Australian poker: post-COVID snapshot

It may sound clichéd, but the impact coronavirus has had on all of us – and indeed for those within the poker industry across the globe – has been immense.

And while it is still too soon to tell just how much damage has been done, fortunately, we are starting to see signs of life sprout from the chaos.

For the most part, the decision for casinos and league operators to start offering live poker once again has been made after careful consideration and consultation with the relevant authorities. Australia, one of the “first movers” after the initial wave of the pandemic, is no exception.

However, as to when operators resume, and what this post-COVID world looks like, will differ significantly between the states and territories, as PokerMedia Australia has detailed.

MAJOR NATIONAL OPERATORS: “THE BIG THREE”

While several of the smaller players in the poker industry have begun making moves in line with the lifting of restrictions in their respective states (more on that below), there’s no doubt some of their decision-making will be influenced by what’s happening with “The Big Three”: the Australian Poker League (APL), the Australian Poker Tour (APT) and the WPT League.

Although we were unable to obtain specific information from APL representatives, it is clear the pub poker giant is building up to a large-scale return to live poker later in the year, releasing clear hygiene and distancing guidelines which are now available to view on the APL website.

In the meantime, the APL has launched a free-to-play app on iOS and Android, offering tickets to their flagship event, the APL Million, however based on the slew of feedback from players after its official release, the app has been prone to several technical issues.

Furthermore, players from Western Australia, the ACT and Northern Territory are unable to participate due to their respective state’s gambling regulations.

A spokesperson for the APL informed PMA, “There is no need for regulatory approval as you cannot play with real money, just for free to win prizes”, but given the inherent dangers of marketing and promoting online poker in Australia, it certainly raises the question as to how long the APL online product can remain viable.

Meanwhile, executives at the Australian Poker Tour are working closely with their consortium of shareholders and venues as they aim to get “back on track” with their series of festivals by early September.

“Some of us have had the opportunity to maintain a normal work environment,” explains APT CEO David Miles,“whereas other league operators have been lying idle with frustration, as can be expected.”

The WPT League, however, resumed live operations with the first of their regular tournaments held at the Lake Macquarie Tavern in the Newcastle region earlier this week.

Head of Event Management Mitch Caton advised they will be running all events six-handed until further notice and have bolstered their already stringent hygiene procedures. [link].

“[The WPT League] has always been known for and praised by players for how clean our equipment is since day one of operations,” said Caton.

“Ultimately our goal is to go back to the way we were before the shutdown, as we had found the perfect formula for all players to enjoy our games … no need to fix anything that isn’t broken.”

NEW SOUTH WALES
Despite the controversy surrounding the handling of the Ruby Princess saga, it appears that both the government and the people of New South Wales are keen to restart the economy.

As such, many of the social distancing measures have been lifted earlier than anticipated, including in pubs and clubs, opening the door for several poker operators to dip their toes back into the water.

One such company is Kings Poker, which began its first set of weekly tournaments on 12 June. Managing Director Natan Meylakh confirmed the three venues back in play this month are the Freeway Hotel in Artamon, Churchill Sports Bar in Kingsford and The Sheaf in Double Bay, with more venues coming back online after 1 July, when further restrictions are eased.

“It’s definitely been difficult,” Meylakh said, “I think like most people, we just tried to remain patient and worked on things behind the scenes.”

Maintaining brand awareness has been a cornerstone of that process, with Kings Poker establishing an online trivia product prior to the lockdown.

“We offered weekly cash prizes of up to $150 for a completely free entry,” explained Meylakh.  “We ran two quizzes a week and averaged approximately 60 to 70 players for both, so it worked quite well.”

Likewise, the National Poker League (NPL), arguably the fourth member of an Australian “Big Four”, has taken a similar path; as well as rolling out a number of games at select venues (most notably, the Petersham Inn seven nights a week), the NPL is also due to launch a new web-based big screen trivia product in which players use game show-style buzzers to answer questions.

“This product is looking very promising, with many venues due to come online in July and August; our staff are well rested and raring to go!” said NPL’s Managing Director, Richard O’Neill.

