Live poker took a huge hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the world looking to a future where we live with the virus rather than stamp it out completely – at least in the short term – live poker has made a return.

In broad terms, that has been hugely successful. Numbers are up, not just in terms of attendance at the major festivals – World Poker Tour set a new live event record during their comeback tour – but also by way of popularity. The World Series of Poker in 2021 saw the popularity of poker displayed to all the world as the Rio signed off in style.

So why did the Borgata struggle to cope with the demand for a $400-entry tournament this week and is it a bump on the road to recovery or evidence of a more serious issue?

How Did it Go Wrong at the Borgata?

“Plan better. Especially when there’s a clear pent-up demand for tournaments.”

The Borgata is a classic poker venue. Based in Atlantic City, the iconic venue is flooded with light, offers a friendly and relaxing atmosphere and is much loved by hopeful amateurs and dedicated pros alike. There is never any sort of situation such as one Texas poker room experienced when an armed robbery was foiled back in January.

So it was a surprise when Ryan Depaulo shared footage of an outrageously long registration line for the $400-entry event that kicked off last weekend.

Pretty soon afterwards, the Borgata shared a status confirming some of the people in that line’s worst fears; all that queuing had been for nothing.

On Twitter, some players and fans reacted strongly at a perceived lack of either planning or staff. One user replied: “A little friendly advice: plan better. Especially when there’s a clear pent-up demand for tournaments. Allow pre-reg and have more tables at a minimum. Horribly planned.” Another said that players had been checking online since 7.30 am and “This is the first update you send out”, while another simply replied: “Incompetence & Ambivalence.”

The Borgata has always had a good record for communicating with their clientele and that is maintained by most, with many not blaming the venue themselves, so what could the issue be?

Staffing Impacted by Live Poker Return

With a $200,000 guarantee and $400 entry fee, should the Borgata have presumed that a deluge of insurmountable proportions was about to descend on their location? Day 1a of the Presidents Day mini-series began at 10 am on Sunday morning, so perhaps risking a lot of staff turning up and not being used was a factor.

During COVID-19, many live venues were effectively shut down for the best part of a year and even after that, returned with a reduced capacity and Perspex screens in place. This led to not one but two devastating impacts on freelance dealers and other workers who were unable to survive without obtaining alternative employment. Some of those staff have returned to poker, but others couldn’t afford to and still don’t trust an industry that is strong yet has to be fluid to move between online and bricks and mortar hosting venues.

Borgata Slips
Registering for a poker tournament at the Borgata is a popular pursuit with Atlantic City poker players.

Many venues in the Northeast were unable to offer live poker at all during the pandemic, so as an area, few surplus staff remain to be called on. Many experienced staff members of casinos were laid off and had to seek different jobs. They – understandably – might have been reticent to jump back into an industry that has proved that a pandemic can strip it down to the bare bones.

With Day 1a getting over 800 players, the scene was set for long waits and in the end, a full capacity that simply could not grow any bigger and remain in seats. Poker is limited in its live venues in a way online poker sites are not. It’s not uncommon for the Sunday Million to register thousands of entrants all playing at once, but the worst that happens is a crash where everyone gets their money back. In an ‘in real life’ casino, those same players don’t even get to take their seats.

What Can the Borgata Do to Stop a Repeat?

With stories of players registering before then needing to wait in line to take a seat, that devalues the stack that was worth – in some cases – as little as 25 big blinds by the time the seat was taken. Others sold their seats in line. That changes a poker tournament a lot, but what can the Borgata do to prevent the same thing from happening again? The line was so long that players near the front were reportedly selling off their spots in line.

The Borgata lost many of its most experienced poker staffers during COVID-19, but not all. They clearly want to look at how quickly they can return to offering poker players in the area the biggest guarantees for the best value buy-ins. Perhaps it’s easy to say not having been in the registration lines, but hopefully, players can allow the Borgata to take a few risks to build back their event reputation.

Another recovery aid might be online registrations, which MGM Resorts, the owners of the Borgata, don’t currently offer. The online registration element of the World Series of Poker really helped ease the queues when the WSOP took place at the Rio last Autumn and will doubtless be a big feature when the World Series is back at Bally’s and Paris in late May.

The Borgata will always be a much-loved venue for poker players, especially those who are far from Vegas and favor the East coast. If the staff problems ease and online registration is added, along with a fair wind and some good fortune around scheduled tournaments and a demanding footfall, the good times really could be back at Atlantic City.

James Guill

James Guill is a former professional poker player who writes fro about poker, sports, casinos, gaming legislation and the online gambling industry in general. His past experience includes working with IveyPoker, PokerNews, PokerJunkie, Bwin, and the Ongame Network. From 2006-2009 he participated in multiple tournaments including the 37th and 38th World Series of Poker (WSOP). James lives in Virginia and he has a side business where he picks and sells vintage and antique items.

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