There’s a point in almost everyone’s childhood where they decide their life ambition is to become a pop star. Some might aspire to become an acclaimed TV presenter, others want to travel the world, whilst we all like to imagine ourselves winning millions at the casino. For Maria Ho, each enviable venture is a mere box she ticks off a list of personal goals rather than the distant and seemingly unrealistic dream it is for so many others. We sat down with the star to take a look at her recent Q&A with fans and gain an insight into the unyielding dedication that has brought Ho to where she is today.
Born into a traditional Chinese family in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, Ho was just four years old when she moved with her parents and sister to a city of similar bustle - Los Angeles. The American way of life may have seen her far removed from her Chinese roots, but Ho never stopped feeling connected to her heritage. “My mother made a real effort to maintain Chinese traditions so it was very much a Chinese household I grew up in...we ate Chinese food, listened to Chinese music. I went to Chinese school and learned Mandarin. My roots are strong and I want to pass it on to my own kids someday.” Though keen to represent China’s people, Ho isn’t shy to criticize the country’s abuse of human rights. “I’m grateful to have had that experience of a second culture...it puts things in perspective.” It is no doubt the experience of two widely differing cultures which came to stir Ho’s self-proclaimed wanderlust. Besides the two nations she calls home, Ho has visited over 60 countries across the world and is always looking to extend the list.
Though a high achiever at every stage in her life, it wasn’t until in college, where Ho studied Communications and Law, that her path truly began its unique formation. Fascinated by the psychology behind poker - from the risking to the bluffing - Ho made a decision that would ultimately change her life; to try out her own hand at the game. Bribing her way into her male friend’s "all-boys home game" with a six pack of beer in hand, it wasn’t long until Ho had picked up the game’s logistics and began dominating the card table. From there, she quickly moved from college dorm games to playing at local casinos.
Today, at the age of 32, Ho has amassed over 2.6 million dollars in poker earnings, reached three World Series of Poker final tables, finished as Last Woman Standing three times over, established a popular Live Stream poker channel, become a strategic commentator for numerous live tournament coverage and been nominated for Bluff Magazine’s Favorite Female Player no less than three times. Her presence in the professional poker circuit is profound. As for that "male friend" from college, he still likes to send her a jestful Facebook message every time she makes a significant cash. It reads simply, “Don’t forget I made you!”
But poker was never enough for Ho, whose passion for singing simultaneously led her down a road of musical endeavors. In 2004 she appeared on the third season of American Idol, making it to Hollywood Week. Ten years later, Ho still seizes every opportunity she can to perform. In fact, a career in singing is the one thing for which Ho believes she could give up poker. That, or a life of humanitarian work. “I’ve grown up as an empathetic person. I think when I interact with people and I hear their stories, it really stays with me. Traveling has definitely opened my eyes to just how lucky and fortunate a lot of us in first world countries are. There’s so much out there in the world...so many different people and causes that could benefit from our help. We forget to think outside ourselves.”
If there is one consistent link which can be said to tie Ho’s various life pursuits together then it is surely an element of world travel. The one thing central to the star’s undertakings, it seems, is her yearning desire to see new parts of the world. It was her globetrotting disposition that saw her compete in the Emmy award-winning show The Amazing Race in which she navigated through nine countries with best friend and fellow poker pro Tiffany Michelle. Choosing a favorite destination is difficult even for those who have travelled to only a handful of countries, yet Ho responds without hesitation when we ask about her favorite place. “I went to Queenstown, New Zealand this January and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been!” she enthusiastically asserts. “Hawaii is a shorter distance though, so I like to head there when I can. I love the relaxed beach vibe”.
Philanthropy, travel and musical stardom aside, the majority of fans present in Ho’s recent Reddit AMA are there for one simple reason. When it comes to game strategy and experience, there are few people more fascinating and informative to ask than Maria Ho. Scrolling through the sheer number of Redditors asking for tactical insight and strategy tips would be enough to convince anyone of poker’s pure complexity.
There was, however, that one somewhat brazen Redditor whose question awkwardly stands out amongst the strict poker talk; “How often do people poke fun at your surname?” he asks. Ho addresses the question light-heartedly, admitting to the taunts her non-Western surname may have attracted in the past but, true to her unfalteringly optimistic character, laughs at its humorousness. “I think it actually helped that I got made fun of as a kid because it made me develop thick skin at a very young age which has proven to be useful in my adult life” she explains. “It’s a good thing to be able to laugh at yourself.”
There’s something of a competition addiction in Ho, but one which does not appear to compromise her health, humility or kindness. Indeed, her glowing aura and general ardour seems more befitting of an Alpen chalet girl than an intimidating first-class player in the male-dominated world of poker. But that’s just Maria’s style - taking the upper hand from beneath the guise of a harmless beauty. “When I come to the table with a lot of chips, they think ‘I’m gonna get all those chips from that girl’...I use that to my advantage all the time,” Ho explains. Being underestimated by others, it seems, has come to work in her favour. That, and her ability to read men. “I find men fairly easy to read for the most part. In poker and in life. Women are a bit more calculated before they express their emotions so I think that translates well for them at the tables.”
So why aren’t more women, with presumably similar advantages, joining the tables? There’s no skill needed in poker which women don’t commonly possess, yet the female representation at both casinos and tournaments is well under 8%. Discriminating presumptions of players and sexist advertising could be part of the problem, Ho believes. “There’s a prevailing environment in poker where guys often go out of their way to make women feel uncomfortable. Everything I’ve ever heard from women talking about poker is that they think it’s strange to stick out as a minority. Men are always watching you and they have automatic assumptions. They think you must have been taught poker by your boyfriend, or that you’re only playing for fun, or doing it for attention. It makes women feel like they don’t belong.” So how is the problem solved? According to Ho, everyone has a role to play when it comes to increasing female participation.