“[But] from the hundreds of emails, Facebook messages and phone calls we’ve been receiving, it’s safe to say that our players have been going stir crazy.

“Poker has become an integral part of our players’ lives over the last 15 years and it would seem they are especially missing the social aspect.”

As for The Poker Palace at Club Marconi, there’s been little to no movement since the start of the year, when the initial outbreak of COVID-19 forced the historic poker room to shut up shop and cancel events, including the Marconi Cup Carnival and the 2020 Deaf Poker Australia (DPA) Championship.

The Star Sydney has commenced limited operations for invited guests as of 1 July, but there has been no word yet as to when the Star Poker room might reopen.

It’s expected there will be a further lifting of restrictions by mid-July, which may be cutting it close for the Sydney Champs (originally scheduled to run from 21 July to 10 August) but might allow for the WSOP Sydney International Circuit event to be held later in the year.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Although the South Australian poker market may be much smaller in comparison to those in the east, the state’s gaming legislation has allowed for the establishment of standalone card rooms that offer low-range buy-in tournaments throughout the week.

PMA understands these clubs are also permitted to host cash games or “timed tournaments,” which remain a thorn in the side for Adelaide Casino, especially given that for the most part, casinos not only have a legal monopoly on cash games, but are also able to provide more robust surveillance and security measures than these smaller venues.

The Royal Poker Club, located in Adelaide’s CBD, posted a promotional video on Facebook featuring a message from Daniel Negreanu, announcing they will be back up and running at the “end of June” with cash games running rake-free for the first 30 days after the re-opening date, which is yet to be confirmed.

The Royal Poker Club in Adelaide before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Cross-town rivals Matchroom Poker, which had not posted any significant updates on social media until this week, is now advertising for dealers to join its team.  

As for the Poker Zone at Adelaide Casino, it seems they are biding their time, however the COVID-19 shutdown hasn’t stop operator SkyCity Entertainment Group from continue with its AU$330 million SkyCity Adelaide restoration and expansion project.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Premier Mark McGowan has led the charge in Western Australia with his government’s comprehensive lockdown procedures; add to that the hard border closures and discipline and compliance from his constituents, and it’s not hard to see why the Sandgropers have the lowest number of cases of COVID-19 in the nation.

Suffice to say, things are returning to “normal” much quicker than for those on the eastern seaboard – so much so that the Perth Poker League is already running eight and nine-handed tables for tournament play, much to the chagrin of many competitors.

Managing Director David Beckhaus has worked diligently with the relevant authorities to ensure comprehensive sanitisation measures are implemented and maintained at every touch point, including temperature checks and contact tracing information for all players upon registration.

“We have a thorough COVID Safe plan in place and all of my staff have had their COVID training; I made that mandatory for them before they came back on board,” Beckhaus said, “but before we relaunched, I had to get all the permissions and clearances from everyone; I made hundreds of phone calls and wrote tons of emails to the RGL, the Premier’s health advisor … you name it!

“We haven’t had any backlash from our players about [running full tables] and it speaks volumes given the number of players that we’re getting [for our games] each night.”

At present, there are three PPL games up and running: the Cricketer’s Arms in Ballajura, the Macedonian Cultural Centre in Balcatta and the Malaga Tavern, but Beckhaus is confident the company “should be back up to full steam ahead” at all venues by 15 July.

Meanwhile, Crown Perth Poker is taking a more conservative approach, announcing two days ago that “due to social distancing policies, we are limited to five players per table and strict hygiene measures will be in place”, which is undoubtedly in line with the cap on all table games being spread at the Burswood property when the casino opens its doors on 27 June.

QUEENSLAND & VICTORIA
For the most part, poker’s success and longevity in Australia post-COVID will largely depend on the numbers generated at the major “mid-tier” series when they return, such as the APT Brisbane series at the Eatons Hill Hotel and the WPT League Quarterly Poker Championships at the Seagulls Club in Tweed Heads.

