For Maria Ho, playing poker was in the cards. Shortly after graduating from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in communication studies and a minor in law, Maria moved to Los Angeles and turned what had been for her a game into a career. This year, she took the 2014 World Series of Poker “Last Woman Standing” title and is also the most-cashing female at the world’s top poker event currently airing on ESPN at 9 p.m. Sundays.
Now ranked as one of the top three of the best female poker players in the world, Maria has to date won more than $1.6 million. She was a contestant on CBS’s award-winning reality show The Amazing Race, partnered with Tiffany Michelle, her best friend and fellow “Last Woman Standing” winner. The duo were the only all-female team of the 15th season. Maria is also working on her second season as the very first female strategic host for the Heartland Poker Tour.
Born in Taiwan, Maria was four when she moved to L.A. with her parents and sister. When Maria isn’t beating the boys at the poker table, she enjoys performing music, traveling the world and also devotes her time to charity.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I never planned on, or could have imagined, becoming a professional poker player. I was introduced to the game in college and began playing with friends for fun then I started venturing out to nearby casinos to play. Before I knew it, I was paying my rent with my poker winnings. On the day of my college graduation I flew to Vegas and played in my first World Series of Poker Event. From there it was a steady progression to where I am today. But my college days at UCSD are definitely to be credited with getting the ball rolling in that direction and piquing my interest.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love the flexibility that poker allows me and that I get to be my own boss. I play where I want, when I want. I get to travel all over the world and see so many amazing places. The people, the locations and even the game itself are ever changing and that keeps it interesting for me. And, of course, being able to score a million dollar payday on any given day/tournament is definitely a plus.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
A lot of my training and experience came from practical application – actually sitting down and playing poker. I started playing low stakes at local casinos and once I began winning and had mastered that level I’d move up to the next stakes, and so forth. There is a lot more educational material available to players now than when I started out in the game: training websites, strategy books, and television programming. But even at this point in my career, I’m continually learning and working to get better, whether it be studying my hand histories and footage, or having in-depth discussions with my poker peers. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of new players and strategy trends and remain open to other perspectives and advice.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Being a female in a male dominated game has definitely been challenging. A lot of people have underestimated me. I’m held to very different standards than my male peers and even when I put up positive results, my successes are often discredited or not as recognized as my male counterparts. Also, I don’t think most parents dream about their little girl becoming a poker pro. It can be a hard career choice for family members and other traditionalists to accept. I’ve definitely met my fair share of challenges and discouragements, but I try to use that to fuel me onward.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Fortunately, poker is the kind of career that allows me a lot of flexibility and even the chance to pursue other interests. It has opened up the doors to a variety of amazing experiences, like competing on The Amazing Race, becoming the spokesperson for WinStar World Casino, being a host and commentator for the Heartland Poker Tour, becoming a published author, and getting to speak to women around the world and inspire others. I could stop playing poker for a year and the game and its opportunities will still be there. So, I’ve never really felt like I have to choose between poker and something else. If anything, the flexibility, the visibility, and money I’ve made from poker have opened up an array of options and opportunities for me that I’m so grateful for.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
There have been a lot of significant moments for me in my poker career, and even today it feels like I’m continually climbing the ladder of success. Being the “Last Woman Standing” at the 2007 WSOP Main Event was originally the thing that put me on the map. But, in 2011 when I played heads-up for a World Series of Poker bracelet and broke the record for the largest cash a female had ever had at the WSOP, that really solidified my place in poker history and moved me from this novel idea of a “female poker player” to being a legitimate and respected pro — an authority on the game, so to speak.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think the toughest challenge in poker is finding and keeping balance – with your emotions, your relationships, your health, your time and priorities. It’s really easy to become so absorbed in my “work” that I lose sight of the other things that matter to me. Being your own boss is great, but it also takes a lot of diligence because there is such a lack of structure. I have to create structure. I have to make time for my friends and family. I have to make time to take care of myself: physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m constantly striving to find balance in my life and career.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Female intuition. Poker is like life, I deal with men on a regular basis in my day-to-day. So, I bring that experience to the poker tables. Whether it be in a romantic relationship or at the poker tables, I can tell when a guy is lying to me or when something doesn’t add up. Yes, there is a lot of mathematics, game strategy and psychology in the game of poker, but I think that a woman’s instincts can give her an extra leg up at the tables.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m currently ranked the third female poker player in the world, which is a very humbling and exciting feat. Making it past the one million dollar (in tournament earnings) mark was also a significant accomplishment. And, of course, breaking records in this game is something that any person aspires to in their field. But overall I’m the most proud of my consistency. I’ve been playing professionally for ten years. Anyone could play a single tournament and win it, but the mark of a good poker player is consistently, time and time again, putting up results. I’m very proud to have been in this industry for as long as I have and, against the odds and in spite of some discouragement, I’m still here. I have a resume that I’m so proud of and every day, every game I’m continually getting better.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
I encourage people to take poker more seriously and understand that just because there is a lot of flexibility (i.e. getting to be your own boss and make your own schedule) that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold yourself accountable for working hard. So many people are enamored by the “baller” lifestyle associated with poker – the money, the partying, the fame etc., but that isn’t what the game is all about. It’s still a job. Like with any career, if you want to succeed and be the best, you have to be disciplined. You’ll get out of poker, what you put into it. So work hard!
And, specifically for women — no matter what field you find yourself in, we have to accept the fact that gender is often going to play a factor in the professional workplace (and in life in general). You can’t give up or get discouraged because of that. In poker, as with anything else, I believe that with confidence and persistence your talent and qualifications will eventually win out over your gender and garner you the respect you deserve.