Fans and watchers of the World Poker Tour are well familiar with the Royal Flush Girls.
The shoes have been filled by a variety of beautiful women over the years but the primary purpose has always remained the same - to serve as ambassadors for the WPT and, on some level, for poker in general.
There's an undeniable element of being "eye candy" for a male demographic, sure. And a certain level of sexism can always be found in that.
But that's far from the whole story of the Royal Flush Girls.
"Being a Royal Flush Girl is an Honor"
PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot had the chance to sit down with three current members - Sonia Yasmin Ali, Tuğba Ercan and Dalia Gutierrez - at WPT Paris to find out just how much more they bring to the tables.
PokerListings: Does it sometimes frustrate you that people only see you as "hot babes" and don't pay attention to your personality or try to get to know you?
Tuğba: Well, we are the Royal Flush Girls and a lot of people that do play poker already know us. But other people, like here at the Aviation Club on our first day, they see us posing, they wonder who we are and then they want to take pictures with us too.
Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's just not a big deal. I just take it lightly.
Sonia: Yep, we just enjoy the moment.
Tuğba: Everybody's nice – I've never had any experience where somebody came off rude or made us feel uncomfortable. Everyone's usually very respectful.
PL: Do you think poker should be glamourized more?
Tuğba: I think it could be more glamourized so that it can be more understood and more popular, more mainstream.
I feel like it would be very good for poker itself, which would also give us more recognition as well. And that would be great!
I think poker is going to get even bigger in the next five years, so we're going to get there, but for now, yes, I definitely think we could benefit from it being more commercialized.
PL: How did you become part of the Royal Flush Girls?
Sonia: I was contacted by my agency and just had to go through various steps. It's not as interesting as Tuğba's story...
Tuğba: No, no! (laughs)
Dalia: I was a paddock girl in moto GP for bwin, and one of the team managers said I'd be perfect for the Royal Flush Girls. I had no idea what he was talking about, I didn't know anything about poker, but I said why not! So I had an interview and here I am now. (laughs)
PL: So, what about you Tuğba?
Tuğba: I just heard about the US-wide casting call – about five or six thousand girls applied. It was a bit of a process, I had to do many, many interviews.
In the end, they called me to tell me that 20 girls had been selected from outside of California. They flew me to California overnight and in the morning I had an interview with the President, Adam Pliska.
Two weeks later they called me and told me they wanted me. Of course I accepted.
PL: With so many girls applying, do you feel some pressure?
Tuğba: Absolutely! I'm sure there are thousands of girls waiting in line to get our job. Being a Royal Flush Girl is an honor.
Sonia: Yes, I do feel blessed to be part of the WPT, to travel around Europe and see all these amazing places, the casinos. And they take really good care of us – yesterday I was making macaroons in a bakery, we went horse-riding, etc.
It's just an amazing experience, not to mention the players, because we get to bond with them and it's just great.
Dalia: I like it because it feels like the team is a bit like our family, we take care of one another. So even though I do enjoy all the wonderful places we go too, what I like most is the relationship between us all. I'm very happy to be part of the RFG.
PL: Do you play poker? If so, who's the best player?
Sonia: Oh, we've actually never played against each other! I finished second in a tournament, and I heard that Tuğba did as well...
Tuğba: Yeah. We went to Brussels to open up a new WPT-branded poker room. So myself, Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten went there and they made us play against some of the players.
There were about 30 players and I came second, we played for five hours non-stop. I was really proud of myself, that's the first time I played for such a long time.
Sonia: Violet, the other European Royal Flush Girl, is really good at poker. She actually won a little tournament that we organized between us all. It was good fun. Maybe the players should watch out for us! (laughs)
PL: When did you learn poker?
Tuğba: Actually, when I started working on the World Poker Tour. Before that, I knew about poker but I didn't play it. I'm originally from Turkey, where poker isn't legal.
I never even really played any card games when I was a kid. It was all new to me, and that was actually one of my concerns while I was in the process of becoming a RFG. I thought that they might expect me to know about poker and be able to talk about it.
Sonia: I must say though, it's amazing how quickly you pick it up.
Tuğba: Because we're always immersed in it, aren't we?
PL: So did you ask Mike Sexton to teach you?
Sonia: (laughs) No, no, we just played. As you play, you learn.
Tuğba: In the US, we have to do the online poker tournaments at every stop we do. Do you guys do that too?
