Maria Ho is born in Taipei, Taiwan and was raised in the United States. With over 4 million dollars in live poker tournament earnings she is one of the most successful women in the game. Beyond the poker tables Maria shares her knowledge of the game as a poker coach, host and commentator.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon
SMP: You hosted the American Poker Awards with Drea Renee at the beginning of March. Did you ever imagine a scenario like that could happen, with all the casinos shutting down and you being stuck here?
Maria Ho: At the time, it was already happening to other countries outside of the US, but I think we felt we were still outside of that, and it was far away at the time. You had the thought that this could happen, but I think nobody really realized that it would become as serious as it is. There were around 200 people in that room for the Awards and I didn’t think anything of that. But within four days after that, everything accelerated and it became really serious. I was in casinos and always with a lot of people, so I wanted to make sure I could stay in a safe place and I didn’t want to travel back home to see my parents and maybe contaminate them. I thought staying here was the best solution.
SMP: Among all the awards that were given that night, which one did you feel happiest about?
Maria Ho: I was really happy for Robert Campbell, who won the Breakout Player of the Year. I was really happy about it because nowadays we have so many No-Limit Hold’em players that people know about, but they don’t really celebrate the mixed games players, and Robert is a really well-known mixed games player. It was nice to see him getting recognized. Also, Scott Wellenbach for receiving the Charitable Initiative. What he’s doing, giving 100% of his poker earnings and the $670,000 he won at the PCA to charity is amazing. I know this is business and there are players who donate their poker winnings, but for somebody who kind of had a normal job and doesn’t necessarily have a lot of money and plays very carefully, I think it was a very impressive gesture on his part.
SMP: On a very different topic, you recently made a video with YouTubers, ‘The Try Guys’, to explain to them the basic rules of poker. The game you played with them is really funny to watch, and the video reached 4.6 million views in only one month, which is really impressive, because the public that viewed the video were complete strangers to poker. How was that experience?
Maria Ho: I didn’t even know about The Try Guys before I was asked to do their video, which is funny because they have such a huge following, and I had no idea. They were so much fun and they really were beginners, as they seemed in the video. So, it was interesting to play against people like that and review the basics. And I do think many people came away not only liking the game, but also learning about the strategy behind it. It’s always nice when you feel you are opening up the game to people who may have no experience in poker, because I think it’s important for our community to continue to grow the game. And those guys were so funny, now I’m watching all of their videos. I loved being a part of it and also because they all have great personalities. It was a really nice experience.
SMP: Do you think you would like to do more video content in the future, addressed to an amateur public, instead of experienced players? It’s really a different type of exercise and could also be a great advertisement for the game.
Maria Ho: Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of professionals are always gearing their videos towards people who already play, who already know the game. Obviously, they know how to market to that group, but there are also so many people that have never played before and that we also want to expose to the game. So, I think it’s a matter of, how do we capture that audience? I would definitely be interested in that. I just need to think of an interesting way to package it. Those players don’t want to see crazy high-level content because they can’t understand it, so we need to find something that they can enjoy and also learn from.
SMP: In the commentary section of the video I noticed most of the comments were about the confidence you were showing at the table and away from it. It’s really not something easy to have and to keep, especially when you are a poker figure and appear in many shows and games. Is that something that you always had or did you have to work on that?
Maria Ho: Oh, I definitely had to work on it. I think at the beginning of 2007 when I had a deep run at the WSOP Main Event, I remember being interviewed and I was so shy. I felt I wasn’t answering the questions well, and it definitely is not something I was naturally good at. It came with time and with the opportunities I took to be in front of the camera. Broadcasting certainly helped a lot with my confidence, to be able to speak more eloquently and being more comfortable in front of the camera. But it really took me some time!
SMP: You’re hosting poker shows and you even had your face on a big screen in Times Square for Poker Central. So, being a TV host and also a poker player are two completely different things and have very different demands.
What kind of path do you want to prioritize today? Do you have to choose between the two?
Maria Ho: I think today I spend around 60% of my time playing poker professionally, and the rest on broadcasting and hosting. I think if I had to choose, I would choose broadcasting because I don’t think that I will want to play poker all my life because it can be very hard to have a family and the travelling lifestyle also gets tiring after many years. Broadcasting is something that could allow me to stay in one place and also have less risk. Of course, I really enjoy playing and if I hadn’t played first, I wouldn’t be informed or be a good broadcaster. So, I think it’s important to do both for as long as I can.
SMP: What poker videos do you like to watch the most?
Maria Ho: I feel that the best poker videos are those you can learn something from. So, I like videos of high-level events with elite players and also good commentaries. Sometimes the commentaries are supposed to be funny and entertaining, and sometimes it’s a little bit more like watching a poker training video, so you want to spend your time wisely and learn from the best players. On PokerGo there are a ton of great high-rollers and the best players, for example. I’m not saying that you only need to watch the high-rollers to learn, but if you want to see the best players, you will have that concentrated in the high-rollers. It’s easy nowadays to find good poker content; almost everything is amazing; Run It Once also has amazing training videos. So, it depends on what you are looking for, but there is something for everybody now.
