Maria Ho Goes All In

Somewhere in an off-campus apartment, students are shuffling cards and stacking chips for what appears to be a friendly poker game. You can bet on it.

31209797161_e14eb7ef64_zThe game looks like any old boys’ club. Someone gnaws the end of a toothpick. Players share their bad beat stories. The game may seem more about the conversation than the cards, but don’t be fooled by the back-slapping.

The amount of cash a college student can put on the table may be low-stakes, but making a move on an opponent—slow-playing the flop; check-raising on the turn*—carries as much gravity as it would in any room at a Las Vegas casino. Even with less skin in the game, an aggressive play or a misstep can put a player on tilt and turn a friend into a rival.

It’s difficult enough to walk into a home game when you’ve been invited. You take a seat, fold hands, show little emotion when you lose and even less when you win. The goal is to get invited back week after week …

But what if you weren’t invited at all? What if you weren’t one of “the boys”?

Maria Ho ’05 was a freshman at Marshall College when she heard about a poker night run by a group of friends—male friends. The game was Texas Hold ’Em, the most popular poker variation, and though Ho had never played a hand, she always had an interest in cards and games of strategy. Naturally, the game was “guys-only.”

“They were coy,” says Ho. “They didn’t want to invite me, and the less they wanted me there, the more I wanted to play.”

Ho refused to take no for an answer. Rather than wait around for an invite that would never come, she forced their hand and invited herself, paying the $20 buy-in and winning the first mini-tournament she ever played. Along with the $100 payout—a sizeable amount for an undergrad on a fixed income—she earned the respect of the other players. As for herself, she was hooked.

If breaking into the boy’s club was a challenge, explaining her burgeoning interest in poker to her parents would prove even more difficult. Ho grew up in a traditional Chinese family, where education was of the utmost importance.

“My parents paid for UCSD and gave me a small allowance,” she says. “I didn’t have any other income, and was supposed to focus on school.”

Knowing her parents would disapprove, Ho kept her interest in poker a secret from her family during college. Yet it was her family’s influence that gave her the initiative to pull double-duty and succeed as a student and a poker player. Ho was only 4 years old when she immigrated from Taiwan with her family, who came to the U.S. with virtually nothing to their name and opened a successful real estate brokerage.

“I learned a lot from them about work ethic and staying motivated,” says Ho. “I picked up on their good habits.”

That work ethic would prove essential as poker became a bigger part of Ho’s college experience. “So many nights I would drive to a nearby casino, play all night and drive back for a 10 a.m. class,” Ho says. “In college your parents don’t wake you up in the morning. Good grades, studying, going to class—that’s on you.”

Early on, she made a deal with herself to make it to class and never fall behind, even as the allure of poker grew stronger and she found herself spending more nights in the casino. She was driven by her classmates, she says, who were studious and dedicated. Ho’s competitive nature was as useful at the table as it was in the classroom—she made sure to keep up with her fellow UC San Diego undergrads.

Making it to class, however, was about more than just maintaining grades and keeping pace with her classmates.Her studies paid dividends at the poker table as well.

More than just textbook information, I think UCSD taught me the methodology of study, and that has benefitted me a lot in my career.

“I think if you judge by the results and not the process, you’re doing yourself a disservice. We’re brought up with a sense of meritocracy—if you put in the time you’ll get a promotion, you’ll get what you want. But that’s something that doesn’t happen very much in poker. What you get isn’t always a reflection of the work. That’s tough mentally on anybody.”

“Women are taught at a young age that they have to apologize for anything that’s aggressive and not feminine. But the less we apologize, the more we do what needs to get done.”

After graduating with a degree in communications, Ho started playing at the big-time casinos of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and against big-time players. Her opponents were mostly men, many of whom not only questioned her skill, but whether she even belonged at the table.

“I was often the only girl in the entire poker room. I felt underestimated. Guys asking, ‘Do you need help? Need me to show you how to play?’”

Instead of being intimidated, Ho got determined. The feeling of being underestimated kept her motivated, and it often gave her a unique edge in the game. When people underestimate other players—no matter how seasoned they may be—they make mistakes.

“There’s a bias in poker. Men believe women are timid, play tight, don’t play speculative hands and don’t bluff. My friend taught me early on never to show my hand. But then I was like, ‘Why don’t I start showing my hands when I have it, to keep confirming that I only play premium hands?’ And when I showed big hands, I’d always say little things like, ‘I didn’t want to bet,’ so people thought they could bluff me. And I’d always catch them bluffing.”

By manipulating their stereotypes, Ho was able to outplay her male opponents and to help blaze new trails for women at the poker table. But for Ho, it’s not about whether you’re male or female; it’s about how many hours you’ve put in, how many hands you’ve seen, and of course, your natural ability.

“Poker is a gender-neutral game. There’s no reason why a guy would inherently be better than a woman. I feel like I can really read my opponent face-to-face and it’s always served me well.”

Among those easily-read opponents? There’s the home game amateurs who show up to casinos wearing sunglasses and sweatshirts, business people and vacationers who aim to push money around, and the cutthroat pros who would bluff their own mother if it meant winning a pot.

Knowing—and beating—players like these is how Ho built her bankroll. Keeping that bankroll, however, is less about the other players’ psychology, and more about hers. Because no matter how well a player thinks of poker as a business, an element of luck and inevitable bad beats are part of the game. That’s when the game gets emotional. It’s when long-term winners have to perform mental gymnastics required to weather a dry spell.

“You can play perfect for eight hours and walk away a loser,” Ho says. To combat twists of fate like these, she relies on the process, and takes comfort knowing she’s put in enough hours to beat the game eventually. One single hand or one skilled, table-talking opponent does not change her outlook.

“There’s a psychological aspect of getting into your opponent’s head, but it’s also in your head. You can play perfect, but if you make one small mistake it affects the entire outcome. You can be chip leader one hand and out the next.”

Ho’s philosophy on this mental aspect of the game could very well apply to life in general—that your outlook shouldn’t be about short-term results. It should be about getting there, respecting the grind and the process, and knowing that each individual result—good or bad—doesn’t necessarily reflect your overall ability or dedication. However the chips fall, the amount of yourself that goes into your work remains unchanged.

Ho has made a point to expand her horizons and parlay her poker stardom into a career outside her seat at the table—from broadcast commentating on high-profile tournaments, to appearances on TV shows like American Idol and The Amazing Race. And with the growing popularity of poker in the past 15 years, Ho saw a platform to take her poker celebrity and turn it toward something far bigger than herself. 

“Being a poker player gives you a lot of time to do what you want, so when you have free time you should use it in a productive way,” she says. “Poker can feel self-serving—it’s a zero-sum game, and that wears on a lot of players. In the last few years there’s been a group of us who wanted to do something about how we’re choosing to spend our time, and how we can benefit society.”

Ho spends time working with charities and nonprofit organizations, including the NASCAR Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club, which she attended in her a youth. She’s played for causes like the Malala Fund and the National Kidney Foundation, and additionally organized and hosted a charity event to raise money for the T.J. Martell Foundation, which earned her a nomination for the American Poker Awards Charitable Initiative of the Year.

There’s a saying in poker tournaments that to have a chance to win you need only “a chip and a chair.” In Ho’s case, she started with even less, and had to first earn a chair in that off-campus game. Yet from there, she grew her pile of chips and brought them into some of the highest-stakes games in the world, where she became a winner with an ability to transcend poker and apply herself to the greater good. That takes skill and smarts—two things Maria Ho has in spades.