BLOG: Matt Savage Reflects on the Days that Changed Poker

Apr 6, 2020

By Matt Savage

The 48 hours that took place from the moment I announced “Shuffle Up and Deal” at Bay 101 Shooting Star at 10 a.m. on March 11th changed poker and the world, and both will likely never be the same.

Before I focus on the two days that altered my psyche and life forever, I want to go back to the start of the year 2020. For the past 10 years, this has always been the busiest time of the year for me work-wise.

My 1st quarter 2020 travel schedule:

The LA Poker Classic: January 14 – March 5

Global Poker Awards: March 6

WPT Rolling Thunder: March 7 – 10

Bay 101 Shooting Star: March 11 – 14

WPT Venetian: March 13  – 17

Thunder Valley special events: March 27 – 31

WPT final tables: March 31 – April 2

WPT Deepstacks Thunder Valley: April 2 – 7

When we believed “it was just the flu”

The 68-event LAPC was off to a good start when I heard the word “coronavirus” for the first time in late January. I now know it had spread in China at that point, but when working on the floor 13-15 hours a day, I didn’t get much of a chance to watch cable news, let alone read a newspaper. 

Commerce Casino uses a traveling group of 80 dealers, 90%+ of which are Chinese. Spending every day with them for weeks and years, they have become more than just coworkers. I consider them friends and like family. Their mood began to change in February. The smiles and laughter we’d often share were now more distant, and you could feel the fear and discussion overtaking dealer meetings. 

Matt Savage

I’ve never tolerated dealer abuse, especially when it came with racial overtones, so I advised our floor staff to be vigilant to ensure our dealers wouldn’t face any inappropriate language in regards to their ethnicity since the coronavirus started in China. Unfortunately, we did have one issue when one of our players said, “I hope you get coronavirus.” The player was instantly given a two-round penalty and was threatened with disqualification if he uttered another sentence like that.

LAPC World Poker Tour Main Event

The $10,000 World Poker Tour Main Event, the jewel of the LAPC, was coming and the excitement was building. The fear had finally started creeping into my mind as well. I wasn’t worried that the newly named COVID-19 was at the Commerce, as there was only one reported case in LA County at the time. What concerned me was that we had a $1 million-guaranteed mega-satellite day on Feb. 28 and rumblings of restricted travel along with some canceled bookings by players like Phil Hellmuth, Jared Jaffee, and others that hadn’t missed the LAPC main event in years. 

The Million Dollar Mega Day still did very well, easily eclipsing the guarantee and awarded 135 $10K seats (down only 18 from 2019). The poker world was starting to change and I knew that we’d be down year-over-year, but still held out hope that we’d have at least 500 players and award $1 million to first place. 

The WPT LAPC Main Event started on leap day, which was the same day that the first COVID-19 death in the USA happened in Washington State. By then, there were foreign travel restrictions on multiple countries. Things were getting real when Alex Rocha (pictured) showed up in a gas mask with swimming goggles and gloves. It was funny to most, but not everyone was laughing. Others were in masks as well.

Alex Rocha

I have to admit, at this point, I was in the vast majority of people that wasn’t taking the coronavirus very seriously. But, over the next few days and weeks, that would all change. The fact that I touch chips, cards, along with hundreds of handshakes and bro hugs, had me using massive amounts of hand sanitizer and constantly washing my hands.

The final number of players for the Main Event was 490. Remember there are no re-entries on the LAPC Main Event. It was down as expected, but as fear was growing I believe many felt like it wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, with the number being short of 530 we would not have a million for first. However,  in a generous and totally unexpected move by David Mosikian and Commerce management, the casino added $75,000 to first place so that the winner on the WPT delayed final table on April 2nd would receive $1 million plus the $15,000 Tournament of Champions seat.

Final Table Players_WPT LAPC_S18_Day 5_Giron_8JG8003

The field reached the six-handed final table on Day 5. It featured a great line-up of Ka Kwan Lau, Upeshka de Silva, Chip Leader Balakrishna Patur, Matas Cimbolas, Scott Hempel, and James Carroll (pictured left to right). These players were paid the minimum payout of $185,330 and went their different ways, set to reconvene in less than a month.

