It looks set to be an exciting week for anyone into poker, as hundreds of international players descend onto Portomaso for the Malta Poker Festival, an event that makes headlines as far afield as Vegas.
The woman who makes it happen is seated before me, sipping an orange juice and talking passionately not just about poker, but also about what makes Malta special enough to attract professional players who regularly grace the table at the biggest casinos. Ivonne Montealegre is a name that’s familiar to anyone involved in the gaming scene, and with excellent reason as she pretty much single-handedly built what has become one of the world’s leading poker events over the past years.
“I settled in Malta around 2012, after a Swedish client advised me to move here. The island turned out to be the perfect location for the festival. I mean, look at all this,” – she sweeps her arms across the panoramic vista right across Portomaso Marina – players love coming to the island; for them, it’s not just a week of poker, it’s a complete holiday with the culture, the sun, the history…”
It’s easy to see how passionate Ivonne is about poker. She started playing in her twenties, when the game was very much a male-dominated arena where you’d hear things like “go back to the kitchen”. She spots the incredulous look on my face and laughs.
“Of course, men will still say that. When people are losing, it brings out the worst! You do need a super-thick skin in poker, but you learn to use it in your favour as it teaches you a lot. You learn not to take things personally, to correct your strategy and figure out your opponent. You learn to read the temperature of the room. Who will bluff, who will turn nasty, who had too much caffeine and is being reckless? These are all skills that serve women well not just in poker, but also in the business arena,” she tells me.
Which brings us neatly to the F word – feminism. Ivonne is known to be very vocal across the industry about practical matters such as equal pay, equal rights, inclusivity and empowering women and single mothers in the workplace. She runs a WhatsApp Women in Gaming networking community that has helped connect many women with potential employers. I’m a proud member and I can say that the daily tips, advice and friendly jokes have certainly added a spark to my day. This is also the sort of thing Ivonne is known for, building sisterhoods and helping them thrive.
“Unfortunately, things like Women’s Day have become a bit of a gimmick in the gaming world. While it’s nice to have pink muffins at the office, it’s not about that at all. It’s about equal pay and about equal opportunities in key positions,” she tells me, confessing that when it comes to women and respect on the workplace she can be a bit of a “hawk”.
“We need more education and outreach, especially with children. The gap between real conditions in the workplace and legislation is still too wide, and this gap is also reflected in the gaming industry. Men remain at an advantage, occupying the majority of key positions. If you look at single mothers, you will find that there aren’t many incentives or opportunities for them,” she continues.
The sisterhood is an angle that is strongly present even in the upcoming Malta Poker Festival, with as Ivonne has included a 101 Poker Crash course powered by Poker Power, aimed at beginners. This program is aimed to leverage the connection between success, money ownership and the game of poker.
“Basically we teach women how to play Texas Hold’em, to compete and succeed in business, finance, law or any other sector they operate in. All in a fun, supportive, safe-to-fail environment, which I believe is very important,” Ivonne says. For those who feel that they have a flair for the game, the session will be followed by a Ladies First tournament hosted by Chris Reed, one of the world’s most skilled poker players. All tournaments operate under the ethos of inclusion and safety that Ivonne embraces, using the hashtag #raiseitup to raise awareness that as soon as anyone spots something off, this should be raced up to the dealer.
“The festival is respectful and inclusive, and it has put Malta on the right foot in the poker world,” she says. It’s no wonder that she was recently promoted to Vice-President of the Women’s Poker Association in Las Vegas, an organisation that she describes as a huge, non-profit sisterhood of poker players. For context, it’s a sisterhood that counts the world’s top female poker players within its ranks.
Ivonne’s attention to detail is something I see across the event in general. Take the off-felt events, for example, where participants are hosted to other activities, such as a historical tour around Valletta. These have all been planned so as not to clash with any of the tournaments.
“At many other events, participants have to choose between playing or attending an off-felt activity. I made it a point to enable them to do both. The festival brings considerable tourist traffic to the island during low season and they all want to make the most of what Malta offers, in terms of restaurants, museums, nightlife and the like. The festival has a snowball effect on other industries, too,” Ivonne explains.
Her pedigree in poker is unassailable. As she herself says, the Malta Poker Festival was “not built from nothing”. Before settling in Malta, Ivonne created the Punta Cana Poker Classic tournament combining poker with exotic locations like the Bahamas. Originally she is a psychologist by profession, but her heart firmly belongs to poker – “I tried doing other things, but poker keeps pulling me back”.
Meantime, things are firmly on track for the Malta Poker Festival to kick off on April 24 at the Portomaso Casino, where she expects a variety of nationalities to descend. She confides how the image of poker players has changed drastically from the ‘booze and cigars’ crowd. Today’s players are more likely to be holding vitamin water and healthy food.
“Everyone’s very focused. At the start of the tournament it’s all about having fun but at a certain point, when the grand prize is in sight, you see the switch. It’s what I love about poker,” she says with a smile.
“That, and the thrill of seeing 200 poker players waiting in a line to be served at a Paceville ice-cream place. Knowing what brought them here, that’s priceless.”
The Malta Poker Festival takes place between April 24 and May 1 at Portomaso Casino.Play responsibly. If you or anyone you know is struggling with gambling problems, organisations like the Responsible Gambling Foundation can offer support.