Maria Ho is one of the best known women on the professional-poker circuit, but that doesn’t mean her fame extends only to poker fans. Thanks to a 2009 turn as a contestant on The Amazing Race, the Taiwanese-born 28-year-old is a familiar face even to those who have no idea if a straight flush beats a full house. A lifelong singer and performer who once made it to Hollywood Week on American Idol, Maria is hoping her success at the poker tables can continue carrying over to her life’s other passions. (She still picks up singing gigs in the Los Angeles area, where she lives, and has aspirations of opening her own lounge someday.)
But don’t let those things convince you that she’s not still serious about the game. Maria just missed a bracelet at the World Series of Poker this year, finishing second overall in the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em event. So while she continues looking for ways to expand her career in entertainment, she doesn’t plan on backing away from the game anytime soon. I recently hooked up with Maria via phone to discuss her life both at the poker table and away from the felt.
BOB: Starting at the beginning, when and how did you start playing poker?
MARIA: I was going to college at UC San Diego, and I had a bunch of guy friends who were talking about having a poker night. And they were like, “But you can’t come because girls aren’t allowed.” That, of course, definitely peaked my interest and made me want to go even more. So I just crashed their poker night and started going on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. It turned into something I really enjoyed. There were a lot of Native-American reservations down in San Diego by where I went to college, so I was playing in casinos when I was 18 years old. It grew into something where I was paying the bills in college, and all of my extra spending money came from my poker winnings.
BOB: Is that when you first suspected that playing poker could actually be a career? In college?
MARIA: I definitely didn’t look at it that way until I realized how much money I was making from playing. I didn’t have any other jobs throughout college because I was making enough money from poker. After studying the game and reading a lot of poker books and whatnot, I discovered that it was something that you could actually turn into a profession and make a pretty good living at it. Right after I graduated college, I had two or three years where I said I was just going to play poker with that time and if it didn’t work out, I’d still have my degree to fall back on. But if it did work out, then it was a nice break being right out of school and not really wanting or ready to join the real world yet.
BOB: What was it about the game that originally attracted you to it?
MARIA: I’ve always been a really competitive person. Growing up in my household, we would play games around the kitchen table. Everybody in my family is so cutthroat and so competitive, and they instilled that kind of competitive spirit in me. I was drawn to the game because I like to win. And it was very challenging. I realized very quickly that any time you think you’re good at poker, you’re really not. Any time you think you know everything there is about the game, you really know so little. That really intrigued me because I think what makes it interesting and what keeps it interesting for me even to this day is that no two hands are alike. All the variables are constantly changing.
BOB: You’re a woman in what is traditionally a male-dominated profession. Does that bring with it more challenges or more advantages?
MARIA: I personally look at it as advantageous for me. In the beginning, it’s definitely a little bit hard to adjust to feeling like you’re such a minority in that community. But I always took that on as a challenge. I made it a point to not let myself feel like it was hindering me in any way. I think that, for the most part, men underestimate women because, like you said, it’s traditionally a man’s game. So they don’t really know how to react when they see a woman at the poker table. They kind of assume that you have no idea what you’re doing. I realized I’m able to get away with a lot of stuff because they don’t think I’m capable of bluffing them or outplaying them. I definitely use that to my advantage.
BOB: Your success at poker has led you to other opportunities, such as appearing on The Amazing Race. Were you surprised by the places poker could take you once those things started happening?
MARIA: Yeah, because when I first started playing, poker wasn’t as popular. The poker boom had just started, and it was starting to pick up a lot on television. But I never realized that poker would become as big as it did. I just did it for fun. I thought it was challenging and I made a good living at it, but it I never thought that it would turn into all of these other opportunities that have come along the way.
BOB: You also do some singing and other types of performing. Have you always been interested in a broader career in entertainment, or is that something that came after you became publicly known as a poker player?
MARIA: Growing up, I sang and played a lot of instruments. In college I was in musicals and in my college a cappella group. I always enjoyed doing those kinds of things, but it never seemed like a viable option until poker opened these doors and there were opportunities to pursue that a little bit more. It’s always been an interest of mine to do things like singing and performing, but I guess I never looked at it as a reality. But now I’m definitely more interested in pursuing it a little further.
BOB: Do you ever find it difficult to maintain your poker game while at the same time managing your public profile and all these other ventures? Or do they go hand in hand?
MARIA: I wouldn’t say it always goes hand in hand. Nowadays having a poker event as your charity event is all the rage. In that way, I can attend these events and keep up my public profile that way, while still doing something that’s very normal for me. But, yeah, it’s been a little more difficult juggling my schedule. I’m traveling a lot, so it gets to be a little bit hectic at times. But this is exactly what I was looking for right out of college — something that was going to be an adventure. I’m definitely trying to fit in everything I can while I still can.
BOB: What do you think the biggest misconception people have about professional poker players is?