But for Jason Ralph, owner of Poker Republik, the last few months have given him a golden opportunity to put the finishing touches to his brand-new venue and ensure everyone’s safety before their grand unveiling in Mooloolaba.

“As things start to ease up here in Queensland, and with the added benefit of a ‘soft opening’ [before the lockdown], we’ve had the time to communicate with both customers and staff about the extra measures we need to take,” said Ralph.

Ralph and his team have all undergone extensive COVID Safe training, have their temperature checked before starting their shifts and must complete a thorough cleaning and sanitising schedule on a daily basis.

Although an official launch date for the poker room is still a while away, the Republik Bar is currently open for lunch, dinner and drinks from 12pm-8pm Wednesday to Sunday, with the promise of sumptuous meals, mouth-watering cocktails and “ocean views of the beautiful Sunshine Coast.” 

As for Queensland’s other established casino poker rooms, the casino area of Treasury Brisbane remains closed until further notice, as is the case with The Star Gold Coast, which was set to host several WPT-branded events after its success with the WPT Australia series last September, as well as the Australian Poker Open and the Super High Roller Bowl earlier this year. 

The Star Gold Coast

Sadly, things have gone even further south for Victoria, with the recent spike in community transmissions forcing Dan Andrews’ hand in tightening COVID-19 regulations.  Naturally, this also means that all league operators in the Garden State are now having to put their plans for resuming live poker on hold.

And after one of the most successful Aussie Millions series in history at the start of 2020, Crown Melbourne has not indicated when it will begin any of its gaming operations, let alone poker, with a spokesperson informing PMA Crown was “unable to comment at this time.”

TASMANIA, ACT & NORTHERN TERRITORY
Rounding out our summary is Tasmania and The Territories, which like WA have all managed to maintain control of the COVID-19 outbreak with great success.

On the Apple Isle, both the Wrest Point Casino in Hobart and the Country Club in Launceston have stated on their websites that casino operations will return from 26 June, however there were no specific details regarding poker.

That said, the Bullets Poker League is set to restart games in Launceston on 27 June.

Owner/Operator Nathan Joyce told us the Best Western Plus was ideal for the re-launch given the size of their floor space, allowing the operators “to minimise risk to players and staff as much as possible.”

Meanwhile in the Northern Territory, where poker can only be played inside casino properties, the Mindil Beach Resort in Darwin posted last week that whilst their poker zone remains closed, all other table games have resumed.

Attempts to contact the Lasseters Casino in Alice Springs were unsuccessful, though it appears there is some activity at the Central Australian property, mostly around the re-opening of its restaurant facilities rather than the casino floor.

Finally, in the nation’s capital, Casino Canberra has maintained radio silence after closing its doors on 23 March 23, posting only that it “will not reopen until advised it is safe to do so by the [Federal] Government.”

WHAT TO EXPECT AT YOUR NEXT POKER GAME
No matter where and when you choose to play poker, one thing is for certain – there will be strict hygiene and physical distancing measures in place for all players and staff, including, but not limited to:

  • Increased and frequent cleaning and sanitation of tables, chairs and equipment;
  • Hand sanitiser provided to all patrons;
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) being made available to both players and staff (e.g. gloves and masks);
  • Short-handed play (generally five or six-handed);
  • cap on the number of players able to participate, based on the size of the room being utilised at each venue;
  • Contact tracing information and temperature checks being completed during the registration process, and;
  • Tournament staff enforcing rules regarding personal hygiene, e.g. ensuring players wash their hands/sanitise during breaks, no food and drinks to be consumed at the tables, refusing entry to patrons who are unwell).

Of course, as to how stringently these regulations are enforced will be based on the most recent and up-to-date information from state and federal health departments and may vary from one poker operator to the next.

Above all, everyone must continue to do their bit to help limit the spread of disease – wash your hands frequently, keep your distance and if you are feeling sick, stay home and get tested. 

For more information, please refer to your state and/or federal government health department’s website below:

New South Wales
Queensland
Victoria
South Australia
Western Australia
Tasmania
ACT
Northern Territory

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