SPORTS

Poker Star Maria Ho Plays to a Full House

Maria Ho playing a hand during the six-week-long World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this year. The L.A. resident competed in 30 of the series’ nearly 90 events and made frequent appearances as a poker analyst on ESPN during the tournament.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO
Maria Ho playing a hand during the six-week-long World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this year. The L.A. resident competed in 30 of the series’ nearly 90 events and made frequent appearances as a poker analyst on ESPN during the tournament.
In the world of professional poker, Maria Ho is cleaning up at the tables and changing the rules as she goes.

Maria Ho is so everywhere at the 50th Annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas that she’s almost impossible to find.

Look up from the Red Bull–inflamed stampede surging through the hallways of the Rio hotel and casino, and the Taiwan-born, Los Angeles–raised Ho’s face smiles down at every turn. The most telling of the vinyl banners on which her image appears isn’t the one with Ho endorsing a ladies-only game to attract more women to the event. Rather, it’s one featuring Ho as a sponsored player for a streaming video site, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Phil “Poker Brat” Hellmuth and Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, two of the winningest players in the history of the game. With $3.8 million and counting in lifetime winnings, the 36-year-old is working her way up the ranks of the top 10 female players. But it may be just as impressive that she’s managed to squeeze her quasi-good-girl image into a branding world dominated by youthful masculinity.

“I don’t think there’s any inherent advantage or disadvantage for women,” Ho says, alighting on the edge of a seat at the WSOP café inside the hotel. She says her grandfather introduced her to strategic thinking—through bridge. “That was the first card game I played. I was immediately drawn to this idea of outsmarting my opponents.”

And outworking them. Ho set a goal to play in more than half of the series’ almost 90 events, which are taking place over six weeks from May to July this year. She’s also putting in hours-long stints in the broadcast booth, where she unpacks the math and psychology behind the decisions players make.

Ho moved to Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley from Taipei with her family when she was five. Her father took Chinese tourists sightseeing around California for a living before bootstrapping the family into real estate success. Her “tiger mom,” as Ho describes her, expected the children to speak Mandarin at home and sent them to Chinese school. “You feel like your parents don’t ever want you having any fun,” Ho says.

One of the family’s favorite movies was The Sound of Music, and in a video for PokerGo Ho’s elder sister, Judy—a psychologist and TV personality—recalls her parents singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

Ho doesn’t regret what she calls her “black sheep” years, defined by dark lip liner and baggy clothes; she ran away from home and got popped shoplifting “a lot of CDs—Bone Thugs, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G.” Raising an arm tattooed with the words Let It Be, she says: “I’ve experienced a lot of life and learned a lot, and all of those things helped me in poker.” She narrows her eyes into the sort of stare that makes opponents think twice about calling her bluffs. “I was already really tough.”

Maria Ho, seen here posing on a red carpet, has parlayed her poker stardom into a role as a poker tournament commentator on ESPN. CHRISTINA GANDOLFO
Maria Ho has parlayed her poker stardom into a role as a poker tournament commentator on ESPN.

Ho says her mom finally solved the Maria problem by sending her to a Catholic girls’ school. “Now that I’m older, I definitely feel grateful that she was so hard on us. Deep down inside, rebel didn’t really resonate with who I am as a person.”

Even after taking the “straight and narrow” road to UC San Diego, where she majored in communications, Ho had no intention of letting others define her. She bribed her way into her first poker game with “a lot of beer.” She walked away the big winner.

A few years later, at 23, she played in the Main Event, the internationally broadcast competition that wraps up each year’s WSOP, for the first time. The next year, she outlasted thousands of players and found herself engulfed in applause as the last woman standing—something she’s accomplished three more times. These days, she credits her poker success to her rebellious years and her family’s emphasis on discipline. It works both ways. “Poker,” she says, drumming her blue fingernails on the table, “has taught me so much about life.”

When not traveling to games worldwide, Ho divides her time between Las Vegas and L.A., a town with more poker tables than the entire state of Nevada and a reputation for cutthroat competition. Earlier this year, she joined 27 other players in a $25,000 buy-in event at the Commerce Casino, a not entirely glamorous Southern California venue that makes a cameo appearance in the 2017 poker movie Molly’s Game. This time the last women standing were also the last players standing. In the end, Ho beat Kristen Bicknell to claim the nearly $277,000 first prize.

Leaving the café, Ho heads to her table and riffles her chips. A few yards away, a camera boom floats over the featured table, which glows blue and red amid clusters of young men bellowing encouragement from the rail. In July, this is where Ho will offer commentary on the “final table” for ESPN, after she and 8,559 other players are knocked out of the event. At this preliminary tournament in June, Ho quickly goes “all in.” Another player calls, wins, and takes all her chips. Rising, Ho weaves her way to an exit, her mind absorbing another lesson in poker and life.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bob Sipchen is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He wrote about abalone diving in Alta, Issue 2.