Pro Poker Players Are Gambling With Their Lives to Get Back to the Table

It’s hard to imagine a place in these coronavirus times that’s more high risk than a casino, but these pros are willing to put it all on the line for a hot streak

Nobody was more frustrated to leave the casino than Kyle Fischl. The Floridian was in the midst of a hot streak on the felt; his endless hours poured into poker scripture, technique and theory were finally paying off. Throughout the winter, he averaged about $5,000 profit a month from his night shifts at the poker table. Fischl’s corresponding YouTube channel, where he documents the whiplash lucky breaks and bad beats that define the life and times of any professional gambler, was also starting to bloom. After months toiling in the algorithm wasteland, he was routinely reaching 15,000 views per upload. All Fischl wanted to do was keep his head down and grind away. Poker fortune isn’t won easily. You just need to stay focused on your next two hole cards.

But as any card player knows, sometimes fate intervenes at the worst possible moment. By mid-March, all the poker rooms in Florida were frozen under a stay-at-home order due to coronavirus. The logic was clear — the more we learned about COVID-19, the more a crowded casino seemed like a natural vector point. They’re indoors, low-lit and plush with free drinks. A serious poker shift can last as long as 12 hours, and the act of sequestering yourself at a table with eight strangers from early evening to early morning checks all the boxes for easy transmission. Fischl, of course, understands all that. But that didn’t make it any less frustrating.

“This shutdown happened right when I was in the middle of a substantial upswing. There was no real indication for how long it was going to be,” he says. “It was a week, then two weeks, then three weeks, then four weeks. Poker is a big part of my life. And it was just gone.”

In all, Fischl’s poker suspension lasted about three months. But, as a Florida native, he lives under the jurisdiction of Governor Ron DeSantis — one of the many Republican lawmakers that have curtailed the coronavirus quarantine period earlier than other states; and so, as of June 12th, casinos across South Florida were back open for business, a controversial decision nationally. (Though, on July 2nd, casinos were ordered to shutter again, as cases in Florida continue to spike.) Controversy aside, Fischl was mostly focused on the money he was looking to win. “Live Poker Is Back!” proclaims the title of his latest YouTube video. On his Instagram you can see the evidence — a room full of men, masks on, staring down at their chips. Ready or not, here they come.

The internet is full of images of our dystopian new realities for pandemic gambling. Poker rooms are now insulated with plastic or plexiglass barriers — like individually wrapped betting pods — to limit human contact with the other players. Fischl doesn’t recommend that setting. It makes the game anti-social, he says, and the plexiglass sometimes causes little cuts in his hands. Poker is a communal game by nature; nobody wants to feel imprisoned at a casino. 

Still, Fischl appreciates that his home casino is “strict” about forcing its players, pit bosses, wait staff and dealers to wear masks at all times. “If you leave a table and come back, you have to put hand sanitizer on,” he adds. “But the atmosphere is very positive. The players are so happy to be back. Players were willing to adhere to the circumstances just to play again.”

Of course, one of the maddening realities about America’s tumble into a post-shelter-in-place era is how inconsistent those rule sets can be between states and counties. Every governor in the country seems to define the severity of the pandemic differently, and that paradox is increasingly apparent in casinos. Joey Ingram, a poker pro and podcaster in Las Vegas, recalls a much different experience from Fischl, when he first made it back to the tables after the stay-at-home embargo in Nevada was lifted in early June. “They were washing chips every so often, but outside of that, I didn’t see too many precautions,” he tells me. “There were no plastic dividers or anything like that. No masks were required.”

The antidote, as far as Ingram could tell, was a hard cap to the number of people seated at each table. Poker is traditionally played with nine seats, but during the pandemic, many casinos have tamped that down to five or six. That policy ensures that there will be a limited number of players slotted together at each game, which also has a transformative effect on the in-game strategy. If you ignore the life-threatening disease and government negligence, 2020 is ironically a great time to be taking poker seriously.

“In this situation, people are going to be playing more hands,” explains Ingram. “You’re going to see more hands an hour. And they’ll be getting into more spots because [there aren’t many players at the table], so ranges are going to be a bit wider. It puts people into situations that they’re not used to, and they’re not going to be making the best decisions. You might not get another chance to play shorthanded against people that don’t know what they’re doing. You have a huge advantage.”

That said, nobody is fully immune from pandemic anxiety. Isaac Ebrom, a player from South Texas, posted a photo of a casino in San Antonio, where players were ensconced in a weird, bubbly plastic shell. The decks are swapped out every 30 minutes and the tables are limited to six players, but still, Ebrom tells me that a certain low-level coronavirus angst hovers in the back of his mind at all times. 

Above all, this is the dilemma facing poker players in these precarious months ahead: How safe do you feel around a table? And is it worth the stress if you can keep the money coming in?

“Obviously, when you go outside, there’s going to be a risk involved. So you have to weigh that risk and reward,” Ebrom tells me. “You have to take that into account. For me, poker isn’t 100 percent of my income, so that scale wasn’t as extreme as someone who lives in Vegas.”

Fischl says he was still working a day job as a financial analyst at UPS during the months his poker business was on ice. That gave him a unique perspective — he was already out and about, every day, hustling to keep his head above water while the state was on pause. So when the poker rooms opened back up, Fischl digested it as just another one of his responsibilities; if he was going to work, if he was eating at restaurants, he was also going to play cards. “People are going to make their own decisions,” he says. “If some things are open, most things should be open.”

There are plenty of good reasons to believe that hitting the casino in the midst of a global pandemic is ignorant and self-centered. Those qualms hinge on bigger questions about personal responsibility and the sheer long-term feasibility of life under strict quarantine, but it’s important to remember that even in a venue as vapid and hedonistic as a poker room, some people at the table are there to both make rent and chase their dreams.