The fearmongers on news programs have been frightening viewers with tales of the deadly H1N1 virus, otherwise known as the Swine Flu. I avoid any hysteria about pandemics because it sounds more like a plot line out of a bad Hollywood film. However, my stance has changed since I stood face-to-face with a strain of influenza — and I lost.
A significant number of my colleagues in the poker media were stricken with the flu after covering the completion of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas. The bug spread quickly in the press box and I could not fend off the virus. The flu knocked me out of commission shortly after the November Nine festivities. In that short time, I went from someone who couldn’t be bothered with public health scares to someone instantly converted to a mysophobiac or a “germaphobe.”
I recovered from the flu and traveled extensively after I shook the bug. I noticed health warnings in all the different places I visited. Educational advertisements about influenza and the H1N1 virus were vigilantly posted all over the customs and immigration halls at San Jose Airport in Costa Rica. I rode the subways in New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday and noticed the “Cover the Cough” posters plastered on subway cars and in Penn Station. The powers that be were blanketing public areas with vital health messages, but they overlooked a bastion of filth — poker rooms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains on its Web site: “The main way that illnesses like colds and flu are spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. This is called 'droplet spread.' This can happen when droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person move through the air and are deposited on the mouth or nose of people nearby. Sometimes germs also can be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets from another person on a surface like a desk and then touches his or her own eyes, mouth or nose before washing their hands. We know that some viruses and bacteria can live 2 hours or longer on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks.”
Maybe the CDC should add poker chips to that list?
I was never an obsessive hand-washer until I moved to Las Vegas a couple of years ago. After spending a significant amount of time in and around poker rooms, I noticed that the majority of players do not wash their hands in the bathrooms. More importantly, players leave the poker room after a session without cleaning up. I developed a Howard Hughes-like phobia about germs and became squeamish about the transference of microscopic germs, urine droplets, and fecal matter.
Degenerate poker players are a filthy breed. One of the first signs of addiction is when someone stops paying attention to their physical appearance. Poker rooms are rife with people who look like they are playing in the same clothes they fell asleep in the night before. Personal hygiene appears to be absent from their daily ritual. If malodorous players do not bother to shower or change their clothes, do you expect them to wash their hands after "dropping the kids off at the pool"?
Casinos insist that chips be cleaned, but even if every chip is sanitized with an alcohol rub, the process won’t kill all of the germs. I consulted a doctor friend who is an avid poker player. I confessed my health concerns toDr. Charles Stillman and asked him whether I was being paranoid about the germs. Well, it seems that I was not crazy after all.
“You can get sick from poker chips,” Dr. Stillman explained. “It's actually been studied across multiple casinos. The most common infection is Staph (Staphylococcus aureus). The real scary one is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) because it's just that — resistant to the main antibiotic used to treat it. We take all kinds of precautions in the hospital to prevent the spread of MRSA. MRSA killed more people in America than AIDS in 2005!”
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, “Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was responsible for an estimated 94,000 life-threatening infections and 18,650 deaths in 2005. That same year, roughly 16,000 people in the U.S. died from AIDS.”
Although the MRSA virus is life-threatening, Dr. Stillman stressed that playing poker is not. “So why would I, as a doctor, continue to play in a casino? Because the vast majority of poker players don't get sick from touching chips.”
All right, so I won’t get sick from poker chips. However, the chips are a breeding ground for germs, so I wouldn’t recommend that you touch your mouth, eyes, or face after gambling with casino chips. Hand washing is one of the more effective ways of preventing the spread of germs after a poker session. You must wash your hands and forearms all the way up to the elbows for at least ten seconds. The CDC recommends 15 to 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice.
Washing hands might make you feel cleaner after a trip to the poker room, but to stay healthy you have to stay physically fit and boost your immune system, especially during the flu season.
“The real trick is the human immune system,” explained Dr. Stillman. “We are built to fight off disease. The ones who need to be really careful are those who are immunocompromised (i.e. they have AIDS or a similar reason for their immune system to be off) or living with someone who does.”
If you’re planning your next trip to Las Vegas, you don’t have to show up with gloves, a Swine Flu mask, and enough Purell to drown Akron, Ohio. You should, however, take steps to improve your immune system. Your body is built to fight off anything you come in contact with, but if you’re run down after a three-day party in Vegas, your body becomes more susceptible to an infection.
One of my colleagues, Brad Willis, created a Las Vegas trip checklist that includes hand sanitizer, Zicam, and Echinacea pills. You should also take lots Vitamins C and B-12 in addition to lots of water. As much as you want to rage on in Sin City, your body needs rest to recuperate from all the damage you put yourself through. Use that “Do Not Disturb” sign and get some sleep.
With the flu season approaching, protect yourself at the poker tables and casinos by taking necessary precautions to avoid catching someone else's flu. If you constantly wash your hands and boost your immune system, you should be in good shape. If you can convince some of your disheveled tablemates to adopt a more hygienic lifestyle, then the poker room will become a healthier and better-smelling environment.