Ema Zajmovic made World Poker Tour history at the Playground Poker Club becoming the first female champion in an open event. The numbers are staggering – there were 265 open-field WPT Main Tour main events, a total of 117,683 entrants in those events and $832,285,025 in prize money awarded before Zajmovic broke through.

While the journey for the WPT to celebrate a female champion without asterisks was rocky, Zajmovic’s journey to the winner’s seat wasn’t smooth sailing either. “I started playing when I was 19 just because I was traveling with my ex-boyfriend. I preferred playing rather than shopping or waiting for him while he was playing,” she said.

“For sure it was a rough road – all the money and emotional swings all poker players know about,” she continued. “There was also the challenge of being a girl in that men’s world. I’ve learned a lot through that journey and I keep learning adjust to the variables.”

Zajmovic earned CAD$241,500 for her win – more than half of her career earnings – but it wasn’t her first time in the spotlight. She final tabled the same event at Playground in November when Mike Sexton won his first title.

“The first final table was pretty exciting for me. (I) never got that deep in a live tournament,” she said. “I was really focusing on first place, I was second in chips and was feeling pretty confident. Unfortunately, I made a bad fold and got unlucky a few times and the experience ended quickly.”

A quirky WPT schedule meant it would be a matter of weeks before Zajmovic could build on her experience. She knew she’d have to get really lucky to make the final table at her home casino. “The deeper I got in the tournament, I just felt that it was unreal,” she said. “I was enjoying a second deep run as much as I could.”

“This time, I had a tougher table draw during my run. Players such as (Pascal) Lefrançois, (Jean-Pascal) Savard and (Marc-Andre) Ladouceur were on my tables pretty late in the tournament,” said Zajmovic. “I had to play a more solid game and choose my spots carefully.”

“Then the final table arrived, I was just so grateful to have that shot again,” she added. “I realized when we were three-handed when the other two players where in a pot against each other that I had a shot of winning it for real. I’m beyond grateful to have had that opportunity twice and to be prepared for it.”

“Less than three years ago I was only dreaming about playing the tour like my friends,” she said. “Now I won a title, that’s amazing and I’m really grateful for everything.”

Zajmovic still thinks of herself as a live cash game player, but she’s not going to ignore her results in two large fields. “I’m playing the heater,” she said. “I’m gonna keep playing live events, and cash games, but I want to enjoy these trips as much as I can.”

Zajmovic fielded a lot of questions about women in poker after her win and said, “As a community, men and women need to understand that there are decades of a mentality that discourage women to play poker. We all need to be open-minded, conscious and patient about that. Women can’t jump in with aggression and frustration and hope to change those behaviors.”

“I’ve seen a lot of women being rude, vulgar – trying to be equal as men. From my experience, the best way to change all those stereotypes is to be yourself, to embrace your essence and see how men and women can compete with each other in the game,” she said. “We all have something to learn from each other, and being close-minded will help no one.”