Appearances can be deceiving.
It’s an old saying, but so very appropriately applied to Maria Ho. After all, you wouldn’t look at this glamorously dressed, friendly-faced woman and know she is one of the world’s most successful poker players.
Yet, one of the greatest poker players she is – and not just because of her $2 million in live poker earnings, or her intimidating style at the card table – but because of how relentless she has been in breaking into “the boys’ club” that is professional poker.
So how did a young Californian girl come to dominate the poker world, and what can we learn from her game-changing presence in one of the most male-dominated sports of all time?
During her college days, Ho studied Communications and Law, during which time she developed a keen interest in psychology. Using a pack of beers as a bribe, she talked her way into her male friends’ dorm poker games. They soon realized Ho was a force to be reckoned with; a natural at poker, in part because of her confidence, in part because of her excellent ability at reading people.
“I find men fairly easy to read…in poker and in life. Women are a bit more calculated before they express their emotions so I think that translates well for them at the tables,” Ho explains.
That’s not to say she’s never felt the pressure of high stakes poker.
Ho transitioned from casual home games to frequenting the local casino soon after college. After just eight months of playing professionally, she decided to enter the World Series of Poker in 2007.
Finishing 38th out of 6,358 players and winning $237,865 in the process is an incredible achievement in itself, but Ho took it even further in 2011 when she finished 27th place and won the title “Last Woman Standing”.
It’s not a term of which Ho is particularly fond, despite having been crowned it many times over.
“I don’t want to be the Last Woman Standing. I want to be the last person standing”, she asserts.
During her regular attendance at the annual World Series of Poker events, Ho has encountered a number of scenarios which required her to rely heavily on intuition. She recalls one situation which helped define her career:
“I had Queens, and I was against someone who was obviously very experienced. On the flop, he put me all in. The way he played his hand he could have easily had Aces or Kings. I looked at him, and was just staring at him for five minutes. I was trying to get a live read off him, because at that point I couldn’t really go by anything else. I was just hoping he would give me something.”
Ho’s determinism paid off, as her heads-up opponent finally gave away a telling sign.
“I remember it as vividly as if it was yesterday – his neck start pulsating. It could have been from excitement because he had a great hand, but he’s an experienced pro so I felt like it was more due to nervousness. The longer I waited him out, the more nervous I sensed his body language to be. I called. I could immediately tell I made the right decision from the look on his face. He flipped over Ace King. My Queens held up, and it was a huge turning point for me. It gave me a really big stack and it gave me the confidence for the rest of the tournament to just go with my reads.”
Reading people isn’t the only trick up her sleeve. Ho’s ability to remain calm and seemingly unfazed even with a jaw-dropping $70,000 at stake on the table (her only sign of emotion being an intimidating glare) goes a long way in confusing and eventually scaring off her opponents. In essence, Ho does a frighteningly convincing bluff.
Women in poker are still a rarity, despite the game’s strategic nature being equally suited to both genders. At the 2016 World Series of Poker, women players accounted for a disappointing 6 percent.
Ho believes there are several reasons for the absence of female players. Tournament marketing is exclusively aimed toward men, with women often depicted as sexual objects instead of serious opponents.
On top of that, and perhaps as a result of it, male players tend to have underlying presumptions when a woman joins the card table – such as that they are easy opponents. Female poker players face sexist remarks and an overly aggressive playing style from their opponents – it’s no wonder they don’t feel welcome in the poker industry.
But there is power in being underestimated, argues Ho.
“There are no inherent disadvantages to being female at the poker table, and any stereotypes that men might bring to the table is something that you can use. Anytime someone is going to underestimate you , that’s the time you go in for the kill, that’s when you catch them off their guard – and that’s what you need to become a winning poker player.”
It is no doubt this attitude has made Ho an icon for women in male-dominated sports, but she also feels that everyone has a responsibility to make poker tournaments a more welcoming place.
“We [as professional players] have a role to make women, and all new players, feel comfortable. We should constantly reach out at the table and help them. We were all beginners once.”
The unapologetically ambitious and unfalteringly cheerful Maria Ho differs so greatly from other professionals in the industry not just because of her gender, but because of her unpretentious lifestyle and charitable endeavours.
In the future, Ho wants to turn her attention to other efforts – such as helping domestic violence survivors. Sticking to poker her whole life was never the intention, after all – already evident in how readily she embarks on alternative challenges, such as taking part in both American Idol and The Amazing Race.
Ho claims she’ll always be thankful for the opportunities poker allowed her (not least the opportunity to play a game against Ben Affleck!) but feels it is only a matter of time before life calls for even greater pursuits.
This guest post was written by Sophie Jackson. Sophie is a journalist specializing in politics, pop culture and social equality. Follow her on Twitter @sophielcjackson.