The Unrivaled Malta Poker Festival Spring Edition 2024

Summoned to the office

Ivonne Montealegre is, in her own words, “a passionate woman” who pours her heart and soul into every edition of the Malta Poker Festival. She is also a formidable person who takes no prisoners, so when I was ushered into her office last Friday, it felt a bit like I was being sent to the principal.

I felt palpable relief when it turned out that I had been summoned for commendation and not condemnation. The “Chip Race” podcast ran a competition a few months ago, the first prize for which was a Malta Poker Festival Main Event seat. Ivonne was happy with how the promotion had gone and the extra bit of exposure for her event. She leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of new players and it was nice for the show to be part of her ground game.

it spoke volumes that the Malta Poker Festival was growing with every edition

On Friday afternoon, the Main Event had already smashed its €300,000 ($320,000) guarantee and seemed on course for a record-breaker. I told her that I would likely write an article (this article) about how well it had gone, accentuating the things that it does better than its direct rival, the Battle of Malta. I told her that I thought it spoke volumes that the Malta Poker Festival was growing with every edition while numbers up the road were on the decline.

I presumed that this would be music to Ivonne’s ears, but it became very clear very quickly that it was not. “Why do you write about them at all…why not just focus on what we do well?”

It was a classy response, and she had a point. Why not just give credit where it’s due and write a piece accentuating the positives of the Malta Poker Festival? Why throw shade in the direction of the Battle of Malta in the process, spotlighting the rivalry aspect?

It’s the rake, stupid!

My honest answer to this question is that I had already spent an hour researching years’ worth of statistics for some data-heavy paragraphs and I get paid by the word. I also think that it is worth highlighting (even if Ivonne would prefer I didn’t), the differences between Malta’s two flagship poker festivals, the choices that each has made, and how I believe the playing public is responding to those choices.

going head-to-head on the same week for the first time

I think that a comparative study is particularly relevant because this coming October, the Malta Poker Festival and the Battle of Malta are going head-to-head on the same week for the first time. Each brand has plenty of players who exclusively attend their event, but there is also a decent amount of overlap with lots of players who patronize both.

My hunch is that this direct clash will put the values of each brand in stark contrast. Even if you put the mistreatment of staff, the hiring of Thomas Kremser, and the topless dealers to one side (which you absolutely shouldn’t), there is one stark difference between these festivals. To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the rake, stupid!” Ivonne might not want to frame it as a competition, but that is what it’s going to be this fall.

Rake goes up, entrants go down

In its heyday, the Battle of Malta was a power brand. When Casino Malta acquired it from the Portomaso Casino in 2018, it was ripe for expansion, enjoying tremendous name recognition and riding a wave of positivity. The €550 ($587) buy-in had become a real sweet spot for live poker and in a new larger space, 3,816 entrants broke the attendance record for the island. A year later, that record was smashed again as 4,657 entrants ponied up the €555 ($593) buy-in.

an additional €5 in effective rake

That extra €5 may have been a small rake increase, but it was a sign of things to come. After the pandemic restrictions were lifted, Spring and Autumn editions were announced in 2022, attracting 2,592 and 4,329 players, respectively, at the €500+€55 ($534+$59) price point. There was, however, a 1% increase in the amount of money removed from the prize pool for administration costs. That fee rose from 3% to 4%, representing an additional €5 in effective rake.

In 2023, the two editions of the Battle of Malta came with a €508.80+€91.20 ($543.32+$97.39) all-in price tag, the effective rake climbing 0.7% to 17.9%. In June, there were 1,992 players and in October there were 3,432, and gross attendance fell by a whopping 31.5%. Cut to April 2024 and the powers that be at Casino Malta decided that enough was not yet enough and they increased the rake once again, this time via the administration fee, which rose to 5%. The end result was 1,814 players paying the €503.50+€96.50 ($537.66+$103.50), 9% fewer than last year coughing up 19.2% in total registration fees.

Steady growth for the Malta Poker Festival

By contrast, the Malta Poker Festival has remained steadfast at the €500 + €50 price point with one historical increase in the tournament admin fees from 3% to 4% in 2022. It has also boasted a far more generous structure and has included parties and a variety of off-the-felt player experiences to attendees.

Post lockdowns, the 2022 Spring and Autumn editions got 1,014 and 1,326 players, respectively. Those numbers grew to 1,226 and 1,444 in 2023, a 10.6% increase. Last week, they hit a new high-water mark with 1,460 entrants battling it out for a €700,800 ($748,349) prize pool. That’s up another 18.3% from spring of last year. Assuming the pattern continues, I would expect 1,700+ players next October, maybe more if the Battle of Malta faithful realize that the grass is actually greener just ten-minute walk away.

Poker players, be they recreational or professional, are pretty good at math and especially good at value hunting. Sure, they are attracted to a big prize pool, but I think enough appreciate the player experience on offer and don’t like to feel like their pocket has been pinched. You might be able to gouge a captive customer base, but can you get away with over-charging when there is a nearby alternative that also comes with a better structure and some frills?

Dumas takes down the Grand Event

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, after a long final day, the Malta Poker Festival Spring Edition 2024 crowned its Unibet Deepstack Open-sponsored Grand Event champion in Frenchman Jordan Dumas. He defeated Denmark’s Sebastian Mortensen heads-up to win the €100,900 ($107,746) first prize after a thoroughly dominating final table performance.

we always aim to provide a top-notch player experience on and off the tables“

The 18 tournaments of the festival generated combined prize pools of almost €1.5m ($1.6m), roughly half of which was the record-breaking Grand Event. Alex Henry of the Deepstack Open was delighted with the turnout saying: “The collaboration between Unibet Deepstack Open and the Malta Poker Festival is the perfect marriage. The numbers were great but most importantly, the feedback from the players who came has been fantastic. We always aim to provide a top-notch player experience on and off the tables and I think we succeeded in that goal.“

The dates for the Autumn edition are set for October 28-November 5 and one hell of a Halloween week is expected as poker players from around the world descend on the Mediterranean archipelago for two major festivals. I know which one I’ll be playing.

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