Maria Ho was the last woman standing in the 2007 World Series of Poker, but if you think poker tournaments are a big part of her life, you would be way off. She works in LA real estate, just got back from Hong Kong, and is a cash game specialist. We sat down with Maria just a few days before the 2008 series and discussed life as a poker pro, why the tournament trail isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and why dating a poker pro is probably not in her future.
PokerLizard: You must be gearing up for the World Series of Poker. It’s starting in a few days from now?
Maria: Yeah, I’m really, really excited actually.
PokerLizard: How many events do you plan on playing?
Maria: Right now on my schedule I have about 15 events planned. Because actually I was going to play more originally but I got invited to the World Maj Jong Tour in Asia, so they’re flying me to Hong Kong for a week, it coincides with the World Series, some of the preliminary events, so.
PokerLizard: Interesting. I’ve actually played Mahjong, boy do I suck at it. I’ll tell you that right now.
Maria: (laughs) I mean where did you learn, like you read online the rules and stuff?
PokerLizard: My mother had a set, tiles and all that stuff.
Maria: Oh, okay. No. You can’t be that bad. I don’t feel like there’s that much skill to Ma Jong where you can be like really, really bad or really, really good. I think most people are just like mediocre.
PokerLizard: Right. It was just hard for me to follow everything, you know, not growing up with it.
Maria: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
PokerLizard: It’s like one bam, two crack. What? What are you talking about? What are you saying? I have no idea.
So how have you been gearing up for the World Series? I notice you’ve been playing some FTOPS events, but other than that?
Maria: I’ve really been doing a couple of things after last year’s World Series; I haven’t really played that much live tournaments, in the last two months I’ve been trying to play in a few live tournaments, just locally. I didn’t really want to do that much traveling before the World Series. I played in the WPT Ladies Championship at the Bellagio in April. Then I played the main, $2,000 buy in event at the Commerce series that just happened last week. I’m actually gonna be playing in a tournament at Lake Elsinore, which is Jerry Yang’s home casino. I actually saw him at the Commerce a few days ago and he asked me to go and play.
PokerLizard: I noticed you were sponsored again this year by Bodog and they sponsored you after the Main Event had started last year. How did that work out?
Maria: Well basically when when it got down to me and a few other females, I think we were in the top 100. I started being approached by a few different sites and one of them being Bodog, and I just I think they have a lot to offer. So I decided to go with them. So it didn’t really happen until maybe day four, or the beginning of day five of the – the main event.
PokerLizard: They probably figured the last remaining women would get a lot of camera time I assume.
Maria: Yeah, they scooped me up and the other second to last female in – in that event.
PokerLizard: Oh yeah. And they’re sponsoring you again this year?
PokerLizard: Cool. That must be nice.
Maria: Yeah. It is, it’s – yeah, it’s definitely nice and I really hope we have – have some good results this year.
PokerLizard: Last year you – you finished pretty high up. When you finally busted out were you just excited that you did so well or were you just pissed that you had been knocked out?
Maria: No. The last thing I could think about was how well I had done. I was just so – I wouldn’t even say pissed was the word. I mean mainly it was like disappointment, but it was kinda like shock because I was somewhat short stacked, but it’s no matter how short stacked you are when you make it that deep in such a huge tournament you’re always thinking you’re gonna do better, you know, than you do. So I think I was a little shocked and just mainly disappointed.
PokerLizard: And you sorta walk around in like a haze for like a couple days, you’re probably like, “My God, what happened?”
Maria: Yeah. And it’s so weird because every time I watch the moment that I bust out on – on ESPN, I always for some reason think I’m gonna win that that hand (laughs). Like one day’s it’s gonna change. I had just this complete blank look on my face. It was like I can’t even remember exactly what I was feeling at the moment. I can barely recollect that moment.
PokerLizard: You played day after day, hours and hours, how do you stay focused or awake or just keep from going insane?
Maria: You know it wasn’t so much hard to like stay focus as it was just hard to keep a clear head, so my mind was completely focused on poker, but there were many poker things running through mind in all of these hands. I’m running over all these hands in my mind and how I coulda played them differently. All these different situations I was in, it was really hard to keep those clear in my head. But my mind would completely focus on poker in general.