On March 3rd, US officials approved widespread testing for coronavirus. It was starting to spread. The LAPC Main Event ended at about 6pm on the 4th, which was a little earlier than anticipated, so I decided to hop in my car and go home, even if it was just for a day. It had been seven weeks since I’d been there. I also had to be home in Vegas for the Global Poker Awards on the 6th, then on a 6am flight on the 7th for the start of the WPT Rolling Thunder Main Event, which started at noon that day.

WPT Rolling Thunder Main Event

Thunder Valley is always one of my favorite stops mostly because of the way Ben Erwin and the management take care of me. More importantly, they take especially good care of the players too. Being from the Bay Area, Northern California is like home for me, so I always see so many local players I’ve known for years. Ben and his team also go above and beyond for the WPT Champions Club members, taking them to Top Golf and having a Champions Club dinner in the casino’s great steak house High Steaks. 

Champions Club Dinner

We had made some changes to the event to make it more recreational player-friendly. We added small buy-in step satellites and a huge 40-seat guaranteed mega the night before the main event kicked off. Like the LAPC, the numbers were off and players were canceling over coronavirus concerns. It was sad because I knew how hard Ben had worked putting together the schedule and how much promotion the WPT and our team management had put into the event.

A new reality of cleanliness was developing

There was a new protocol coming to the game, something that likely should have been followed in live poker already. It may well be standard after the curve flattens and live poker tournaments resume.

  1. Wipe down all the rails with disinfectant wipes before the start of the tournament and again on every break.
  1. Have hand sanitizer visible and readily available.
  1. Keep non-players out of the tournament area at all times.
  1. Keep tables nine-handed or less so the players don’t have to touch each other constantly.

As we followed these procedures at Thunder Valley, it seemed sufficient at the time, but we would learn it was not nearly enough social distancing. The tournament drew 250 entries and two-time WPT Champion Tony Tran won the event.

Champion Tony Tran

An unfounded rumor added to my stress

During the Thunder Valley tournament, a Twitter rumor started that a player that played in a Bay 101 cash game had a confirmed case of coronavirus. The rumor turned out to be false, but as many things on Twitter circulate quickly, this nonetheless added to the fears of players attending Bay 101. It also added to my growing concern. Some bounty players were canceling, which happens every year, but this year the reason was always COVID-19 concerns. I accepted the last-minute cancellations much easier than I did in years past, and much easier than I had just 10 days earlier at the LAPC.

On the road again

I had a shuttle scheduled to drive me to Bay 101  just 15 hours after Tony hoisted the WPT Champions Cup in Thunder Valley. A couple of friends, Tyler Patterson and Anthony Zinno, both WPT champions and also Shooting Star bounties, were on that shuttle too. Of course, the conversation on the more than two-hour drive was all about coronavirus, as we were heading straight into Santa Clara County, one of the early hotbeds of the growing virus. 

Tyler was far less concerned than Anthony. Little did we know that their opinions would play a big part in the tournament just three days later. We arrived at our different hotels just after midnight. Anthony graciously lost the $100 flip for the shuttle driver tip. I checked in, unpacked, and passed out knowing that I had to be on the floor at Bay 101 in just six hours at 8 a.m.

The 48 hours that everything changed

Leading up to the Shooting Star event, I was in constant touch with Bay 101 management and knew there were going to be seating adjustments. I also wanted to make sure our disinfecting procedures were up to snuff. I was pleasantly surprised that our once-a-year chips were in play and clean, the table felts and rails wiped, and wipes and hand sanitizer were readily available.

I know it seems crazy today that the tournament actually took place but please remember the kids were still going to school, every casino in the country was still open, and the governor of California had only just issued a 1,000-person maximum for public gatherings. As the tournament started, there were over 200 players ready to play some poker.

Wednesday, March 11th, 10:00am: “Shuffle up and Deal”

The $5,200 buy-in tournament kicked off with far less fanfare than years past. It kind of felt like a relief that it was underway. Bay 101 has plentiful TVs. Many were on CNBC and CNN. The stock market was down 1,250 points and the news was depressing, so I asked the lead floorman to put the TVs on sports to take our mind off the negativity, not knowing that it would be an unprecedented sports 48 hours. Here’s what happened:

11:00 a.m: The Golden State Warriors closed home games to fans in the wake of the 1,000-person gathering ban. The news started a buzz in the poker room.

