On May 30, Maria Ho will step onto the stage at HyperX Esports Arena in Las Vegas in second chip position of the remaining six players in the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown.
There is little doubt that she will be prepared. She’s been a professional poker player for most of her adult life, and she’s been at countless final tables, some even under the lights and cameras of a television production crew. She’s been in the spotlight, literally and figuratively, for more than a decade.
The WPT final table will be different in a few ways for Maria, though.
For one, her family will be in the audience, which is not common, as they all have their own careers and busy lives. Ho is typically unwavering in her confidence but admits she will feel a bit more pressure.
A second unique element of this WPT experience is the delay between the playdown of the tournament and the final table.
She began the tournament with hundreds of other players on April 13, the second starting day of the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Showdown Main Event and played through April 16 to earn her seat at the final table. Maria entered Day 3 of play in fifth place on the leaderboard of 18 remaining contenders, and she turned a solid stride into true momentum toward the latter half of the day, evident in her knockouts of men in 11th place, ninth, eighth, and seventh place. With six remaining, she bagged 16.65 million chips, second only to James Carroll.
And then play stopped.
It will resume on May 30 on the Las Vegas Strip, a few thousand miles from the Florida tables where it began.
The six finalists will play for the World Poker Tour title, engraved name on the WPT Champions Cup, $15K buy-in to the Baccarat Crystal WPT Tournament of Champions, and $715,175 in cash…on a stage…in an esports arena…in front of family and friends… on a livestream broadcast around the world…and in front of a crowd of poker players and fans arriving in Las Vegas for a traditional summer of poker.
A Pattern of Positivity
One look at Maria’s Twitter feed gives a peek into her frame of mind. Her posts reflect her overall attitude toward life. While it doesn’t get too personal – no posts about the habits of her life partner or the politics of the day – it opens a window into her life as a traveling poker pro and business woman.
Maria always has something positive to say. But she doesn’t reach out and strangle people with her positivity. She doesn’t post the memes. “Positivity leads to success!” “There is always something to be thankful for!” “Inhale confidence, exhale doubt!”
It is just who she is.
Try as you might, you will not find a tweet insulting or criticizing another poker player in a serious way. You will not find a complaint about a tournament location or structure, poker rules, poker room staff or dealers, hours of play, or any aspect of poker…or anything, for that matter.
It is just not how Maria was raised or how she lives her life.
“In my family, we had a pretty tough upbringing in that my parents were strict, so my older sister and I didn’t complain much. We put our heads down and did the work,” she recalled. “My parents stressed education and a lot of discipline, and they worked so hard. They weren’t around much because they were trying so hard to achieve their American dream for us after immigrating to the US from Taiwan. I carried that on in my own life, that sense of being grateful for opportunities, that understanding that complaining or being negative doesn’t change your situation. The best you can do is to proactively do the things that are within your control to make your situation better.”
“In poker, such a big part of playing one’s best is to separate emotions from mistakes and doubts and move on,” she said. “I cut my teeth in places like Commerce, where I learned to have an attitude that doesn’t focus on the negative, especially when surrounded by it.”
Poker isn’t the only industry in which negativity is commonplace, but Maria pointed out that it can be hard to watch opponents losing money that they can’t afford or through unfortunate decisions. “Our job, as players, is to prey on other players’ weaknesses and take their chips, take opportunities away from them, so there’s no real room for an attitude that doesn’t focus on how lucky I am to be in my position.”
She also knows that many people are not passionate about their jobs or professions. There may be difficulties in her line of work, as the travel can be exhausting, hours at the tables can be long (or much too short), and it is more common to lose tournaments than to win.
Maria simply chooses to focus on the ways her job fulfills her, the passion she has for the game, and the positive results of her dedication. She admits that there are times that she will comment to her partner or a friend about something that happened that day, but that is the end of it. “It’s a big disservice to allow it to seep into my life,” she added.
Reminders and Moments
Practices like yoga and meditation are a big part of Maria’s life. They help her stay centered and grounded, conscious of any negative thoughts and the importance of turning those around without delay.
As she reflected during our interview, she remembered instances that took her from a temporarily negative space and directly into the positive.
She recalled a situation from years ago, her elimination from the WSOP Main Event on Day 2. The television cameras followed her as she got up from her table to leave, as she had been successful in the Main Event in past years. Those cameras were capturing her disappointment but also the moment she was approached by a woman with terminal cancer. The woman complimented Maria, told her what a dream it has always been to play poker with her and other famous pros. Maria’s negativity was already in the past as she walked the woman to Daniel Negreanu’s table to meet him and discuss the possibility of organizing an SNG.
There was also one particular incident with Thor.
Most poker players who knew Thor Hansen before he died in late 2018 – or even knew of him – were acutely aware of his positive attitude. The “Godfather of Norwegian Poker” was a kind soul, emanating positivity and gratitude at every turn, whether at or away from the poker tables.
So, there was the time that Maria was knocked out of a tournament in which she was fairly deep. At that point, as many players at that stage of an event, she had her mind set on running deeper. She had expectations and goals, and that particular knockout was overwhelming for her, more so than usual. She felt that she didn’t play her best.
With her head down and negative thoughts clouding her head, she turned a corner to leave the tournament room, and there was Thor. He didn’t know what happened but smiled at her. He was already sick, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but one would never know it through his smiling face and happy demeanor. “It’s a great day, Maria!” he said.
