Somewhere in an off-campus apartment, students are shuffling cards and stacking chips for a friendly poker game. You can bet on it. And if these young card sharks have sights on climbing to the top of the poker world, they’d be wise to take notes from UC San Diego alumna and professional poker player Maria Ho, ’05.
As the second ranked women’s poker player in the world, Ho has over $2.6 million in lifetime winnings and is co-host and strategic commentator on the Heartland Poker Tour—quite an about-face for a communications major who originally planned to be a broadcast journalist and reporter.
Since her very first game of poker at UCSD, breaking into the boy’s club would be a recurring theme in her career. In fact, just to play her first hand she had to crash a poker night held by a group of guy friends. “They didn’t want to invite me… and the less they wanted me more the more I wanted to play,” says Ho.
The game was on. Though the cards became a calling for Ho through college, she made a deal with herself to make it to class and to never fall behind, even as the allure of poker grew stronger and she found herself spending more nights in the casino. Despite long nights, her studies paid dividends at the poker table as well.
“UCSD—it was a nest where I was taught how to study, and I brought those study habits to the game, to learn new game theories. I think being at UCSD taught me the methodology of study, and that has benefitted me.”
Ho didn’t tell her family, including her sister who received a Ph.D. from UC San Diego, that she was playing poker recreationally in college. It wasn’t until she graduated that she broke the news, telling them she was taking a year off to play poker before looking for a job. And she wasn’t bluffing—from that point on, she made her name in the professional circuit.
With all her success, Ho says she feels “pretty badass being a top woman in a male-dominated sport.” Having always been the only girl in the room with opponents—mostly men—who questioned her skill, Ho felt underestimated. However, it was that feeling of underestimation that kept her motivated.
“There’s a bias in poker. Men believe women are timid, play tight, don’t play speculative hands and don’t bluff.” By playing into their stereotypes, Ho was able to outplay her male opponents and to help blaze new trails for females at the poker table.
Ho complements her achievements at the table with a career that brings her communications degree full circle. Not only is she a top commentator for broadcast tournaments, Ho has gone into celebrity endorsements, appearances on TV shows like The Amazing Race, and is most proud to spend time fighting for local charities and nonprofit organizations and raising awareness for humanitarian issues.
Ho was recently nominated for an American Poker Award for Charitable Initiative of the Year for organizing and hosting a charity event during the World Series of Poker to raise funds to help the T.J. Martell Foundation find cures for leukemia, cancer and AIDS.
There’s a saying in poker tournaments that to have a chance to win you need only “a chip and a chair.” That may be true for one-and-done dreamers, but to break down barriers and be a consistent winner who transcends the game to help other people, that takes skill and smarts—two things Ho has in spades.