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Ways to Stay Healthy and Avoid the Dreaded WSOP Flu

By Randy Ray in General
| March 31, 2018 12:00 am PDT
WSOP Logo Flu Shot Needle and Washing Hands

Every year, thousands of players flock to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, to take part in a true American tradition – the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

Tournaments are held, big pots are dragged, gold bracelets are won, and millions upon millions of dollars change hands. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

The problem is, though, many players don’t take that advice. With limited time on breaks and potentially life-changing money at stake, folks can be forgiven for forgetting to wash their hands after a quick sprint to the bathroom.

Or can they?

When massive crowds containing strangers from all corners of the globe – last year’s WSOP attracted entrants from 111 nations – the Rio becomes a proverbial petri dish of germs and bacteria.

That’s not to say poker players are dirty or less healthy than most; it’s simply a fact of human interaction. Take a few thousand people, pack them into a confined environment, and even a single carrier can get quite a few people sick before the night is up.

Just take a look at this Twitter search page for the terms “Rio flu” – the term players, media, and staff coined when referring to the WSOP’s signature sickness – to see just how prevalent this phenomenon can be.

Seemingly every year, folks who show up to the Rio for WSOP season find their immune system succumbing to this mysterious illness. For most, the ailment is your common cold, the flu, or plain old fatigue combined with malnourishment. For others, the problem can bloom into something more serious like a staph infection.

In either case, however, the root cause is easy to understand. Players who grind the WSOP every summer must contend with grueling 14- and 15-hour days. For the skilled combatants who manage to run deep with regularity, the WSOP can become a gauntlet to endure. Throw in a steady diet of Red Bull and junk food, long walks to and from the tournament area and the main hotel, and dramatic temperature changes between the outdoors and inside – and you’ve got the perfect recipe for feeling under the weather.

I try and do the WSOP every year, mostly as a fan with a few preliminary tournaments thrown in for fun. And while I invariably went down with a bout of the Rio flu during my first few trips there, I seem to have figured things out recently. Knock on wood, of course, but I’ve managed to dodge the contagion in each of my last four visits.

That’s a pretty nice streak, if you ask me, and I don’t think it’s an accident, either. Ever since I learned about the Rio flu and first felt its sickly grip grab ahold, I’ve thought about ways to prevent myself from coming down with common viruses and other threats. I’m not a germaphobe by any means, so this won’t be some sort of Howard Hughes-style approach to warding off illness, but I do believe in basic prevention.

With that in mind, check out my guide to staying healthy and avoiding the Rio flu at the upcoming 2018 WSOP.

Bundle Up

I’ll never forget the 2013 WSOP, which was memorably dubbed the “Coldest Poker Event in History” by industry insider Robbie Strazynski on his Cardplayer Lifestyle blog.

That year, for whatever reason, the WSOP head honchos or Rio’s maintenance staff just couldn’t settle on the proper thermostat setting. With a few thousand people crammed into just three main convention halls – and temperatures outside soaring to 110 and above during the summer months – the head honchos obviously wanted to keep things cool and mild inside.

But somehow the dial gets pushed back to 65 degrees, and even lower on some days, for most of the series. This led to some pretty funny posts in the PokerNews Live Updates about big-name pros forced to wear scarves, mittens, and beanies at the table. Daniel Negreanu even hopped on Twitter to lambaste the WSOP for failing to take care of players, going so far as to post a photo of a handheld thermometer as proof of the frigid conditions.

Things have improved somewhat in the five years since, but the same central issue remains – with blistering triple-digit heat outside, the Rio’s rooms need to be nice and cool to compensate.

Folks often walk in from the streets dripping with sweat, especially if they’re not accustomed to the desert weather. Then, within a matter of seconds, their body is blasted with high-powered air conditioning that drops the internal temperature in the Rio to the mid-60s. Going from hot to cold like that, combined with the moisture added by a sweat slick, puts even the healthiest immune system at risk of catching a cold.

And yes, I’m aware that the cold itself doesn’t cause the viral infection of the same name. But exposure to chilly temperatures while wet is a surefire way to weaken your defenses just enough to allow germs to get through.

On that note, you should always have a nice warm hoodie or sweatshirt at the ready.

Bring one along in your poker backpack, or carry it with you while you walk, but long-sleeves are a must once you enter the tournament area.

You’ll invariably encounter unprepared players who didn’t think to bring warmer clothes. These are almost always first-timers and Europeans who mistakenly believe Sin City stays scorching indoors. The sight of them shivering and blowing into the hands while wearing a tank-top and shorts is admittedly pretty funny – but it’s also a major contributing factor to the Rio Flu epidemic.

Steer Clear of the Smoking Section

At one point in time, and not that long ago, really, poker players were forced to endure secondhand cigarette smoke just to enjoy their hobby or profession.

