Online home poker players go all in during the pandemic

Using online poker software and video conferencing apps, people are rediscovering the game while reconnecting with friends


The weekly poker game has taken on a new twist during the coronavirus pandemic. And players are going all in on this new version.

Sure, the table, chips and cards might be digital, but the people you’re playing against are real, and so is their money, and you can shit-talk each other and commiserate about the news the way you used to. Plus, you don’t have to worry about catching any germs from the communal chip bowl, or getting home after the game. You just need to close your laptop.

Online poker has been around since the late 1990s, reaching its peak in the early 2000s when Chris Moneymaker parlayed his online skills to win $2.5 million as the World Series of Poker champion in Las Vegas.

But the lockdown has got lots of casual players – now with little to do at night – logging back on, joining poker games run by friends and colleagues. One thing that’s new today is video conferencing. So rather than look at tiny avatars on the screen that represent your friends, you can simultaneously run Zoom so you can see them and study their faces as they attempt to steal that pot with a garbage hand. 

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the fun, it’s about hanging out with your friends and being social,” says Leonard Chan, a Toronto stand-up comic who plays virtual poker with friends from Ottawa and Washington, DC. “These days it’s hard to have that human connection.” 

Leonard Chan, poker faces

Leonard Chan (bottom) finds it hard to read his friends’ poker faces during a recent game.

Chan and his friends use the free poker site Poker Now, funded by Patreon, and employ Jitsi to see and talk to each other. Others use PokerStars, which provides a wider variety of games but takes a small cut of the action. Most friendly games assign someone to be the banker, who keeps track of what everyone owes (in real money) at the end of the night – to be e-transferred later.

Most casual players buy in for anywhere from $5 to $20, with the possibility of re-buys. Chan plays ring or cash games, but others play tournament style, graduating from one table to the next, hoping to make the fabled final table.

Lorna Johnson, a retiree who worked in advertising, has played in friendly poker games for 20 years, most recently an ongoing tournament series that goes from September to early summer, with the champion winning a bracelet along with the cash and bragging rights.

Since the pandemic, she plays in a weekly online tournament style-game of three tables, with those eliminated from the regular tables invited to the loser’s table to play for cash.

Johnson recommends establishing house rules. Make sure you have a good internet connection. If a player has a problem with how the game is being run, there should be someone in charge to make a ruling. On PokerStars, there’s a chat function where you can outline any rules about profanity or excessive behaviour. 

“On PokerStars you can ‘throw’ items at players now,” she says, laughing. “If you beat someone badly, you can throw them a box of Kleenex, and their icon fills with [tears]. Or if someone has a great hand, you can give them a rocket.”

She’s the only woman in the group, but whenever any of the other players look at her to see if they’ve offended her, she deadpans, “I’ve got three brothers. Go ahead.”

Ralph MacLeod, co-owner of the Social Capital Theatre and member of the comedy troupe the Coincidence Men, says there’s a lot of table talk on Zoom at his games, especially among some of the actors, who include Second City alumnus Paul Constable. 

“But there’s never any meanness,” he says. “The game’s about having fun and not upsetting people. Don’t bluff and then gloat by showing your crappy hand.”

Dora Award-winning actor Evan Buliung’s love of the game goes back to his apprentice years at the Stratford Festival, when he roomed with fellow actor Graham Abbey and there would be a rotating game throughout the season. 

“Some epic things went on in that house, some of which made their way into the TV series Slings & Arrows,” he says. “Paul Gross once went out to his car in the middle of a game and brought out his sabres from Hamlet, and there was a big sword fight.” 

Buliung, who takes part in two regular online poker games these days, offers the following advice for curious players: “Just have fun. And make sure you have people at the table you want to connect with.”

As for whether professional actors are especially good at bluffing, he isn’t sure.

“Ben Carlson was very good at reading people, but he was also really good at calculating the math of the game, studying the odds. The Pettle brothers [Adam and Jordan] were great players.”

One of Chan’s friends has a trick he uses during games where there’s a lot at stake. 

“He has a giant shark head, like from that Katy Perry video,” says Chan. “And whenever he’s in a big hand, he puts it on so we can’t see his expression.”

@glennsumi

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