Be more afraid of player’s cough than poker chips

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This column first appeared in Ante Up Magazine in May 2009.

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

Not me. What I remember most about her was she ate french fries at the poker 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 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?

Let’s start with the skin. Many of you have heard about dreaded MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) and the even more frightful “flesh-eating bacteria.” Is it possible a poker chip could give you weepy boils or devour your love handles? The short answer is: “Pretty unlikely.”

Let’s start with some facts. Bacteria are everywhere. Literally every inch of your skin is covered with staph. And children are even worse. Those cute little creatures running around your home are really just thin shells of virulent bacteria shaped like children.
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 with impunity.

It’s pretty unlikely, but I suppose if someone at your table has an infected sore 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. The chances are, however, that he has exactly the same bacteria on his skin that you have on yours, so no biggie.

And you can chill out about MRSA. It’s everywhere. In my ER practice, I see a half-dozen patients with it every day. You probably have some growing on your skin right now. If you get a sore infected with MSRA, there are simple and inexpensive antibiotics to fight it, so not to worry. And as far as “flesh-eating bacteria” goes, if your immune system is working, you’re not likely to get this very rare bug.

In 2007, some scientists counted bacteria on poker chips from five Las Vegas casinos. Bacteria generally prefer it warm and moist, so it’s not surprising cool, dry poker chips had a relatively low bacteria count. A similar study on currency found money, while not exactly clean, carried a surprisingly low bacteria count as well. So you’re just as likely to come into contact with bacteria from that Ben Franklin as you are from that dirty stack of reds. I’ll leave you to guess which area of the world had the dirtiest paper bills.

Neither study looked for viruses, so let’s examine a few. During cold season, influenza and rhinovirus are transmitted best by a cough or sneeze — through the air. They don’t last very long on poker chips. Maybe, if someone sneezed on his hands, made a bet and then you raised him off his hand, stacked his chips and then picked your nose you could get a cold or flu from his chips. But it’s much more likely that one of those 40,000 sneeze droplets traveling at 100 mph for up to 10 feet sneaked through his fingers and up your nose. Better to cover YOUR mouth when HE sneezes and not worry about the chips.
Finally, trots. Norovirus, the cruise-ship bug, causes a nasty form of gastroenteritis — vomiting and diarrhea. Unlike some of the others, this bug actually can live on surfaces long enough for you to get it from chips. Here, in my view, is the real danger: tight-passive player with trots, potty break and inadequate hygiene. He buys the button and folds to your raise. You stack his chips, eat some french fries and pay the price. Very possible.

So what’s a player to do?

First, if you’re sick, don’t go to the track or 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 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.

Home-game guys, occasionally 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. If there’s a label, cover it with your thumb. Brush one chip at a time gently with a little cleanser 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.

Finally, wash-wash-wash, especially after a potty break and especially before eating anything. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and wipes containing at least 60 percent 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.)

— An avid poker player, Frank Toscano, M.D. is a board-certified emergency physician with more than 28 years of front-line experience. He’s medical director for Red Bamboo Medi Spa in Clearwater. Email your poker-health questions to ftoscano@redbamboomedispa.com