Maria Ho is considered one of the best female poker players in the world. She has raked in $2.6 million in poker earnings and is the first woman to ever serve as a strategic commentator for a poker TV broadcast. And among the many talents that has made Ho among the greatest poker players of all time is her uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying. According to her, it all boils down to past experience. She reveals:
“Honestly, it’s being lied to a lot. This is not meant for people to feel bad for me, or offended — I’ve just been lied to a lot, whether it’s through my relationships or whatever. I’ve always had really strong intuition from a young age. Whenever I felt something was off about someone I could sense it. That’s why I don’t like playing against women. Honestly, women are good liars. I cannot tell when a woman is bluffing, almost never. When a guy is bluffing, it’s almost always I just have to look at him and get him to look at me and then there’s just a lot of things that go into why I can tell.”
Born in Taiwan and emigrated with her family to the United States when she was around 5 years old. Her parents were in pursuit of the American dream and instilled a hard-working ethic in their young daughter. Ho described her childhood growing up in Arcadia, California:
“I had a really traditional Chinese upbringing actually. Even though I was living in the States my parents didn’t want to — my mom especially — didn’t want to assimilate too much to American culture. We ate Chinese food and I went to Chinese school after regular school to learn how to read and write in Mandarin. It was also learning Chinese folk dances and things like that.”
Her parents valued higher education and were disappointed when she chose a career as a professional poker player. Ho attended the University of California, San Diego and graduated with a degree in communication studies in 2005. She originally aspired to be a lawyer, but decided the path wasn’t for her after hearing the experiences of her friends in law school. She took a gap year after undergraduate and that’s when she started playing poker professionally.
“Growing up that’s probably where I got the idea that I wanted to be a lawyer — from my parents. They emphasized very traditional career paths such as doctor and lawyer from a very young age. Those were the only ones that they felt were socially acceptable. They had a very tough time understanding my choice to become a professional poker player. I have one older sister. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and she’s a professor at Pepperdine. So obviously in comparison to my sister, my parents probably still to this day feel a little bit disappointed in me. They do give me a hard time about it. I can’t really live for my parents’ approval forever.”
Ho was introduced to poker by her friends in college and played recreationally. She said:
“In college my parents didn’t want me to get a job and they were very much like, ‘We want you to just study,’ so I actually had an allowance from my parents in college and I used that to play poker.”
Soon after she began going to nearby casinos in San Diego and honed her skills along the way.
“I literally started going to casinos even when I didn’t know what I was doing. I just started playing against people. I think, honestly, my learning experience from poker came from losing money at the poker table. I learned as I went along, kind of. I didn’t know that much about the game before I was willing to sit down and put my money out to play.”
Her biggest single tournament prize happened in 2011 at the World Series of Poker where Ho brought home $540,000 for being runner-up. She described her three-day tournament experience:
“The World Series of Poker is basically the pinnacle of a lot of people’s poker careers. In 2011 I had only been playing professionally for about three or four years, so it was still early on enough in my career where I felt fortunate to have that kind of success so early on. It honestly doesn’t feel fair that you can win that much money playing a game.”
There are a lot of highs and lows in poker, which can make it emotionally draining for those who play it for a living. Ho’s biggest loss in her career was in a high-stakes cash game where she lost $50,000 in a matter of four to five hours. She recalled:
“It’s definitely really hard to handle that emotionally. You really just have to be willing to. I think some of the best poker players in the world would never have been great if they didn’t have a lot of mental fortitude. I think that is the difference between a good player and a great player in this game. You can’t really attach to the idea of how much you’re playing for — it will affect the decision-making process throughout the game itself.”
For those who are curious about trying their hand at poker, Ho says it’s not as glamorous as it may seem. She advised:
“I don’t recommend it, don’t worry you’re not missing out on much. It’s tough, I think there’s an allure associated with poker that makes it more attractive than it really is. I think when anything becomes your job and once you’re relying on it to make living, to pay the bills and feed yourself, I think it becomes something completely different than what people think it is.”
Aside from poker, Ho doesn’t really play any other casino games as she prefers to have an edge in any game she plays. She does, however, coach other players in the game and believes anyone can become a winning poker player if they put in enough time to study and practice. However, she believes that there is a slight innate ability that separates good poker players from great ones.
“There’s a definite skill set — the reason that there’s more men that play the game is because in order to be a good player you actually have to be very aggressive and I don’t think that aggressiveness is a character trait that’s encouraged for women in society. I think society has an idea that women should be more passive in demeanor. I think we’re taught from a very young age as women that if we are aggressive it doesn’t come across well. I think that’s why there’s not many women interested in the game and that’s also why there’s not many women that succeed in the game.”
Ho has earned roughly $2.6 million in poker winnings and said that she puts a good amount of her fortune back into poker to move up in stakes. She explained her poker strategy approach that will help her generate money long term.
“I definitely put some [money] back into poker. Anytime I win something kind of big, anything like in the mid to high five figures, that’s how people move up in stakes. You start by playing whatever you can afford to play basically. So the buy in tournaments are sometimes up to $25,000. $10,000 is considered a very high buy in tournament. So in the beginning when I first started playing I was only buying into $500 tournament or $300 dollar tournaments. Then the more money I made, the more I was able to play a bit bigger and start playing thousand dollar tournaments.”
Though she has accumulated a lot of wealth in a short matter of time, Ho remains down to earth. She said:
“I definitely invested in a few things. My parents do real estate for a living and that’s one thing they can be proud of. I saved some money and have not squandered it because they taught me from a young age that it’s important to save and invest your money. I don’t need a lot of nice things (of course I like nice things) but a lot of people get caught up in a lifestyle. I’ll spend money on taking my friends on trips and experiences, but I don’t need fancy — it’s just not something that I need.”
Poker has provided Ho with a number of opportunities such as being a contestant on the CBS Emmy Award Winning show “The Amazing Race 15” in 2009 with her pro poker best friend, Tiffany Michelle. Being a professional poker player also affords Ho the time and money to work with charities and donate to causes she feels strongly about. In the past, Ho has volunteered with homeless shelters and supported the National Kidney foundation. She said:
“The thing I love the most about poker is that it affords me a lot of free time […] That’s why I want to use my free time to volunteer at places because I think that’s much more fulfilling and rewarding than just playing a game for money where you’re just taking other people’s money all the time: It doesn’t feel like you’re helping anyone or doing something that gives you more purpose.”
As for the future, Ho plans to be involved in social entrepreneurship and start her own non-profit. She also seems to always have something in the works and has dipped her feet into TV broadcasting and hosting. As for poker, Ho doesn’t see herself playing full time in the next three to five years. However, she says it will always have a special place in her life.
“I think I’ll always play poker in some form, maybe not professionally but like for instance, the world series of poker main event, is something I foresee myself playing every year until I can’t see the cards anymore.”