SMP: You also host the WSOP, usually with Kara Scott. How do you feel about the festival being postponed?
Maria Ho: Yeah, I didn’t think it would be cancelled but I didn’t see it happening at the normal start time. At the end of the day, it’s more important to think about health and safety, and put that first. I know that all of us as poker players don’t even want to think about having a year without a World Series of Poker, but at this point I think it’s most important for people to follow the self-isolation guidelines.
SMP: Concerning the WSOP, you have so many memories there now, what was the most emotional moment for you there?
Maria Ho: I think it would probably be when I got second for a bracelet. It was in 2011 in the $5K NLH. I remember afterwards, a couple of women came up to me and told me how inspiring that was, or how proud they were of me, and I think that was the first time I realized that playing poker could be something bigger than myself, even if I don’t win. Of course, at the time I was very disappointed that I didn’t take the first bracelet, but I then realized it still motivated some people to play in an event. So, it wasn’t really about me in that moment, even if it’s easy to be disappointed, but it gave me a perspective about what we are doing, and what I could bring to people.
SMP: Did you follow the Galfond Challenge and his crazy comeback from almost a $1 million downswing?
I haven’t been following many of the streams, but I watched the tweets and recaps. It’s really amazing. First of all, I think Phil Galfond is an amazing ambassador for poker. I feel he was trying to make poker exciting for people, and at the same time giving himself a personnel challenge. To make the comeback that he had really shows to people how much poker is a mental game. He wrote many things about how he was able to stay motivated to keep going when it would have been so easy to quit when he was down $1 million. There are so many different ways he could have gone, but he proved that poker is very psychological and that you have to be very mentally tough. What he did is obviously very inspirational because no matter what stakes we are playing, we all know what it’s like to go through a downswing and it’s a good reminder that you have to keep playing at your best and stay strong.
SMP: Have you faced a period of low morale in your career, and did you challenge yourself to go back into the game?
Maria Ho: Yeah, there was a time when I was very close to going broke. I was having a very bad downswing. I was only playing cash games at the time, and I remember deciding to myself that if I feel it was affecting the way I was playing then I should take a break and stop playing. But I felt I was still playing my A game and that I should keep going until I didn’t make the right decisions at the table. You really have to check-in on yourself, ask yourself and be honest with yourself during these periods, because some people keep going back even when they know they are not playing well, just because they hate losing. But once a downswing starts affecting your play, you should really just allow yourself to have that break. Sometimes people think that taking a break is the same thing as giving up, but it’s not, like Galfond did. There was definitely a time when I had to make sure that I was staying focused and playing my best, so I kept playing, but it’s not the solution for everybody, and it depends on your own mindset.
SMP: On your Instagram page, you post a personal quote like every three posts, to inspire people. So, what would be your quote now?
Maria Ho: Most of the sentences I post are poker related, to give some tips to people. Right now, a lot of people are playing online, so my tip at the moment would be for live players who are used to only playing one table at a time and maybe struggling with multi-tabling online. Here’s a trick that I use when I’m trying to focus; first of all, tile your tables. I think it’s important. I know some amateurs stack their tables behind each other, but you should just play the number of tables according to the size of your screen. You should also use Poker Manager or something like it to collect stats, because you want to be able to remember how your opponents are playing. So, it’s important to tile your tables, to take notes and don’t play more than you think you can, because now there are so many online events and big guarantees, it’s tempting to register for more tournaments at the same time, but there is no point of doing this if you play six tournaments badly when you could play two really well. Don’t try to split your focus too much, it’s really different to playing live.
SMP: Last question regarding the weird period of time that the world is living through. What are your movie and TV show recommendations for the lockdown?
Maria Ho: I haven’t been watching movies a lot, but I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. So, one thing that I really recommend is a documentary on Netflix about Bill Gates, “Inside Bill’s Brain.” It’s very inspirational, especially during this time; learning about what he is doing and how he wants to spend his money and resources is so inspiring. I think, when we look at people like him, we don’t know anything about their personality and what they’re like outside of their success. The documentary really shows his funny side and his passion, and it really humanizes him. I have also been watching a lot of Survivor. I always did, but this season is special because it’s all past champions; I love it. And I also watch The Voice, those are my two TV shows.
SMP: Any book recommendations?
Maria Ho: My dad bought me a book a long time ago about Warren Buffet and his investment strategies. I had it for a year, but I haven’t read it, so now with the lockdown I’ll try to read it for my dad! But actually, reading about investment strategies right now is not a bad idea because the stock market has fallen a lot, so it’s probably a good time. And also, during the lockdown one of my goals is to work on my French again. I studied it in high school and want to take more lessons now.