A Healthy Bet (7) – Dirty Poker

A Healthy Bet (7) – Dirty Poker

As it appeared in Ante Up Magazine – May. 2009

By Frank Toscano, M.D.

Most of you remember Tiffany Michelle from the 2008 WSOP Main Event as a hot and sassy brunette who prodded and dissed her opponents and outlasted more than 6,800 players to come in 17th and win over $300,000. 

Not me. What I remember most about her was that she ate french fries at the table WITH HER FINGERS. Cholesterol, germs and attitude – what a combination!

So how bad is that anyway? How dirty are poker chips? What can you catch from them? What about those cretins who don’t even wash their hands after a trip to Little Doyle’s Room? Can we separate fact from fiction and get a reasonable handle on the chances of catching a bad beat from a bug at the poker table?

First, let’s acknowledge some cold hard facts. Bacteria are everywhere. Literally every inch of your skin is covered with staph. And children are even worse. Those cute little figures running around your home are really just thin shells of virulent bacteria and viruses shaped like your beloved offspring.

If your immune system is working properly, you fight off the vast majority of these bugs all the time. Occasionally a scratch might get infected, but generally, you blow off physical contact with most bacteria and viruses with impunity.

Let’s address the possibility of infectious contact at the poker table in three separate headings. First, the skin: if a player at your table has an infected sore or boil AND you have some sort of open cut on your hands or your face, you might be able to inoculate your cut with his bacteria though the poker chips. Chances are it’s the same bacteria you already have on your own skin and you’ll fight it off. Chill out about the dreaded MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus). It’s everywhere. In my ER practice, I see patients with it multiple times every day. You probably already have some growing on your skin or in your nose. If you get an infected sore with MRSA, there are simple and inexpensive antibiotics that work against it. Not to worry.

What about colds? During cold season, rhinovirus is all over the place. It’s transmitted best by a cough or sneeze – through the air. It doesn’t last on chips very long. I suppose if someone sneezed on his hands, made a continuation bet and then you successfully raised him off his hand, stacked your chips and then picked your nose you could get rhinovirus from the chips, but it’s much more likely that one of those 40,000 sneeze droplets traveling at 115 mph for 2 to 3 meters sneaked through his fingers and up your nose. You should cover YOUR mouth when HE sneezes.

Finally, trots. Norovirus, the cruise ship virus, causes a particularly nasty form of gastroenteritis – vomiting and diarrhea, and can live on various surfaces for long enough for you to get it from the chips. Here, in my view, is the real danger. Loose aggressive player with trots, bathroom break, inadequate hygiene, buys the button, folds to your raise, you stack your chips, eat a french fry and pay the price.

A 2007 study counted bacteria on poker chips from five Las Vegas casinos and found a relatively low bacteria count on the chips. Bacteria generally like warm and moist so it’s not surprising that cool dry chips were not overly contaminated. A similar study from New Zealand on paper bills and coins found that money, while not exactly clean, carried a relatively low bacteria count as well. Neither study looked for viruses which are generally hardier and more likely to spread on inanimate objects.

So what’s a player to do?

First, if you are sick, don’t go to the track or the casino. Stay home and contaminate your mouse instead. That’s why God invented internet poker. Or was that Al Gore? Second, cover your cuts and abrasions. It’s not likely that you’ll catch anything through a cut but if your best barrier (your skin) is broken, help it out by covering up the opening. Third, if you must cough or sneeze at the table, cover it – preferably with the inside of your elbow rather than your hands. Fourth, wash-wash-wash, especially after a potty break and especially before eating anything. Alcohol based hand sanitizers and wipes containing at least 60% alcohol are effective according to the FDA. (We can trust the FDA, right?) And for gosh sakes, use a fork, or did your mother raise you in a barn? (I’m talking to you now, Tiffany.)

Finally, home game guys, clean your chips. Quick guidelines – no dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves, blow dryers or ovens unless you want those attractive hot-stamp labels to peal off. Do not submerge or use abrasives. Use a soft toothbrush (a NEW one please) and some mild dishwashing detergent. Armor All Multipurpose Cleaner (not Tire Cleaner), Sterling Magic or Quick’n’Brite all seem to work well too. Cover the label with your thumb. Brush one chip at a time gently with a little cleaner and water and dry immediately with a towel. Lay them out and don’t put them away until they’ve had several days to dry completely.