I didn’t really have that much distraction until towards end where obviously anytime I needed to go to the bathroom, I would get hounded for an interview or something when I became the last woman left. That was hard because I really try to utilize those breaks as times to really just like clear my head and try to think about my stack size going into the break, how I wanted to be playing when I got back from the break. I really use that time to strategize so I didn’t really have that. And sometimes I’d barely have enough time to use the bathroom.
PokerLizard: Well at least they improved the bathroom situation over the prior year. That year there was one bathroom and everybody would have to run down the hallway like a bunch of cattle and knock Howard Lederer over on the way there.
Maria: The best part, I’d have to say about playing the World Series is definitely watching men wait in line for the bathroom (laughs).
PokerLizard: Yeah, those lines are long.
Maria: Aside from the ladies event day, there’s never a line for the women’s restroom and especially not at the main event on like the fifth day, you know. Had it all to myself.
PokerLizard: I know when I like bust out of a tournament, even though it’s like a piddley hundred buck deal, thoughts are clinging and clanging around my head. I can’t even sleep for like five hours. I can’t imagine what it’s like playing in the main event of the World Series.
Maria: But that’s the thing though, because even as excited as I was to make it through each day I was so completely exhausted that it wasn’t so much falling asleep that I had a hard time with, but it was just like like you said, it’s just like a big haze and it’s like everything’s – all the hands I played are like all muddled together and I was really having problems to try to distinguish one from the other. But actually I was so exhausted I just really would crash every night right after the day’s end.
PokerLizard: Probably have nightmares of bad beats all night long.
Maria: That’s the thing though, is in this tournament I didn’t get lucky but I never really got unlucky, so thankfully, I didn’t have that many bad beat nightmares.
PokerLizard: How would you say your life has changed since your appearance last year?
Maria: I would say really my life hasn’t changed all that much. In terms of just being recognized and all that stuff, yeah there is a little bit of that. The biggest difference I would say is that I’ve played less poker actually because it’s not so much of a grind anymore. I don’t feel the need to play a certain number of hours a week or anything, so that’s really opened up my time to be able to spend it with my family and with my friends. I guess I have more freedom but it hasn’t changed me personally.
PokerLizard: You don’t have – you don’t have degenerates you know asking you for money and things like that?
Maria: (laughs) You know not much more than I used to there’s always like two or three tournament requests I’ve always gotten, wanting the odd twenty or forty bucks, that hasn’t really increased in the amount that they’ve asked or the number of people since. I’ve had like a couple funny stories like the random people. Usually, in the worst situations coming up and asking me if I was Maria Ho. I remember one time I was playing blackjack and I was losing ten or fifteen thousand playing blackjack in Vegas. And I was just so disgusted. I had about five hundred left in front of me and someone choose that exact moment to be like, are you Maria Ho, from like the World’s Series of Poker. It took everything inside of me not to be like really rude to them.
PokerLizard: Throw that last chip at their head really hard like, “Just take it.”
Maria: Yeah, seriously.
PokerLizard: So has Barry Greenstein ever hit on you?
Maria: No. Actually, me and Barry are friendly with each other, he hasn’t ever blatantly hit on me. I mean he’s nice to most Asian females. But, the times that I played with him and spoken with him he’s just been friendly.
PokerLizard: What do you think about them moving the World Series of Poker Final Table this year to three months down the road?
Maria: I think it’s definitely interesting. I haven’t felt very, very strongly one way or the other, but I know that the general consensus among the fellow like pros is that obviously they think it’s good for poker but bad for professionals. I haven’t had a strong feeling either way. I think that it’s just going to be a really interesting concept to use and a good ploy to get people interested. Because just coming from me, I’m a poker player, but at the same time I’m also a viewer, so I definitely know that when I watch televised poker events and I already know who won it gets somewhat ruined. For instance, I just realized just recently when I was watching the NBC Heads Up, and Chris Ferguson was heads up against Andy Bloch for the title, and we all know that Chris Ferguson won. It was really at that moment that it really struck me that like, I didn’t like knowing who had won already, because it was best out of three, so once that Andy Bloch won the first match, I knew that Chris Ferguson won the next two.
PokerLizard: That does sort of ruin any suspense.