1:30 p.m: The NCAA announced March Madness would be played without fans.

3:30 p.m: The San Jose Sharks announced that they would play the remainder of their home games without fans. As a lifelong Sharks fan and former season ticket holder, my first thought was at least they aren’t going to the playoffs this year anyway.

4:45 p.m: Shooting Star registration closed with 290 entries, down from 440 in 2019, which wasn’t bad considering. The field was filled with local satellite winners and bounties. The prize pool was set at $1,331,000. The top 37 players made the money. A min-cash was worth $9,040, and first place awarded $300,650.

5:40 p.m: The NBA canceled the Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder just before the game was to tip-off.

6:14 p.m: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they have coronavirus.

6:27 p.m: News broke that Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert had a confirmed case of coronavirus.

6:31 p.m: The NBA suspended the rest of the season. Bounty Craig Varnell stood and yelled across the room “Oh my God, are you seeing this shit?”

6:45 p.m: Shooting Star Day 1 ended. Chino Rheem won the $5,000 chip leader prize in dominating fashion, ending the day with 627,500. Of the 30 bounties that started the day, 16 were left and a total of 108 players remained.

6:50 p.m: As players finished bagging and headed to their cars and hotels, I heard, “Someone has a gun outside!” Bay 101 security and management was keeping players in the building and called San Jose police. It turned out to be a man with a flashlight making threatening statements. SJPD arrived and handled the momentarily scary situation.

7:15 pm: There was a scheduled dinner for the bounty players and their guests at the Bay 101 restaurant The Province. The event was lightly attended, but we were still able to talk about the crazy day and even managed a few laughs. I asked my computer wizard live update reporter, my friend Rob “VeeRob” Perelman, for something I’ve never done before, which was a 108-player ICM chop number just in case we were forced to close overnight.

 At the time, it seemed a prudent maneuver and I was prepared to post the numbers as the official payouts had it happened. A couple of interesting numbers had the chip leader Chino Rheem receiving $73,531 and short stack Darren Elias getting $762. I asked Sam Quinto for us to make Day 2 eight-handed just to spread players apart a bit, and Sam agreed. We already planned to go six-handed with 36 players remaining. I went back to the hotel, had a glass of wine, and watched the crazy news day that was.

Thursday, March 12

8:00 a.m: I woke up to the news the California Gov. Gavin Newsom reduced the maximum number of people at a gathering to 250, and even that restriction exempted casinos. We had 108 players to start the day and the casino was still open, so Day 2 was a go.

8:42 a.m: Major League Soccer suspended their season for 30 days

8:47 – 9:40 a.m: One by one, every NCAA basketball conference tournament was canceled

10:00 a.m: Bay 101 Shooting Star Day 2 got underway and I decided to extend Day 2 to 10 60-minute levels to condense a four-day event into three days. This drew NO complaints, and I do have to say the players in the tournament were totally understanding and aware that things were changing fast. I did ask Darren Elias if he’d take his ICM number of $762, and he said: “I’ll take it.” He proceeded to double up multiple times.

The only live sport on the TV’s at this point was the PGA. It was the Players Championship in Florida, which is a great tournament. At that point there were fans in the stands, but as the day progressed they decided that fans would not be allowed on Friday as well as the weekend rounds.

10:15 a.m: Major League Baseball postponed all operations

10:35 a.m: The NHL postponed the rest of the regular season. This one really hurt.

1:15 p.m: The NCAA canceled March Madness

2:25 p.m: We were in the money as Chino Rheem continued his rush, busting local Phaly Nou on the bubble. Thirty-seven players remained. When we lost David Fong in 37th, we redrew to six tables of six.

5:00 p.m: With 18 players left, we redrew. Half of them were bounties. The remaining Shooting Stars were Mike Matusow, Chino, Kristen Bicknell, Lexy Gavin, Anthony Zinno, Tyler Patterson, Phil Hui, Craig Varnell, and the short stack at the beginning of the day, Darren Elias.