“I think because the advertisement is targeted towards men, it’s a turn-off for women to see themselves portrayed in these adverts as objects to look at, rather than real competitors.”
There are other females, aside from the sexualised young women featured in ads, that can be spotted at poker tournaments - yet few of them are actual players. Instead, female representation at these tournaments is primarily reduced to a small number of roles, from promotional models to waitresses and all-female masseuses - all of which with the purpose of serving male players.
“Tournament directors also need to respect a female player who says she is being verbally or physically threatened, which is more serious than a couple of male players calling each other names,” Ho continues. "Of course women are more likely to feel intimidated, and tournament directors should not be afraid to side with us...they should let men know that they aren’t going to get away with sexism.”
Ho has also suggested that separating women from male players such as in Ladies Poker Events is in fact counter-productive toward the aim of increasing participation. “I don’t want to be the Last Woman Standing, I want to be the Last Person Standing,” Ho once stated, speaking from a stance which recognizes women are every bit as competent to compete alongside men. Lastly, she emphasizes that it is also the responsibility of successful players to encourage poker newbies. “We have a role to make women, and all new players, feel comfortable. We should constantly reach out at the table and help them, never mock them. We were all beginners once. There’s this weird negative attitude towards beginners in the game, but they are the ones that allow the industry to grow.”
Ho’s charisma and fierce intelligence has made her a much sought-after presenter for a number of TV shows and panels - poker-related and otherwise. In Malta’s glitzy St Julians, from where we speak with her, Ho is hosting Europe’s largest stand-alone poker tournament, the Battle of Malta, for the second year in a row. The tournament began just a few days after the European Poker Tour ended - a tournament in which Ho also partook. It’s hard to imagine how the poker pro ever has time to rest. In a chirpy manner, she assures us how exercise goes a long way in boosting her energy. “I try to do yoga every morning before a tournament. Sometimes I’m playing a tournament for two and a half months, so I’ll do anything besides sitting before I play. I might go on the treadmill during my break.”
But being a professional poker player doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Ho also tells us of the affects her career has had upon personal relationships. “My parents are still constantly on my case about finding a more ‘stable’, ‘suitable’ or ‘conventional’ profession...no matter how much success I have,” she tells a Redditor. I have accepted that I may never have their approval where this is concerned.” When it comes to romance, further difficulties arise. “It’s very hard to date someone outside of poker because of the schedule and lifestyle”. Ho’s not dated anyone from outside the industry in over ten years. With a jet setting lifestyle and irregular income, it’s not surprising professional poker players have a reputation of being notoriously difficult to date. Ho makes an effort, however, to avoid some of the afflictions felt by other players, such as a poor on-the-road diet. “Making sure to eat high protein, low carb meals is always a pretty good way to ensure you aren’t lethargic during long hours of play.”
Amongst the poker chat pops up the occasional question on the matter of fame. High profile players, though most widely recognized within the poker community, invariably end up sharing a table with the rich hobby-players, many of whom are famous from sports or entertainment. “The biggest mainstream celebrity I have ever played with is probably Ben Affleck," Ho recalls. “The biggest celebrity I have ever seen in a poker room was Brad Pitt in the Bellagio Poker Room. I mean, does it get bigger than Brad Pitt?” Placing bets against some of the biggest names in Hollywood might make sweaty, nerve-racked fools out of the most of us, but Ho rarely feels the pressure anymore. “Honestly ,I can’t say I do get nervous...I definitely was nervous the first time I played against Phil Ivey, but I mean, it’s Phil Ivey. I think nowadays I wouldn’t really be intimated against a pro so much but if I found myself at the table with Ryan Gosling I would probably be nervous but for other reasons...”
Ho may have played against notable names, but she’s not one to get lost in the glamour. Responsible spending, Ho says, plays a role in her continued success. “I have tried to be fairly responsible with the money I have made playing poker. People who want to become pros need to exercise good bankroll management and be extremely disciplined...there is an allure to this poker playing lifestyle that people see on TV...but the truth is that it really is a grind and if you don’t take it seriously you will end up broke like the majority of the community.”
Staying level-headed includes using your fame to good purposes. With a loyal social media following and endless number of curious poker players hoping to talk with Ho at every event she attends, one might assume the attention gets irritating. On the contrary, Ho greets every fan with a smile and openness to conversation. “I don’t look at fame negatively at all. I enjoy the interaction it allows me. People come up to me from all walks of life and it’s interesting. I feel like it’s given me a platform and a voice and the opportunity to speak about other things I’m passionate about. Maybe a conversation is centered around poker at first, but I can steer it in other directions and I want to use that for something good.”
As for the future? Ho’s never been one with a shortage of plans. Most notably, she wants to focus on charity in the upcoming years. “I would love to be more involved one day in helping victims of domestic violence as I have a very close friend who was in a situation like that.” At the Battle of Malta, Ho promotes the work of Malta’s non-governmental Migrant Offshore Aid Station and encourages players to donate a percentage of their winnings. When a philosophical Redditor wonders what advice the poker pro would give her younger self, Ho comes up with a list of four sagacious points. First - live in the moment. Second - don’t take life too seriously. Third - don’t take things so personally and fourthly, don’t care too much about what others think or say about you. “These are things I try to live by every single day,” she says. Considering the fortune it seems to have brought Ho, it is wisdom we should all take on board.
Images courtesy PokerListings and Maria Ho.
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This is a guest post by Sophie Jackson. Sophie is a journalist specializing in politics, pop culture and social equality. Follow her on Twitter @sophielcjackson.