The poker industry has long been dominated by male players and most of the well-known poker pros around the world are men.
The female poker player population has been, and still is, in a minority, both at tournaments and with online poker, while many women can testify to sexist comments and remarks at tables.
But there is a change on the horizon, and if you ask Ivonne Montealegre, change can’t come fast enough. The founder of the Malta Poker Festival has been living and breathing poker for more than 20 years and has a deeper knowledge of the poker world than most.
We sat down in Malta to talk about what must change in the poker industry and how it can be more inclusive for every type of player.
“Poker has flatlined, every male that wants to play poker already has a poker account everywhere,” says Montealegre. “But in the female population – that’s where we can grow. And it’s incredible, there is so much money and investment right now for women in poker.”
iGN: How can more women get into poker?
IM: “I’ve always done satellites for women which is very rare, and I think that is a key ingredient. The island of Malta has thousands of gaming female professionals and still I’m the only one on the tournaments on Friday, or maybe me and three other women. The numbers are lacking and have even decreased. In the nineties, the field was between 5% and 10%. Now, it’s a very sad 3% of women that play.”
iGN: Do you know why that is?
IM: “Because a lot of the poker promotions have been designed by a guy. And this guy from a well-known brand thinks that what we want is a box with stuff like a body cream. That’s not what I want, I want tickets to play in the big games. I want you to empower me to be a professional player.
“And still to this day I see, for example, a big tournament that takes place on a Saturday at 1pm. What mother of one, two, or three kids can play poker on a Saturday lunchtime? And it’s all because a guy thought about it. If you had the empathy and the experience of being a woman or a mother, you would know it’s a different situation. All promotions in the poker industry are male dominated and it has been targeting women from the male perspective.”
It is no secret that Ivonne is very passionate about bringing more women into the poker world. And year-by-year, she sees the numbers increasing. Last April, 30% of the entries in the casino were females.
“That’s huge, that made the headlines even in the US,” says Montealegre. “Some women travel from the States to Malta to play a 200 event. it made no sense to me, but I was so grateful, especially because the community is so fun.”
She continues: “Now I’m having two events, in spring and in autumn. In spring there are lots of Americans coming. I don’t know if we went viral with this 30% quota of females and the Americans are responding, but they want to travel to Malta and have that cultural experience, especially after the pandemic. So, I think it’s a very good time for poker in Malta.”
iGN: What are some challenges for women in the poker world?
IM: “In terms of ladies’ events, some guys disagree with them, and some women also don’t like to play ladies events. Poker is a same-level field – we don’t need to be divided into men and women. If you know how to play you can play.
“But ladies’ events are built for women to be able to have that space, because we normally don’t have that space. Even now there are stories, things that have happened to my colleagues or to female poker professionals.
“They get insults like “go back to the kitchen” and all that type of thing. It happens a lot still. In this day, women still get berated and insulted.”
Leading by example
Someone that has experienced her fair share of challenges as a woman in the poker industry is Giada Fang.
She has played poker since 2010 after she had a motorbike accident and was forced to take leave from her job as a doctor.
After discovering Zynga poker on Facebook, she started an account with PokerStars and that same year, after hours of playing and studying the game, she reached the status of Supernova Elite – the only female player in the world at that time to reach that level.
“My approach to poker was basically online and no one knew I was a woman, and people didn’t believe me when I said I was,” says Fang. “Men never believe a woman can put that amount of studying, energy, and time into poker, because it’s something that doesn’t appeal to women like it does to men.”
She adds: “But if you think about it, poker is all about concentration and math, it’s about a certain way of thinking and I believe a woman can be better than a man, because we have more patience and more cold blood.”
iGN: Have you experienced any comments from men in tournaments?
GF: “I have, both in negative and positive ways. There are men that respect you because you are a female player but there are also men that don’t want to lose against a woman. Every time they lose a hand against you, it’s always bad comments.
“I just won a tournament online recently and there were articles about it in Italy. Of course you have lots of comments from men saying it was only written about because I am a girl or because I am cute.
“When I play online, now that they know it’s me, there is always someone saying bad words or calling me names and so on. Unfortunately, it is normal, but I think it’s just because men don’t want to lose against women. That is the big problem of our world.”
iGN: What is a valuable lesson you have learned within poker?
GF: “I have learned that in poker, as in other fields, a woman can be just as good and actually even better than men. You have to just not let the comments put you down. The more they comment badly, the more I want to beat them in the game and prove that I’m better. Not with words but with facts.”
Road to success
Poker might be male dominated, but both Fang and Montealegre believe that women can thrive within the poker world in the near future. Both would love to see more women in the industry itself, either at the tables as players or as organisers or managers.
“I also want to see more women sharing their success stories,” says Montealegre. “Because of socialisation and the patriarchy, women in the industry think we need to keep the secrets to our success hidden in drawers, and that we need to be competitive with other women.
“But instead, the best thing you can do to succeed is to become a great mentor. That is the best way to learn after a certain age. You learn more by giving than by being selfish,” she concludes.
The Malta Poker Festival 2023 will take place between 24 April and 1 May and is set over seven days at Portomaso Casino on the island of Malta.
This article was written and researched by Louise Wolke. Louise is a Swedish site manager with a degree in Journalism and Media Production. She is based in Malta and has worked in the iGaming industry since 2016.