Even before the WSOP relocated to the Rio over a decade ago, the previous venue was plagued by a similar mystery illness. As it turns out, pros of the era believe exposure to secondhand smoke throughout the old Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Vegas was the true culprit.

Here’s what Tom McEvoy – World Champion of the WSOP Main Event in 1983 – had to say on the matter in a 2017 interview with PokerNews:

“The WSOP would be so bad with the smoking that players were getting bronchitis and coughing all the time. They used to call it the ‘Horseshoe Crud.’

Even the smokers preferred it to be non-smoking. In the first couple of years, they let supporters smoke on the rail, even here at the Rio. You needed a gas-mask to get outside. Even now, when you go outside, it’s pretty bad.” – Tom McEvoy, winner of the 1983 WSOP Main Event

Fortunately for the modern generation of poker players, a regulatory crackdown on secondhand smoke during the 1990s and beyond has practically eradicated the smoking scourge indoors. Most casinos limit smoking to their table gaming pits and bars only, and that’s the case at the Rio as well.

The WSOP itself bans smoking outright, consigning cigarette fiends to outdoor areas. But if you enter through the front or main entrance of the Rio, however, you’ll have to walk through the main casino area where smoke lingers in the air.

To avoid that route, be sure to park in the Masquerade Garage or the Trucker’s Lot in the back of the Rio. This provides direct access to the WSOP tournament area, so you’ll be smoke-free from start to finish. Just remember to hold your breath for those few seconds you’ll pass through the smoker’s patio, and you’ll be safe and sound when you get inside.

Wash Your Hands and Wash Them Often

I would assume this to be a no-brainer for most people, but assumptions don’t always work out when you’re dealing with such large crowds.

The cleanliness of poker chips, or lack thereof, has been well-documented. In 2007, biology professor Brian Hedlund and his team from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), put poker chips from several Las Vegas casinos under the microscope.

Their goal was to identify pathogens, germs, bacteria, and other nasty stuff stowed away on the surface of an average chip. While some properties performed better than others, owing to different policies regarding cleaning and disinfection, the verdict was clear – poker chips are dirty beyond belief.

You can read all about the study in an ESPN Poker profile of the proceedings, but suffice it to say, Hedlund and his team found thousands of microorganisms clinging to a single chip. Everything from bacillus to Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was identified, along with several unknown substances.

As a player who will be handling hundreds of chips (and hopefully more) day in and day out, it’s your responsibility to safeguard your system by regularly washing your hands. You can hit the bathrooms for some soap and hot water action, or carry a bottle of hand sanitizer like Purell with you on the go.

However you get the job done, though, make a habit of washing your hands – up to the elbows, like the old signs in school used to say – after any exposure to poker chips. That means on your short breaks, at dinner, and after bagging and tagging to end the night.

And I shouldn’t have to tell anybody this, but do the same when you use the facilities, too. Spend a minute near the Rio bathroom sinks, and you’ll start to get a sense of where all those germs Hedlund found really came from. Poker players have their priorities, and for some, that means rushing back to the table to avoid missing a hand – while forgetting to wash their own.

Do your part to cut down on the transfer of germs by washing your hands whenever the situation calls.

Don’t Drink the Water

On a final note, while most casino resorts do their very best to ensure guests remain healthy, the Rio has had its ups and downs on that front.

Just last year, the venue made mainstream media headlines when an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease was discovered.

Legionnaires’ disease is a pretty serious form of pneumonia, one caused by the Legionella strain of bacteria. The germs are transmitted largely through water droplets, as a report from the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) made clear at the time:

“Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling aerosol droplets of water contaminated with the bacteria. Sources of the aerosol can include showers, hot tubs, faucets, cooling towers, misters, and decorative fountains.

Most people exposed to Legionella will not get sick; however, it can cause severe illness and sometimes result in death.”

Given the severity of the illness, the Rio took immediate steps to rid its entire property of legionella bacteria:

“In response to the initial illness report, the property arranged for environmental testing of its water system. Facility testing results did indicate a presence of the Legionella bacteria, and the property initiated the appropriate remediation response of chlorine disinfection.

Following reports of the additional case, the Health District conducted sampling of the water system and identified Legionella bacteria throughout the system.

The Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino and the Health District are working together to conduct remediation and follow up sampling to ensure remediation efforts are effective.”

I’m not out to spark a panic or anything, but a post about staying healthy while staying at the Rio just wouldn’t be right without presenting this information.

I haven’t let this issue impact my WSOP visits, and last summer’s edition of the series set a new record for overall attendance, so clearly, players are willing to take the risk.

Risk is all about management though, right? Be sure to bring water bottles with you during tournament time, and avoid long showers that steam up the room. Common sense measures like this may not be a cure-all, but they can surely give you better odds of dodging any bugs that happen to be floating through the water supply.

Conclusion

Rio flu is definitely out there, and players fall prey each and every year at the WSOP. But using the tips and tricks listed above, you can easily protect yourself from germs and viruses during your stay.

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