Maria: From a viewer standpoint that’s what I don’t like about watching poker on television. So I think for the everyday average poker viewer at home, I think that’s going to be really great and it’s going to add a lot of intrigue and a lot of excitement surrounding the World Series Main Event.
Of course from the professional standpoint you look at where they’re coming from and it’s different. I know some players really believe in the whole momentum thing and they just want to keep going. They also don’t want the average player, who makes it really far to have this time to really study their opponents and study the game, especially with, you know, big professional like Daniel Negreanu offering to coach them.
Maria: That’s going to be very difficult for another professional to win the main event now. This is only gonna make it harder because the playing field is going to be leveled at the final table much more than it ever has been.
PokerLizard: I can see both sides of the issue, it will be good for TV and everything, but I mean think about what would have happened, you know, two years ago, if you had been able to see the way Jamie Gold played on TV for like two weeks or three months in advance, I mean you would have been, “Man that guy is full of crap.”
PokerLizard: People would have been calling him down left and right, super thin. It’s not that they weren’t already aware that he was kind of a blow hard but, I think it takes some of the dynamic out, but I guess it will be good for poker in the long run I hope.
Maria: At the end of the day I think the people who make the final table will be affected by the uncertainty, to not know whether you’re gonna get eight million or one million.
PokerLizard: Oh right.
Maria: It’s a long time.
PokerLizard: You have a massive chip lead and end up spending three million and you end up donking out and coming ninth.
Maria: Yeah, exactly. I think it will be really interesting and I don’t know 100% if it’s gonna work out exactly the way that they’re hoping it will. But if it does, I can see that it could be really great for poker, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
PokerLizard: And if you make the final table you don’t have to sign some goofy, ten thousand dollar with Full Tilt, you can sign a deal with Ford or Budweiser or whomever.
Maria: Definitely negotiate, that’s true, I didn’t think about that aspect, but you definitely have a lot more time to negotiate and find the best deal.
PokerLizard: You pretty much worked your way up playing limit poker from $3/$6 all the way up to $800/$1600 in a short time. How did you work your way up so quickly?
Maria: Well when I first – well I separate my poker playing into two phases. One, was pre – pre professional playing, so that’s when I started playing the three six. During that period the highest limit I played was maybe 20/40 on occasions. But I would have to say it was online poker that I credit with being able to jump so fast. I’ve always felt more comfortable playing higher online than I did live, so even though I would be playing, 20-40 live, I was playing 40-80, 50-100 online. That really helped with my progression. I think I was just intimidated in the beginning. So playing online really helped me like get over that intimidation because once I became a winning player at the higher limits, then the limits didn’t intimidate me as much, so I was able to take that into the live arena.
I try to have decent bankroll management. I can’t say I’m the best and when I played 800-1600 I definitely didn’t have the proper bankroll for that game. For the most part I try to be really, really disciplined and responsible when it comes to bankroll management. I think I just felt comfortable moving up limits I was moving consistently up in the limit and felt like I could beat the 800-1600. Honestly, sometimes it’s in the higher limits that actually there’s worse players. I would definitely say that on a daily, average basis, there’s tougher players in the 100-200 limit game at Commerce than there is in the 200-400, 300-600, and 400-800.
PokerLizard: Interesting. Did you have any set criteria for when you moved up or you just figured you’d take a shot, or just when you got the bankroll up to where you needed it to be?
Maria: It was a combination of the bankroll and how comfortable I felt with the limit that I had been playing. Time wasn’t so much a factor, I never said okay I have to play one two for six months or a year in order to move up. It was just more like when I felt comfortable against the players and in the game that I was playing. As long as I wasn’t intimated really by the limit and had the bankroll for it, I was willing to play the highest that I could because the worst thing you can do is play scared because your bankroll is on the line. I would make sure that I can maintain my aggressiveness at the limit that I play so, it was a combination of all those factors.
PokerLizard: Limit Hold’em seems to be pretty popular in California, is it drying up at all like in Vegas?
Maria: I think you can definitely see that it has dried up a little bit in general. In Vegas I’ve seen that. But definitely, like you said it’s really popular in California still and it’s still popular and profitable online. I guess it just depends on when you started playing poker, you know. The people who started playing poker in the last five or so years, they’re all much more interested in no limit, or maybe Omaha high low..
