If the poker world is still perceived as a male-dominated environment, it is probably because it hasn’t had many people as determined and capable as Maria Ho.
During the past decade, the Los Angeles-based 31-year-old player from Taipei, Taiwan, worked as hard as possible to get herself a name in the poker industry and help the game to fight against clichés and ignorance. As a result, she managed to put together over $1.6 million in live tournament winnings and important records. To date, Ho has been the last woman standing at the World Series of Poker in 2007 and 2014, and also the holder of the second largest single cash a female has ever had at the WSOP after she scored $540,020 for her second place finish in the $5,000 No-Limit Hold'em event in 2011.
Ranked by the Global Poker Index as the third best female poker player in the world, Ho is not only an internationally acclaimed player, but also a significant figure and voice for the whole industry.
A graduate student with a major in Communication and a minor in Law at the University of California, San Diego, today Ho is the celebrity spokesperson for the WinStar World Casino and also one that many mainstream media turn to when they seek someone able to promote poker in a smart and engaging way.
PokerNews caught up with Ho while she was in Europe to know more about her views on poker, her mission to promote the game, and the real possibilities that poker may finally be able to conquer a promising market in China.
PokerNews: Besides being the celebrity spokesperson for the WinStar World Casino, you are generally recognized to be one of the best ambassadors of the game. What does this mean to you?
Maria Ho: It is very important to me to get the chance to be a positive example for the poker community and also to mainstream media, and that’s why I try to spread the good word about poker. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to poker, and I feel like I have to fight against it all the time. When I tell people that I am a poker player, a lot of them really react by giving me a weird look.
I would like poker to be more widely accepted. I want that the next time I say that I am a poker player and that I play poker for a living, people will not only understand what I do, but will also know that there is a lot of great and generous people that are part of the game.
What do you do to promote the positive image of the game?
I think that a lot of it is just about being open and friendly. It’s about answering questions from fans and from people in general, especially as I think a lot of people simply do not really understand how poker works. Essentially, poker is a social game. I think that's how it started and this is why people enjoy playing live more than online — because when you play live, you get to sit and interact with your opponents.
When something bad happens at the poker table, I get up from it and I just leave it where it belongs. You know, I am a positive person, and if the way I do things help to make somebody enjoy the game a little bit more, and maybe even come back again and play again, then that's great for poker and that's great for all of us.
During 2014, a number of rooms including PokerStars and Full Tilt decided to significantly change their approach to sponsorships and team pros. From your perspective, are these purely business-oriented decisions or is there something new in what rooms and people expect from those we consider to be professional players?
In the past, I think being a pro used to be all about results. It was all about the fact that if you were a good poker player, then you could become a professional and, all of a sudden, turn yourself into a brand. Today, I think that being a pro includes a lot more than that. Like I have said, I think it's about being accessible and also being able to combine this with good results.
As a pro, you need to realize that you are somehow doing something a lot bigger than yourself. If you consider how the poker economy has become in 2014, as a pro you need to work hard to make the game gain more popularity. You need to open it up to new players, to people who has never heard of it before.
In this sense, I feel that I have a very special role being both an ambassador of the game and a woman, because to this day women are still an important yet untapped group of new poker players. Today, a lot of women feel comfortable playing online, but they don't feel comfortable coming out to live events — have you ever asked yourself why this happens?
You have to bridge that gap, and I feel like that's my priority, that's my responsibility as a woman who has found her way into this game.
Since you brought up the issue of women and poker, how do you think we could bring more women into poker’s ecosystem? Are ladies events the very best we can do?
Let me propose you something crazy. I have actually given this some thought, and as you have mentioned the ladies events, let me propose you this: what if we just got rid of the ladies events?
What if we made it so that if a woman wants to play poker, she has to play poker with everybody else? I think we underestimate the will of a woman; I think that if you make them choose between to play at an open event or not play at all, they will come.
Maybe we could consider to make the buy-ins a little bit smaller, even if it would be important to make sure that the events would still be prestigious enough to attract people. Besides this, I also think that the casinos could do more. They could host seminars geared towards women, and have women come in.
I can't tell you how many women have told me things like "Oh, I just don't know if it's my turn to bet or check". When you walk into a casino, you don't want to feel like you are the newbie, you don't want everyone to immediately notice that you don't have a lot of experience. If you just have them come to a casino to simply sit at a table and practice all the different steps that form a poker game, I think they would just feel a lot more comfortable. We should never forget that everybody started as a beginner and that there’s nothing bad about that.
Besides being an extremely successful poker player, I know you are also a passionate mahjong player, since you have participated in the World Mahjong Tour and you have also been part of the Team China during two editions of Inaugural World Team Poker Invitational. Although I guess the two games are quite different from each other, do you find any similarities between poker and mahjong?
First of all, I have to say that there is a lot more luck involved in mahjong than in poker. Nevertheless, I have always felt like there is something similar between the two games, especially in the way you can understand the way your opponents play.
In mahjong, you can’t really read a player as you could do in poker, but once you know somebody's strategy — once you realize that your opponent follows some precise patterns and some specific strategy — you can definitely exploit that and use it at your advantage. In this, the game has something in common with poker, as also there you can often predict the way a player will play by understanding his strategy.
Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to get a little more political. I have heard you speaking many times about China and about your ties with the country. You once said: "I think we all want to connect with our roots, make our parents, our families, and our countrymen proud. (...) I still feel a strong urge to represent Chinese people well and make them proud." My question is: how do you explain that, given that you are actually from Taiwan and not from China?
You are correct — my grandparents were born in China and they fled to Taiwan right after World War II, after Mao Zedong rise to power. That’s why my parents and me, we were born in Taiwan.
However, I always had the feeling that the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese people are mostly political ones. From an ethnic and cultural point of view, we are quite the same. I think sometimes I refer to China as my homeland even though I was born in Taiwan because I feel like there is still a very strong connection to the places where my ancestors come from. But let me tell you this, even if I feel that Chinese culture and traditions are my own ones, politically I do not align with China at all. I do not endorse Chinese politics, and I do not support the way they deal with human rights.
Speaking of China, I think it'd be impossible to count the amount of times someone said that Asia could be "the next big thing" for poker during the last 10 years. What do you think about it? Is there a concrete chance for the Chinese market to really open to poker?
Honestly, I think that if Chinese politics were not as corrupted as they are, and that if it was a little bit easier to get into the Chinese society, China could absolutely be the next biggest market for poker. And I am not saying that only in terms of numbers, because that’s quite obvious. It’s also that Chinese people like to gamble. Chinese people love games and they have a really long tradition of playing.
Personally, I can tell you that I remember growing up playing games with my parents and gambling with my parents from a very young age. It may sound surprising to you, but gambling is very accepted in our culture. So, absolutely, poker would fit right in.
Yet, again, the "boom" we are all waiting for is not really happening right now. Sure, the game is popular, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Am I right?
One important thing that I have noticed is that there isn’t enough poker literature translated into Chinese, and this is a problem for sure. I know that there is something available in Chinese right now, but I just think that it’s simply not enough. To my knowledge, when Chinese people decide to play a game, they want to know about it, they want to learn about it, and they really try to get good at it. You know, Chinese people take games very seriously.
That’s probably also due to the fact that we have a long history of studying, and our academic level is generally very high. We are used to spending eight to 10 hours at school, and then to have quite some more hours of studies after that.
You have to understand that we like to study and we like to know what we do; that's why I feel that if there was more literature, if people had better chances to get to know the game and understand it, then I think poker would become something very big in China.