Sonia: No, but that's a great way to learn.
Tuğba: So you're playing on the computer, and players want to play against you because if they win they get an autographed picture and a nice WPT gift bag.
At first I was literally just pushing buttons at random, but then I realized that it's my job and that I might as well take it seriously. I bought Texas Hold'Em for Dummies and I started reading stuff on the Internet and everything. Little by little, I started picking it up and understanding it.
I do want to learn more and I want to learn from the best, so I told Vince Van Patten that I wanted him to give me lessons! (laughs) Mike also gave me some good tips when we were in Brussels. He actually got busted before me! (laughs)
PL: Does that mean you're planning to play more online poker?
Tuğba: You never know!
PL: Do poker players try to flirt with you during tournaments?
Tuğba: (laughs) No, no.
Sonia: No, they're alright. They're friendly and they know we're fun, so yeah.
Dalia: It's normal, you know. We're attractive girls and we're used to it, so we know how to deal with it. It's part of our job.
PL: Do you think the poker world is sexist?
Dalia: I think it used to be, in the past. It's better now.
Sonia: Yeah, there are a lot of good female players.
Dalia: Yes, I think the perception of women in poker has evolved. And I think the Royal Flush Girls are bringing some femininity to poker, a bit of glamour, you know.
PL: So do you feel like you're on a mission to make poker more feminine?
Dalia: Yes, we're bringing girl power to poker! (laughs)
PL: What would you like to bring to poker?
Sonia: More glamour, more fun...
Tuğba: More fun, for sure!
Sonia: And I think we do. It's definitely our favorite part of the job – making poker more fun.
Tuğba: When you think about it, there are no other brand ambassadors in poker, we're the only ones. So it's huge, and they hired us so that we would bring our femininity and our personalities to poker.
We're here to make players more comfortable, and I'm sure it's nice to have attractive girls walking around. Our mission is to welcome the players, make them feel at home and make sure they have a good time. It's our job, but it might as well be fun.
Sonia: Yeah, we need to be here to bring the testosterone levels down! (laughs)
PL: Sonia, I read that you're a model/TV presenter/photographer/health and fitness blogger. Which one of these drives you the most?
Sonia: Probably my photography, because it's quite new to me. As a full-time commercial model in the UK, I've been on the other side of it for quite a few years – I've been a model for about seven years now.
I've done videos, I've done print, big commercials, all sorts of different things, so when I do my photography, it's nice to be on the other side of the camera. I feel like I can make people more comfortable when I'm shooting them.
I really enjoy the creative process of shooting a beautiful picture. I really like fashion and beauty photography, I think it's probably what I'll end up doing later in life. To be honest, at the moment I enjoy doing them all while I'm young and I have the energy to do so!
PL: It's not that common for models to become photographers.
Sonia: I guess. To be honest, I got pictures for jobs that I didn't really like, so I started editing them on Photoshop myself. I'm self-taught, but I started getting quite good at it and I finally picked up a camera last year to go even further.
So now I'm taking pictures and editing them. I have to say I'm a big tech geek though - I love cameras, I own pretty much every single Apple product that ever came out, I love computers...
PL: I saw that you were in some music videos with 50 Cent. How does it feel to work with such big stars? Are they like the poker players?
Sonia: To be honest, working with 50 Cent was really funny. I was in a music video with 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland – it was for Ayo Technology – and they were all really fun.
They were always joking around, it was really cool. I've never been the sort of person who gets star-struck, even though I probably would be if I met someone like Beyoncé or someone else I really love.
But yeah, everyone's different, so I'm not sure how to compare them to poker players.
Dalia: Did you do the video before you became a RFG?
Sonia: Yeah, it was 6 years ago I think. It was my first ever modeling job actually! And it's all been good since then.
PL: Then I guess you're not too impressed when you're around big poker stars like Daniel Negreanu or Phil Hellmuth.
Sonia: Yep, it's nothing for me! (laughs). No, I really love it, I love my life.
PL: Dalia, you've worked for many big names in the industry. How's working for the WPT different from all of that?
Dalia: Every job is different. I've been modeling since I was 15 - I used to work in fashion and everything, but the WPT is very different.
It's also a challenge, because before that I never had any experience talking in front of cameras for example. I can walk in panties or a bikini any day, but talking in front of a camera just makes me panic!
I really feel I can express more in a photograph than when I'm being filmed. But it's something we have to do on the WPT, so I do my best.
