. Temperature screenings are required for all guests upon entering the casino.

MAINE

Hollywood Casino, Hotel and Raceway

The casino and hotel are open, but for the foreseeable future, there is no poker, no poker expected, and, according to the unnamed staff person who answered the phone “there will be no poker until the governor changes the restrictions.”

MASSACHUSETTS

Encore Boston Harbor Casino

The casino and hotel are open with social distancing restrictions but poker is temporarily closed. Rumors abound. The clerk who answered the phone insisted that poker will “absolutely” be back when COVID-19 concerns diminish. There is no date certain for the room to reopen, however.

MGM Springfield

Poker is temporarily closed. According to Brenda, who answered the phone, “The governor wants to take things slow, so they haven’t opened poker yet.” She added that the poker room was definitely not closed permanently. The rest of the casino is open on a limited basis, with social distancing protocols in place and with the hotel and many of the restaurants open.

RHODE ISLAND

Twin River Casino

Kim, who answered the phone, said, “we don’t have any idea of a time frame for when the poker room will be reopening. I’m sorry sir.” The rest of the casino is open on a limited basis, with social distancing protocols in place.

poker room closed
Image used for illustrative purposes | Credit: Jim Barnes, Las Vegas Review Journal

Playing Poker During the Pandemic

Though no New England poker rooms outside of New Hampshire are currently open, that doesn’t mean that poker players are in hibernation. In fact, there is an enormous amount of poker activity – even as most of the casino rooms remain temporarily closed. Let me give you a flavor of what poker life is like now.

Some players play poker online. Some do this by continuing to play on “rogue sites,” operating in seeming violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). But most of the players I know play online in home games on the play money version of large international sites like PokerStars. They monetized those games by agreeing to make payments to each other based on their results in the free games. This means that players only play with players they know and trust – typically friends from prior home games – and perhaps guests who would be vouched for – and whose action was covered. Most of this action is in tournaments, since it is much easier to monetize a play money tournament than a cash game.

Even as we play with each other online, many lament the loss of “real” poker. “Chat” is filled with frequent comments about our eagerness to get back into casinos and home games, and with rumors about when the casino poker rooms will open.

Things have started to change in the last few weeks, as New Hampshire has opened up many of its poker rooms (as noted erlier). Some players from other parts of New England regularly make the commute to New Hampshire. Social media is full of pictures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut players at final tables in the New Hampshire charity rooms – with dozens and dozens of comments speculating on when Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island rooms will open. There is also regular debate about whether or not these rooms should require patrons to wear masks. There are strongly held views on both sides of the argument, as one might imagine.

It’s also clear that even when the casinos open their poker rooms, not everyone who used to play will go back again – at least not until there is a vaccine. Many players remain concerned about the safety of playing poker without a vaccine and while the virus is untreatable. They point out that poker provides an ideal environment for spreading the virus, with players sitting facing each other, in close proximity, regularly handling cards and chips, and sharing a playing surface.

Some home games have opened up as well, even as the casino rooms outside of New Hampshire have remained closed. Players have been circumspect about publicizing the games outside of their immediate circle of players. As far as I know, all are mask-free and indoors. Being 62, and with some underlying medical conditions, I had to decline all invitations to play… until this week. I just accepted an invitation to play in one home game that is as safe as poker can be during the pandemic. All players will wear masks. The game will be outside. And the game organizer is no less than a physician who specializes in infectious diseases. If he’s organizing such a game, how could I say no?

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