5:30 p.m: The PGA pulled the plug on the Players Championship and postponed further events. So that was it, all major sporting events currently running or scheduled in March and April had either been postponed or canceled.

6:00 p.m: Bounty Mike Matusow busted in 15th place.

6:20 p.m: Bounty Chino Rheem finished in 13th.

6:45 p.m: Bounty Philip Hui was taken out in 12th.

7:45 p.m: Bounty Darren Elias was eliminated in 11th.

8:45 p.m: Day 2 ended with Craig Varnell in the chip lead of the final 10 players, which earned him the $5,000 bonus.

At this point, we faced the same situation as the night before. Would Bay 101 open the next day so the final 10 could play to a champion? We ran the ICM numbers and I presented the case that, if the casino didn’t open, then these were the amounts players would each receive. I never care if the players want to play it out, but I have to admit, I was hoping they’d take the deal and I could catch a morning flight home to see my wife. As always, it would have to be unanimous. Craig Varnell, Tyler Patterson, Michael Tureniec, and Kristen Bicknell clearly wanted to play, so we were coming back to finish it up on Friday. I took all the contact numbers to inform them if we closed, and back to the hotel, I went.

Friday, March 13th

I didn’t get much sleep. I was in constant contact with my boss, friend, and former tournament coordinator Samuel Quinto about the status of Bay 101. He was sure that we’d have to close at some point soon, but the casino was open in the morning. The players who knew me were texting me if we were playing and I said yes.

The other group of people I was talking with was other tournament directors. I had been in touch with Bill Mason and Tony Burns from Seminole, Mike Smith at Maryland Live!, The Venetian’s Tommy LaRosa, Jesse Hollander at bestbet, Tab Duchateau at Borgata and, of course, Ben from Thunder Valley. We were all trying to determine how the coronavirus would impact the industry. With things changing seemingly every hour though, it was hard to gauge anything.

Events that hadn’t started yet like WPT Venetian and WPTDeepstacks Thunder Valley were getting postponed or canceled. On Thursday, Seminole had canceled Event #4 of the Seminole Hard Rock Escalator Series IV after three of a scheduled six starting flights of play. But elsewhere, the WSOP Circuit series in both Atlantic City and at The Bike in LA were still running as of Friday morning. By the end of the day, both had been canceled.

I arrived at Bay 101 around 9:15 .am. One-by-one, the players started to arrive shortly after, all with the goal of winning over $300,000 and the dolphin trophy. I then noticed Michael Tureniec wearing a face mask, something I had not seen on him the days prior. I approached him and he told me “I’m not feeling well and I’ve been coughing.” Already on edge, I called a meeting of the players and informed them that Michael wasn’t feeling well.

Some options were discussed:

  1. Chopping by the ICM numbers
  2. Giving Michael his ICM number and continuing.
  3. Playing it out anyway

The problem, as it often is in these situations, was that we couldn’t get agreement. Craig Varnell, Kristen Bicknell, and Tyler Patterson really wanted to play, as did a couple of others, but Anthony Zinno made some good sensible points about just ending it now. The group decided to take the ten-way ICM deal and Craig was awarded the title, trophy, and $159,710.

For those wondering, it turned out Michael did not have COVID-19. He felt better the next day.

Craig Varnell Bay 101 Matt Savage

Credit: Bay101News.com

Final numbers:

1st: Craig Varnell – $159,710 *

2nd: Kristen Bicknell – $141,520 *

3rd: Navin Mohan – $132,780 *

4th: Tyler Patterson – $113,860 *

5th: Anshul Kulshrestha – $101,430 *

6th: Michael Tureniec – $91,180 *

7th: John Andress – $88,800 *

8th: Anthony Zinno – $55,600 *

9th: Anthony Spinella – $50,000 *

10th: Lexy Gavin – $41,060*

While the paperwork was being written up and most of us were booking flights home, I couldn’t help but think that this was going to be a tournament that I or anyone else involved would never forget.

The management of Bay 101 decided to close that night, the first casino to close in the United States.

Through my two-month west coast journey it became clear to me, poker players, and the world that this pandemic needed to be taken seriously and important steps needed to be taken immediately to stop the spread of COVID-19.

I boarded the next flight, anxious to see my family and head straight into self-quarantine for the next 14 days.

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