MARIA: I think, in general, there’s still a little bit of a stigma on gambling in general. And poker is still, to the mainstream, viewed more as gambling than as a game of skill, like chess. If people studied a little bit about the nuances of the game, I think they’d very quickly realize that it’s definitely a game of skill. The whole image of the back alley: people playing poker and toting guns and robbing home games. That’s really not the modern-day poker player at all. That’s not really what this community is about any more. There are a lot more younger women coming into this game. There are a lot of young people playing this game. We’re playing it in the open; it’s perfectly legal to go into a casino and play it. Just like with any other community or profession, there is going to be the shady side of it. But, ultimately, a good majority of the people are just making an honest living.
BOB: I’ve been watching the WSOP coverage on ESPN and noticing how much less advertising and sponsorship patches there are in the wake of the government shutting down the online poker sites in the United States. How much has the pro-poker world changed since that occurred?
MARIA: It’s definitely hurt a lot of people. Most of the professional poker players who did play online had 80 percent of their net worth and upwards online. A lot of that money is frozen, so even though they could walk into a casino and play live, they’re not really able to because they’re having bankroll issues. And, also, there are just less opportunities now in poker than there were a year ago or four years ago. Whereas doing well in poker tournaments meant that you could get sponsorships from the online poker sites, that extra income from poker just doesn’t really exist any more. It definitely hurt the professionals who are entrenched in the community. As far as recreational players go, I don’t think it’s affected them nearly as much. As far as live poker tournaments go, the World Series of Poker saw a bigger turnout than they did last year for a lot of their preliminary events. And even for their Main Event, people were expecting way less than what actually showed up. I think, overall, poker is still alive and well in the general sense, but there are definitely some people who were very much affected by it.
BOB: Have you been personally involved at all in the push to make online poker completely legal in the United States?
MARIA: There is the Poker Players Alliance and a couple of other coalitions that are sending letters to people in the government in order to try to get online poker legalized and regulated, and I’ve donated money to those groups so that they can continue their lobbying efforts. Ultimately it’s just a matter of time [before online poker returns to the United States]. I think the government just wanted to make an example out of the situation and be able to tax it in the end. I’m not worried about it coming back. It’s just a matter of when it will.
BOB: Earlier you mentioned your travel schedule, which I know is a big part of playing poker professionally. Is that as glamorous as we casual players imagine, or can it be a hassle sometimes?
MARIA: It’s not as glamorous as some people think. Yes, obviously, poker is played in some exotic locales. There’s poker in Monte Carlo and in France and in Italy and in all of these amazing countries and cities. But the truth of the matter is, when you go and play in these poker tournaments, if you want to win, you end up playing poker 12 hours a day for six days straight. So you’re kind of stuck indoors and not exactly seeing the sights. A lot of professional poker players, when they get knocked out of a tournament, they take it pretty hard. They don’t stay and explore because they’re physically and mentally exhausted and emotionally drained from playing and not doing as well as they had hoped. They end up flying there just to play the tournament and then flying right back. But, at the end of the day, it’s obviously what you make of it. There are still certain people who still make it a point to enjoy themselves wherever they go, but I wouldn’t say that’s the majority. If you are one of the serious poker players on the tournament circuit all the time, you’re really just living out of a suitcase and going from place to place.
BOB: I’ve always wanted to ask a professional poker player this question, and I finally get my chance. Do pro players set their DVRs to watch themselves on TV?
MARIA: [Laughs] Umm… yes. Anybody that says that they don’t want to or haven’t watched themselves play poker on TV is lying. But there are also reasons why. It’s good to get information on your opponents, even though it’s after the fact. These are people who you are going to end up seeing again on the tournament trail. It’s good to watch back to pick up on things other people are doing. Down the line you can use that information to your advantage. And, obviously, I don’t think any poker player, when they first started playing poker, thought that would lead to them being on TV for it. So everyone is kind of interested in watching themselves on TV.
BOB: Does it burn when you see a hand you misplayed on TV?
MARIA: Yeah, nobody likes to be bluffed on TV. I’ve felt embarrassed when I’ve seen somebody bluff me on TV before. And, also, you don’t like to watch when you make a huge mistake. One year, on the World Series of Poker Main Event, Phil Ivey – who’s widely considered the best player in the game – folded the best hand on the river. [His opponent] turned over his hand and Phil had a better hand, but somehow he forgot what he had and didn’t bother looking back. Obviously, he got a lot of crap from all of his pro-poker friends.
BOB: Yeah, I remember that. Phil hit a runner-runner flush and didn’t realize it.
MARIA: Exactly. He had a flush, and the other guy had two pair or something. It’s just funny because you have to watch those things happen, and it’s not comfortable to watch. Poker players are really, really critical of their play.
BOB: This far into your career, and considering all of the other things you’ve got going on, do you still set specific poker goals for yourself?
MARIA: Sure. Now, I’m dead-set on winning a bracelet. That’s definitely on the top of my list. I do set goals for myself and what I want to accomplish in my poker career. There are so many accolades and so many accomplishments given in poker that mean a lot throughout somebody’s career. If I didn’t hold myself to the highest expectation then I wouldn’t really be a professional poker player.