PokerLizard: Do you prefer limit, or does it just fit your style better?
Maria: I think that for cash games I feel definitely more comfortable playing limit. I do like limit because I like to play a lot of hands and – and there are things about limit that I feel I’m just more comfortable doing and it fits my style of play more. But I love playing no limit cash games and if I could invest enough time into no limit cash games to be as good in that as I am in limit, then I would definitely do that. But right now I’m really comfortable where I’m at so I would just rather play limit cash games and then play no limit tournaments, because no limit tournaments and no limit cash games are two completely different things. And I feel more comfortable playing no limit tournaments.
PokerLizard: What advice would you give to somebody who was thinking about becoming a pro?
Maria: I would say like the first and the most important thing is just to be very disciplined. I think that people have a lifestyle associated with this profession and I think they need a reality check where that’s concerned because most of the people that you see on TV or people that you see winning tournaments, that’s not where they make their living. People who are the average poker playing professional they’re playing cash games, they’re playing five days a week. They’re playing six to eight hours a day and that’s how they make their living. It’s not like they go and play one tournament and all of a sudden they win millions of dollars and then they jump into like really big games. That’s not really how it works.
So you have to have a lot of discipline. You have to be willing to put in the hours and you have to be willing to – to manage your bankroll properly because that’s the biggest mistake I see with a lot of professional poker players is they make really poor decisions about the games that they play in and how they choose to spend their money. So I think if they’re really serious about being a professional they need to know the reality of the situation is; it’s not going to be a one shot tournament and you’re going to be set with a poker bankroll. Most people are still building their way up to play the games so you have to be willing to stay within your means and then to get to a certain level that you want to be at.
PokerLizard: Yeah. It’s funny how people think the poker tournament trail is actually very glamorous when it’s actually just a grind of…
PokerLizard: – torture.
Maria: – completely grueling. Yeah, exactly. It’s not – it’s not that glamorous at all.
PokerLizard: I covered the World Series of Poker and hanging out in the Rio for like eight hours a day and it’s like, I wish I was dead. I mean it’s just brutal and that wasn’t even playing!
Maria: Yeah. These people have no time to eat. If you think about it, they’re eating during breaks, people think all they do is play poker and party and stuff. These people, they’re really cramming their life around poker.
PokerLizard: It’s just it’s no way to live, in my opinion. If it floats their boat that’s okay.
Maria: I agree with you that’s why for me, whereas most people would, have a decent score and they would want to play more and play more, I’ve actually stepped away from it because I just can’t do that on such a regular basis.
PokerLizard: They get lucky in one tournament and they think that, oh man this is easy I’m going to make a lifestyle. And the next thing you know they’re broke two years later.
Maria: Yeah. I have a question for you.
Maria: I’ve read some of your interviews, what do you ask females in place of the whole, Matt Damon question?
PokerLizard: Oh, if you were, Mike McDermott in the movie Rounders.
Maria: Exactly. What do you ask – what’s your women question?
PokerLizard: I’ve actually asked a couple women that one, but generally I don’t feel too comfortable asking them. I mean if you want to answer that, that’s fine with me.
Maria: Well I want to know what the question is, because I haven’t see a – a question that you ask – I just thought that was a really great question to end the interviews with, like with the male – with all the male poker players that you’ve interviewed. But I was just wondering whether you asked like the girls.
PokerLizard: I gotta – I gotta come up with something. Let’s see here. If you were Matt Damon’s girlfriend in the movie of Rounders, how fast would you punch worm in the face – no. I gotta come up with something.
Maria: You should come up with one. That’s like one of my favorites – I enjoy reading peoples’ answers to that question. But it’s pretty much, it seems pretty male oriented.
PokerLizard: Yeah. It is male centered that’s for sure.
Maria: Of course they all have the same answer because I mean, hello, it’s Famke Janssen.
PokerLizard: Actually Negreanu actually said he should stay with the good girl. I think he was the only guy who said that.
Maria: Who said that?
PokerLizard: Daniel Negreanu.
Maria: Oh, Daniel.
PokerLizard: His rationale was, she’s probably better for his life. Typical Daniel. Have you ever dated a poker player?
Maria: Have I dated a poker player?