“I greeted him with the same enthusiasm,” Maria explained with a bit of a crack in her voice. “And then I went to the bathroom and cried, so angry with myself. Why was I getting so upset over a tournament when Thor was dealing with something so much worse? But he had to be the one to remind me of what was important. He gave me that amazing reminder to be grateful.”
Gratitude and serenity should not be mistaken for complacency, at least in Maria’s case. It is difficult to look at the entirety of her career and not acknowledge her drive, tenacity and determination.
Poker pros often set goals of winning certain tournaments, crossing a particular earnings threshold, or rising in the ranks or on a leaderboard to reach the top.
Maria certainly doesn’t shun those kinds of achievements; she is a competitive poker player with as much of a competitive spirit as anyone.
It is that spirit that motivates her to never rest on her laurels, to always strive to become a better player and to seek business opportunities around and beyond the felt. To do that, she has often expanded her horizons outside of the traditional box. And that keeps her ahead of the game.
One month after Black Friday hit the US market in April 2011, when poker sponsorships everywhere were in jeopardy, Maria signed a deal to become the celebrity spokesperson for WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma. That sponsorship continues to this day.
In the early 2010s, when poker commentators – especially on television broadcasts – were exclusively male, Maria signed on with the Heartland Poker Tour as the first woman to serve as a primary strategic commentator on a poker series.
Maria says some of her career advancements were due to being in the right place at the right time, but she also admitted that she put herself in that right place. “Some things came to me readily available,” she said, “but they might have passed me by if I hadn’t set myself up to take advantage of them. But luck was also involved, for example, with the HPT, that they trusted me enough to give me the opportunity, even though I wasn’t as experienced as some others.”
But it was the talent that took her from the HPT to other broadcast opportunities, which have included numerous shows with Poker Central beginning in 2015.
Hustle and Flow
When someone like Maria combines skill with motivation and openness to new prospects, opportunities flow. Her poker broadcasting jobs – which keep her busy with poker shows to this day – introduced her to new audiences.
Through Poker Central, she worked with the Super High Roller Bowl that has been broadcast on NBC Sports, and through her longtime poker-based friendship with David Tuchman, they teamed up to commentate on a poker show called The Final Table, which aired on CBS Sports.
Due to her exposure, not to mention her university degree in communications from the University of California San Diego, Maria has been featured on networks like CNN and CNBC to talk about everything from poker laws in the US to other events that can be viewed through a poker lens. Most recently, she appeared on HLN to discuss the gambler who cannot stop winning on Jeopardy!.
Another recent opportunity came about through Maria and Dave’s friendship, this one that took her to New York to participate in the now-annual CNBC Stock Draft. Dave knew more about stocks, but Maria was the celebrity part of the duo, as other teams in the draft boasted of television hosts and professional athletes.
“We wanted to approach this with the game theory optimal strategy that we use in poker,” she said before the draft happened. “I’m leaning on Dave and his expertise and knowledge, but I’m obviously doing some research on my own. Admittedly, I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to specific stocks, but I was really interested in doing something new that but still related to poker.”
The hustle inherent in Maria’s life and career trajectories come from a place of staying motivated to do more and keep moving forward. “I don’t want to just rest on whatever laurels I’ve built up to this point. I’s so important for my own personal growth to feel like I’m pushing and challenging myself in some way in my career,” she commented. “My goal every year is simple and two-fold: to keep improving as a player and to keep from feeling like I’m stagnating in this game.”
And while her motivation is not to gain recognition, Maria admits that it has been particularly rewarding to be recognized.
In 2018, Maria was admitted to the Women in Poker Hall of Fame for her years of achievements in poker. and just this year, she won the Broadcaster of the Year award at the Global Poker Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
Everything in Maria’s life seems to lead her back to the felt. Her passion for the game manifests itself in different ways, but it all stems from the poker table.
It’s not difficult to keep that in perspective when looking at her lifetime poker results that date back to 2005. And the current tally shows more than $3.4 million in earnings in tournaments alone, including her most recent win at the Los Angeles Poker Classic. She won that $25K buy-in NLHE High Roller event for $276,690, which came less than six months after her previous win, a WPTDeepStacks Johannesburg Main Event victory in South Africa in late 2018.
The trophies thus far in her long poker career are items Maria cherishes, but she would very much like to see her name carved into the WPT Champions Cup soon.
When she arrives in Las Vegas to play the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Showdown final table in a few weeks, she will have a vacation under her belt. As she leaves a massive Monte Carlo tournament series during the first week of May, she will head to Italy to meet family and friends for a long-awaited and serious vacation.
The relaxation will help prepare her for the summer of poker on tap. And first up on that Las Vegas poker schedule is the World Poker Tour.
Maria may be better prepared than the other players in that she has been there before, complete with the experience that comes from her 15+ years as a pro and several years as a poker broadcaster. She’ll likely spend the days before the tournament with some yoga and meditation, possibly reaching out to a few friends in poker to “get my head in the right space” if necessary.
For Maria, though, her pre-game ritual is quite simple. “It’s more about continuing her normal routine and trying to keep that as holistic and healthy as possible.
And no matter the outcome, Maria will keep her life mantra of positivity and gratitude next to her chips.
Then, it’s on to the next one.