Sonia: And you've got so much better at it too!
Dalia: Yes, because I wanted it so bad. I'm from Colombia and I have a really strong accent, so sometimes I struggle with words, they come out in Spanish and get really confused.
I want to get better every day. That's also why it's good to be part of the team, they push me to improve.
PL: You've worked for Moto GP, Formula 1, etc. Do you also see poker as a sport?
Dalia: At first, I didn't think so. I thought it was just a hobby, you know. But I realized that it's actually a sport.
I knew it was a card game, but I didn't realize how demanding it was. When you watch a final table, it's like watching football! I'm from South America, we love football you know.
And really, now, when I watch poker I'm just as passionate as I would be during a football game.
PL: Do people play poker in Colombia?
Dalia: Not much. Everyone is just obsessed with football, but more and more people are playing poker. People are evolving, they're started to get interested in other sports like poker or Formula 1.
I haven't met any Colombian players yet, but there are a few players from South America.
PL: Is poker legal in Colombia?
Dalia: I'm not sure but I think it is. I moved to England 3 years ago so I'm not really up to date with the situation.
PL: Tuğba, I saw that you're an exercise physiologist, health screener. You seem to like to help people.
Tuğba: Yes, I'm really a people's person. I got a degree in exercise science before I became a model, and I worked full-time at a hospital. I was working with heart/lung recovery patients.
I'm very passionate about health and fitness. I loved it - I still do it of course, but a few years ago I decided that my real passion was to become a model. Ever since I came to the US, I did everything I “had to” do.
I graduated, I found a job, but deep down I wasn't happy because I really wanted to have a shot at modeling. I decided to take a leap of faith, I moved to Miami to become a model and it's been great.
I never looked back. I've been working full-time – even before I became a RFG – but I also didn't want to completely quit being an exercise physiologist. You know, it's good to keep your resumé up... You can only be a model for so many years you know.
You need to make sure you have something to fall back on once your career is over. So I think I'm being really smart about it, you know. (laughs)
So what I do is still work a little bit at a hospital, and I enjoy it very much. It takes me back and gives me an opportunity to give back to people and keep my feet on the ground, far from the glamourous side of modeling, you know. You should never forget where you came from.
PL: So do you think you'll be working in this field when you stop modeling?
Tuğba: Yes. Especially now that I've gained more experience doing TV work as a Royal Flush Girl. I realized that I really love working in front of the camera.
So in December I'm going back to Miami to start taking acting classes and then maybe move to California to pursue an acting career during and after my modeling career. I just want to keep doing TV work, it's too much fun!
PL: And do you want to keep working in health and fitness?
Tuğba: Honestly, I've always wanted to become a physical therapist but I don't want to go back to school. (laughs)
Maybe I can keep doing what I'm doing right now – maybe a bit more full-time – and possibly do some work in Turkey. I want to create more bonds between Turkey and the US, so I can maybe help young girls become fitter, exercise and maybe become models.
PL: I also saw that you describe yourself as a “tree hugger."
Tuğba: I'm very passionate about Earth. I love trees, I love grass, I love nature. I do a lot of recycling.
I just love Mother Nature and I think everyone should do their part to protect it. I want my children to have clean air and be able to enjoy the environment and... hug trees! (laughs)
PL: Is poker popular in Turkey?
Tuğba: At the moment, there is absolutely no poker in Turkey. It's a bit crazy because a lot of Turkish people have actually been emailing me and trying to contact me since they found out that one of the RFG is Turkish.
The idea is that if we work together, we could bring it to light that we need poker in Turkey. But of course, it's in the Government's hands, and I don't really know how much I can help.
Most Turkish players go to Cyprus to play, and I don't know if or when poker will be accepted in Turkey, but I do hope so because there are a lot of aspiring players.
At least, it's good that the Turkish players get a chance to experience the WPT in Cyprus, it's really close. Poker is getting so big that I'm sure there's a possibility it will eventually be legalized in Turkey.
PL: What about Bangladesh Sonia?
Sonia: Oh, I have no idea...
PL: A few players from Bangladesh actually placed well and made a few cashes at the WSOP this year.
Sonia: Really? Oh, I didn't know. I haven't been to Bangladesh since I was 4 years old. I'd love to go back but I have to admit I have no idea what the situation is.
I haven't met any players from Bangladesh yet, but I'd love to!