PokerLizard: Yeah, and was it as terrible as the other women we’ve interviewed have made it out to be?
Maria: I was gonna do a no comment on that one. I mean I hate to be mean like that. The thing though, like you said, is it as bad as the other women that you’ve interviewed have said. And I would have to say, yes, but only because I haven’t really dated that many poker players actually. I’ve only really dated one poker player. And it’s just bad, because this lifestyle is so strange. Your hours are really weird and playing big and losing put you this funky mood sometimes where you really just want to be alone where you’re just kind of sulking, and you’re a little bit like anti-social, and I think in terms of that, that really ruins a relationship, because I mean, even though someone’s in the same profession – doing the same thing, you are and they kind of understand what you’re going through, there’s something about playing poker, and there’s something about poker players, I think, that when they lose, they still don’t feel like anybody really understands sometimes.
Especially if they’re playing at two completely different levels, that that’s also really hard, but even at the same level, it doesn’t make it any easier.
PokerLizard: I think being a poker pro, I mean, I don’t care how well grounded you are, kind of turns everybody into somewhat of a manic depressive-type personality, because like, there are super highs and super lows.
Maria: Exactly. Oh, exactly. That’s – yeah. That’s a really good way of putting it.
PokerLizard: Your last name is Ho, I assume junior high was a treat for you.
Maria: Yeah. You know, it wasn’t too pleasant back then, but you know, I took it all in stride. I think I’ve always had to have a really good sense of humor, and I mean, that’s my last name, so it’s a part of like who I am but, it was a little rough.
PokerLizard: Brutal. So you don’t have a cool poker nickname yet?
Maria: No. And honestly, and I never really wanted one. Some of my friends have tried to come up with some, just for fun or whatever, but I’ve never really taken to any of those. If I don’t feel the need to come up with one myself, my name’s pretty short as it is and easy to remember. I don’t really feel like there’s anything that I want that will make it be more indicative of the kind of poker player I am, so I’m good with not having a nickname for now, but I do have like a pretty standard poker, like an online name, but I don’t use that my as nickname.
PokerLizard: I agree. People shouldn’t give themselves nicknames. I mean, it should be like the Air Force, where your buddies make fun of you and that demeaning name gets stuck, you know?
Maria: Right, I don’t think people should go out of their way to make up a nickname, but I know some people do, but I mean –
PokerLizard: That’s terrible.
Maria: Yeah. I never had a nickname growing up, even, so there’s not one that’s going to stick just for poker.
PokerLizard: What do you have, goal-wise, for poker? You already have some small amount of fame, some fortune. You really see yourself becoming a fixture in poker? I mean, it seems like you also are interested in pursuing other interests.
Maria: Right. I think my goal in poker is – I want to make sure that I’m always learning, and that I’m always playing the best poker to my ability, and ultimately, yeah, that should lead to maybe wining some kind of title of some sort, but it’s not so specific in terms of that. It’s just that I want to be the best poker player or I want to be a well-respected poker player, and for nothing else but that. So if that respect comes with wining a bracelet, or a title, or whatever, or just being a really successful poker player, I think I would just want that in general.
I don’t plan on playing poker professionally for very much longer, because like you said, I do have other interests. I don’t feel like I can really have a lot of long term goals, because I don’t plan on doing this for a long time, so it’s kind of hard to specify.
PokerLizard: I will. And you should be glad to know, for some weird reason, most of the time we interview somebody, the go on a good heater, we call it the PokerLizard mojo.
Maria: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, that’s good to know, considering I’m going to be going to the World Series like next Thursday, so…
PokerLizard: So don’t worry. It’s all taken care of. You’ll be raking in the cash. I guarantee it.
PokerLizard: Ok, I have a final question, to replace that Rounders one…If you could be any pro poker player for a day, who would you pick and why?
Maria: This will be corny, but I’d pick Daniel Negreanu. I went to Phil Ivey’s party the other day and Daniel was so funny, everyone just gravitated to him. He makes himself so available to everyone and he’s just so much fun, crazy and animated. I’d just want to be inside his head for one day, he has fun both in and out of poker.
PokerLizard: Thanks a lot for the interview.
Maria: Thanks for the interview.
You can read Maria’s excellent blog on PokerPages.com
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