Lee Davy sits down with the Malta Poker Festival‘s founder, Ivonne Montealegre, to talk about her legal issues with Net Gaming, the ‘why’ behind her new creation, and her desire to work with more influential female ambassadors.
Having become the first Finance Minister of a G8 country, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity and so you should take heed when she says:
“Grit your teeth and smile. In the face of adversity, go. They don’t deserve you.”
And it was Lagarde who crossed my mind during a conversation with Malta Poker Festival’s founder, Ivonne Montealegre, another strong, independent and passionate woman who grits her teeth and says, “Bring it on,” when nostrils begin to flare.
Seven years ago, Montealegre joined forces with the poker affiliate PokerListings, to create one of the most affordable, mass-hysteria, No-Limit Hold’em tournaments in the world.
The Battle of Malta (BOM) was a fantastic success shifting up the gears every single year growing from 349-entrants in 2012, to a record-breaking 2,074 in 2017. In 2014, the poker industry acknowledged Montealegre’s hard work by pinning the European Poker Award for Best Poker Event Under €2,000 medal onto its chest.
Everything was going as smooth as a babies stool until, in 2017, NetGaming acquired PokerListings and decided to sell the BOM trademark to Casino Malta, ending Montealegre’s involvement with Malta’s most successful tournament.
The sale of BOM saw the event leave the Portomaso Casino for the first time, and Montealegro reacted by creating the Malta Poker Festival for her loyal Portomaso players and beyond.
Casino Malta reacted by suing Montealegro, and that’s where our communication begins.
Why did Net Gaming take legal action against you?
“The Casino Malta tried to prevent me from running the Malta Poker Festival claiming it would compete with their tournament. They failed in this attempt, and this is a matter of public record. I believe that you can’t obstruct or prevent someone’s right to make a living because you might compete with someone else. If that were the case, we would see only one burger joint or only one clothes shop on our streets. Competition is healthy – it makes us all work harder and rewards the customers, giving them a broader choice and more great events to play. No one company or person should have a monopoly on poker in Malta.”
Why did you choose to create the Malta Poker Festival after what happened with BOM?
“After this judicial process, even more, I decided to stick with Portomaso and keep servicing my clients. I genuinely believe they are the only casino in Malta with the poker acumen to make an event of this magnitude – at least for now. The others can catch up, but this growth needs to be organic. It is so easy to buy things!
“The Malta Poker Festival has created a markedly different product, by offering a schedule that includes four main standalone events, run in collaboration with four different poker operators. My life has been in poker, and I am determined, with the help of my partners, sponsors and clients, to make the Malta Poker Festival the best low-buy-in poker festival in Europe.”
Why are you the person to do this?
“Many people can do this…but I come from Costa Rica, and I’ve seen the rise and fall of poker online, live poker, Black Friday, etc.… I have worked in the online poker operator side to the online affiliation side and even brick and mortar casino action. I have a clear picture of why the backend of a poker affiliate can compromise a live event. I have more than 24 years in poker experience and a big network of very talented people in our field.”
What is your difference versus BOM?
“We are a completely stand-alone event; we are not linked to any poker affiliate (getting CPA from players), compromising operators and cornering poker networks. We have an information website that is designed for players to get information, and enjoy, not compromised embedded in an affiliate site which is a real gimmick.”
Who is this event for?
“This event is for the players and their guests: our clients! My team works very hard in detail and customer satisfaction. Sponsors are amazing and very into making this event a jaw-dropping one.”
What will future players say to their friends once they have experienced your tournament?
“I hope that the Grand Event’s opening is something they truly enjoy. We are putting long hours behind it. I also wish that they see the amount of work and integrity behind the whole operation. The location is wonderful and has no comparison.”
What value are you providing for the players?
“We are providing the same service we have been producing for seven years now. Players can expect absolute respect to the game and enforcement of the rules, with a standard rake on cash games. Mistakes happen, but the difference is the way we address them: listening and making the necessary adjustments to make ourselves better. Portomaso is not a greedy casino; I know how much they have invested over the years because I have been the one always asking.
“The Ladies Event has a lot of value with a UNIBET package added for the ladies MPF winner, as well as beautiful custom made and tailored scarfs by designer Claudia Geshner for the final table ladies.”
How can people qualify for the event?
“Redbet has packages online, and Videoslots has a lot of casino promotions. Intertops just finished its qualifiers. There were a lot of live events and a lot of agents across Europe offering promotions. However, next year we want to have qualifiers in every single online poker operator.”
What is the Malta Poker Festival’s greatest strength?
“Seven years of experience with the same team and a balance between casino interest and organisers. All staff members stood by my side, and I stood by Portomaso casino.”
What weakness will get in the way if you don’t address it?
“Ruthless competition and the scare tactics applied need to be addressed, because all tournaments should be successful, and we should all work together. I hope I can meet with my competitors in 2019 to trace a plan so we can respect each other. We are launching two more brands with different twists, so an agreement between all industry members is necessary. Everyone has the right to work, and more is better.”
What does success look like for the Malta Poker Festival, this time, next year, and five years from now?
“For me, success is the player that meets me in the Hilton lobby and on his way back home is grinning and happy with the experience. I focus on quality, not quantity. But after this tough year, I have more gasoline than ever!!!!”
What promises do you want to make and keep?
“Mostly to myself. Never to be scared and keep fighting for what I believe in: an ethical poker game paired with fantastic locations and offsite activities. I am in love with Malta, and I want to show it to the world. Two very focused goals I have for 2019 are to liaise with female ambassadors (I admire a lot Maria Ho, Daiva Byrne and Fiona Sand) and promote the game we love. Another goal is to bring in American players to the island. My network from USA and Latam is already starting to discover Malta as a fantastic location.”
How does organising poker events make you feel?
“It’s a super thrill, and it has brought me a lot of joy. Recently I got the iGaming award for Outstanding Contribution to the iGaming Industry in Malta by iGaming Idol, and I have been so happy with the recognition of my peers. Providing jobs to dealers, staff members and others has brought me immense satisfaction over the year.”
And now, with the hard work over, it’s time to stop gritting those teeth, and show the poker world how the Malta Poker Festival smiles.
The Malta Poker Festival runs from 1-6 November, and I will be on the ground to bring you reports, interviews and stories from the maiden event.
Here are the main attractions:
Malta Poker Festival Grand Event – €550 buy-in
Malta Poker Festival Ladies Event – €100 buy-in
Malta Poker Festival Grandmaster High Roller – €1,320 buy-in
The Hendon Mob Championship – €250 buy-in
The APAT Maltese Amateur Poker Championships – €120 buy-in
Here is the full schedule.