Q&A With Maria Ho, Professional Poker Player & Ambassador
Maria Ho has been playing poker professionally for 15 years and in that time has earned more than $4 million in poker tournaments.
In 2007, she finished 38th ($237,865) in the World Series of Poker Main Event and in 2011, finished second in a $5,000 WSOP No Limit Hold ‘em tournament for a career-high $540,000. In addition to her playing accomplishments, she has been a broadcast poker analyst as well as a celebrity participant on non-poker TV shows, such as “American Idol,” “The Amazing Race” and “Deal or No Deal.”
A goodwill ambassador for poker, she’s now preparing for the 2020 WSOP Main Event, a hybrid pandemic version of the famous tournament being played this month both online and live (final tables and heads-up championship) in the U.S. and internationally. The final table will be at the Rio casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 28. The interview is edited for flow and clarity.
Gambling.com (GDC): Are you playing in the 2020 WSOP Main Event?
Maria Ho: I am. At the start of pandemic, I was living in Las Vegas and I had been there for several years because, as a professional poker player, there’s certainly reasons to be there — the World Series of Poker being one of them. … I’m currently in Los Angeles but I do plan to go back to Vegas in order to play online in this hybrid World Series of Poker Main Event that’s coming up.
GDC: What do you think of the format?
MH: It’s interesting. For people in all industries, at this point, there’s a sense that something is better than nothing. When you consider that we as a poker community were resigned to that fact that there would be no WSOP Main Event this year, now this has opened up an option of having something that will look similar to what we’re used to as players without risking people’s health.
GDC: The differences are obvious but what are the distinctions that stand out to you?
MH: There’s always been this idea about the Main Event that you’re paying $10,000 to play in the event but you’re playing in person against thousands of other players from all over the world — and you might find yourself at a table with a Phil Hellmuth if you’re lucky. But in this situation where they are separating the U.S.-based players form the Rest-of-the-World (ROW) players, there really isn’t that same sense of being on the same level (with star players) as it used to be. … And it used to be a seven- to eight-day affair. This time, it’s two days online plus the (live) final table, if you get that far, and an additional live day for the heads-up. It’s certainly different but I’m sure most poker players are at a point where they’d rather have this than have nothing at all. So, I applaud the WSOP for doing all they can.
GDC: You’ve done famously well at the live game and you did have several cashes in the WSOP Summer Series earlier this year that was all online. So, how do you feel about you online game?
MH: When I first started playing poker, I was definitely a live player but then as online became more popular, I was transitioning to being an online player. But then in the last seven or eight years, I refocused my attention back to live events specifically.
I think there’s an adjustment to be made by any player going from live to online or online to live. There are different skill sets at play in the two different arenas. But at the end of the day, if you have strong poker fundamentals, you’ll be able to succeed either online or live. For me, it’s been an interesting period where I have to go back to the basics. You don’t have the opportunity to study your opponent in the way you do live. You have to focus on game theory and the mathematics of the game that will help you make the correct decisions online. So, I think I’m doing pretty well online but I have definitely noticed that I’ve had to change my approach to the game in order to still excel.
GDC: What have you done during the pandemic?
MH: I’ve tried to be productive. I used to travel 250 days a year mostly participating in live tournaments. So, staying at home and in one place wasn’t something I was used to. … I was the one who determined my tournament schedule. Now, my options are limited because I can’t travel as much, and I can’t participate in every online series that’s going on.
I’ve had to make sure that I’m doing something every day to improve my game or even outside the game. I’ve tried to take up French again, which I learned in high school but simply forgot. I’m trying to use the time as well as I can and improve myself so when the world reopens and things are more normal, I won’t feel like I’ve wasted my time.
GDC: What is your involvement in PokerGo, the website that offers continuous poker content?
MH: I’ve been involved in PokerGo since its inception. … Not only are they making it a training platform for people to watch poker but also a place for high-quality poker production. It’s exciting to be part of something that’s trying to grow the game because ultimately, in order to make the game more accessible to the mainstream, you have to appeal to them even if they don’t know how to play poker.
PokerGo has been instrumental in bringing the right formula of entertaining players who are playing for high stakes in settings that are really appealing. Right now, there are not a lot of people putting money, time and effort in growing the game, so the poker community has been appreciative of having this type of platform that continues to showcase the game.
GDC: Generally, it’s estimated that only 5% of tournament participants are women, and perhaps less. Growing female participation in poker has been a challenge. What are your observations?
MH: I started playing professionally in 2005 and I agree that there has not been a significant increase in participation by women in poker and tournaments. Actually, it’s probably closer to 3% or 4% so its disappointing to see that and as a poker player, the positive change is that more women have found significant success in the game. The overall number or percentage may be the same but the number of women who have made a name for themselves, have had great results, has increased. … That’s good to see. I get asked this a lot and I think the answers applies not just to poker but to life in general.
Qualities of risk-taking and taking an aggressive posture are not encouraged in women starting at a very young age and that’s why women either shy away from games and many activities that require those qualities. But specifically, about poker, I recall what it was like to play when I was starting. Anytime you’re a novice at something you already feel nervous and uncomfortable.
So for someone else to make your experience even more that way because of your gender is something that we, as players, have to look after. Are we being welcoming and understanding? We need to remember that everyone at some time was new to this. Maybe that player didn’t realize it was their turn to act or maybe they played a hand “poorly.” Is it our place to make them feel awkward about it or is it our job to help them still have an enjoyable experience? … if we try to make poker a more welcoming environment, not just for women but for all players, we’ll be doing our part in helping the numbers grow.
GDC: Do you think online poker may overtake live poker?
MH: People don’t realize what goes into putting on a live tournament — all of the dealers, all the equipment, all the support staff, the registration lines. When you take that online you automate all of those things and they go smoother and ultimately, online players play more hands in the same time than they would live. That may be appealing to a lot of poker players. But I think the two have to coexist and complement each other because the goal is to keep this game alive as something that’s enjoyed by all ages and from all over the world, so it’s important to find a way for the two to complement each other.
They should never get rid of live events, especially one as important as the World Series of Poker. But having online qualifiers has been an effective way to bring new players into major event because there are people who won’t be able to afford big buy-ins. Also, online poker gives beginners and recreational players a great place to work on their skill sets and continue to improve — it’s a great way for women especially to practice the game because they get to effectively do that in a comfortable environment when they’re first learning. Once they achieve a greater comfort level, they’ll be more confident stepping into a live situation.
GDC: What are your aspirations in the game?
MH: After15 years, I can say that none of my aspirations have anything to do with winning a specific event or any certain financial goal. My only aspiration in poker these days is to find ways to promote the game in a positive way, to help poker as an industry shed itself of negative impressions. I’m from a very traditional upbringing where the very idea of a female paying poker for a living was a ridiculous thing to pursue. And we still have to deal with that. Many people still don’t see poker as a skill and there’s still a dark cloud hovering that it’s strongly related to gambling. So, for me what’s most important in what I do in poker is to promote a positive image of the game, of the community, and the players. I want to share my love of the game and the way to do that is create greater opportunities for people to get into poker.
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