The $1 million question: Can World Poker Tour happen safely at the Hard Rock?

Hundreds of poker players from across the country and beyond have gathered inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood for the World Poker Tour’s 2021 Lucky Hearts Open, as Florida’s record-setting COVID odds continue to rise.

Hundreds of poker players from across the country and beyond have gathered inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood for the World Poker Tour’s 2021 Lucky Hearts Open, as Florida’s record-setting COVID odds continue to rise.

With $1 million in guaranteed prize money on the table for the main event Jan. 22-26, this is the first major tournament at the Hard Rock in a year and the first live event for the World Poker Tour since COVID lockdowns began in March.

The Lucky Hearts Open, which began with preliminary matches Thursday and has averaged nearly 1,000 daily entries in its first two days, is taking place in the casino’s 40,000-square-foot Seminole Ballroom. The room includes 60 tables spaced across the floor, with eight competitors per table.
Plexiglas dividers separate each player, and dealers are separated from players by a similar barrier. Masks are mandatory.

Veteran tournament player Shawn Mohamed, 46, of Pembroke Pines, played Thursday and Friday, and has qualified for a seat in the main event beginning Jan. 22. Citing the Plexiglas shields, the sanitation regimen and mask enforcement he witnessed, Mohamed says his feels “very safe.”
“They’re on top of it. If your mask comes down even a little bit, someone’s going come over and remind you. They don’t slack when it comes to that,” he says.

But putting hundreds of people from around the country in a single room for six hours as a mutating virus infects more than 16,000 Floridians a day doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to everyone.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said one Hard Rock regular, citing the sheer amount of players, many from outside South Florida, as well as a number of dealers the tournament will bring in from other parts of the country. “Everybody is dying to play live, so everybody is flying to Florida from all over the world. We’re a hot spot.”

A Broward County resident who played high-stakes poker three or four times a week and competed in the 2020 Lucky Hearts Open, she asked to remain anonymous for fear of being banned by the Hard Rock.

She worries for the safety of fellow poker players, but also the staff who she considers friends. She hasn’t played since March and won’t return until she gets a vaccine.
“For me not to play for a year, that’s a big deal,” she said. “I love the Hard Rock. It’s where I make a lot of money. … But I’m disappointed with them.”

Live poker tournaments were rare in most of the country in 2020, especially one as lucrative as the Lucky Hearts Open. Beginning in March, the World Poker Tour canceled its 2020 tournaments, including two at the Hard Rock, and moved the rest of its competition online.

The venerable World Series of Poker canceled its famed multiweek Las Vegas tournament in May, then held an online-live hybrid “main event” beginning in November that Poker News Daily called an “embarrassment.” WSOP has not announced what form its 2021 series will take.

The 2020 Lucky Hearts Open main event brought 843 participants to the Hard Rock last January. David Hoenemeyer, chief operating officer at Seminole Gaming, doesn’t expect COVID concerns or travel issues to reduce that number this year. The tournament website includes a link to discounted hotel rooms.

“There is a high demand for tournament poker and limited venues to participate,” he said.

Mohamed says his Friday morning flight, originally capped at 400 participants, had 532 players in the Seminole Ballroom. The Friday evening group likely would include a similar number, he says.

The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the Guitar Hotel complex was less than six months removed from the grand opening of a dramatic $1.5 billion remodel when COVID restrictions were instituted. It reopened in June with a program of hygiene, mask and social-distancing rules called Safe + Sound.

Enforcement was uneven initially: Six weeks after the reopening, a Sun Sentinel report found crowds of patrons streaming through the gleaming new property without distancing or face coverings. Seminole Gaming quickly enacted a new, more restrictive mask policy.

Hoenemeyer says the effectiveness of the Safe + Sound program convinced the Hard Rock and WPT, partners for more than a decade, that a live tournament could be held safely.
“All parties felt comfortable in moving forward with poker play after seeing the success of the Safe + Sound program,” he says, acknowledging that the tournament “continues to be closely monitored as the times we live in are fluid every day.”

The WPT declined to answer questions about the tournament and safety protocols.

Joseph Thackery, 63, of Aventura and Minneapolis, Minn., has played at the Hard Rock monthly since the poker room at Gulfstream Park closed. He can’t spare the buy-in for the Lucky Hearts Open (several hundred dollars for the preliminary rounds, $3,500 for the main event), but understands the attraction.

“I can’t play online. I need to see you,” he said, laughing. “That million [dollars], that’s no joke.”

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at

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