When you get deeply involved in poker, you sometimes forget there are some great personalities behind the cards and pots we all obsess over.
When you're around Maria Ho the opposite is true. The cards fade into the background and you can't forget about her vibrant personality, no matter what she's doing.
Not just one of the best poker players in the game she's also an incredible all-round talent - as a broadcaster, a host and a singer, just to name a few. Even more importantly spirituality, joy and kindness come with her everywhere she goes.
Joy and Kindness Everywhere She Goes
PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot spent some time with the unsinkable hostess of the 2014 Battle of Malta to find out more about her career and her life off the felt. The result, as expected, was an inspiring and rewarding conversation.
PokerListings: First of all Maria, how did you get started in poker? I read that your family wasn't really keen on you playing poker?
Maria Ho: I discovered poker in university with friends. A lot of them played poker for fun and they were often playing games after class.
I came over and they said that girls weren't allowed to play. That upset me a lot and made me want to play even more, even though I didn't know anything about the game.
So one night I just brought some beers and said 'hey, here's some free beer, let me play.'
As it happens I won the first couple of times I played, so of course I immediately thought 'wow, I'm so great at this game, it's so easy!'
So I got really into it and when I started to learn more about it I felt that I had a very natural instinct for the game.
In college I played several times a week and I started to make a lot of extra money thanks to poker. So by the time I finished university, I figured 'why not give a shot at becoming a professional?'
PL: Since then you've had a lot of great results but no major title yet. Is it important to you?
MH: I finished second at a bracelet event at the WSOP (ed note: Ho finished 2nd to Allen Bari in Event 4 $5k NLHE at the 2011 WSOP) so of course I would love not only to win any major tournament, but to win a WSOP bracelet.
It would be very special for me. I was so close, so I think about it a lot.
However the more I play poker the more I understand it doesn't mean that I'm not good enough to win a major title just because I haven't yet. A lot of great poker players have never won a major title.
Obviously it's something I would like to achieve before my poker career is over but I don't feel that I need it to validate my success in the game.
I think I've had a lot of great results in poker so I'm still happy with what I've done so far.
PL: You're talking about the end of your career. Is it something you're already considering?
MH: I don't see myself playing full-time professionally for a lot longer. Maybe after the next five years I'll consider doing something else.
I'll always play poker, I'll always play the WSOP Main Event for example, but I don't think I can keep up with the professional lifestyle for too long.
After a while it just gets very very tiring.
PL: What are some of the players who impress you the most, or for whom you have the most respect?
MH: I obviously respect Daniel Negreanu a lot but it's more because of his personality and his work as an ambassador for poker.
Of course he's a great player but I think that what he does for poker is so much more important than how much he's won or how many bracelets he has.
Daniel helps us grow the game of poker thanks to the way he interacts with people and because he makes the game fun. That will make more people want to play.
I also have a lot of respect for Phil Ivey. He has a really great table presence. I've been able to play with him a few times and everytime I'm amazed at how intimidated other players are.
He just seems so focused and serious and it's very hard to play against a player who's so confident. Phil can just sit at a table and make everyone feel like they have no idea how to play poker.
PL: I read that you have a degree in Law and Communications. You also do a lot of different things: you're a commentator, a private coach, a writer, etc. Which one drives you the most?
MH: I really enjoy hosting events and being an ambassador in general. I love meeting people and talking with them, it's really one of my favorite things about travelling and playing poker.
You get to meet people from all places and walks of life, that's how you really experience life: by meeting people and sharing with them. I really enjoy being able to do that.
Here at the Battle of Malta for example, so many people have come up to me with such great stories – not just about poker but about their life in general. It just makes you feel more connected to people.
PL: What is your best poker memory?
MH: I think my best moment was when I finished 77th and was the last woman standing at the WSOP Main Event this year.
Not because I was the last woman standing but because the first time I did that was in 2007 and still being here seven years later and accomplish something that's very hard to achieve ... It was great.
Obviously I didn't make to the final table but getting in the top 100 of the Main Event makes me feel that my game has consistently been getting better and I'm consistently putting myself in a position to do really well in tournaments.
That makes me feel like I'm growing in this game. When you look back a lot of the players who were there in 2007 are not here anymore so it goes to show that my career has longevity, which is something that not a lot of people can say.
It also just felt really good to be able to show women that we can do well. The last-woman-standing title can help draw women into poker.
I always enjoy being able to reach out to more women, because I think it's crazy that in 2014 women still only represent 3% of tournament fields. It doesn't make sense to me.
PL: Why do you think that is?
MH: Honestly I think there are a few reasons. Naturally, society doesn't encourage women to be very aggressive or take big risks.
Those are two things you need to be a successful poker player. It's neither natural nor encouraged for women to play poker and have this kind of aggressive style.
I think that's why some women might sometimes feel that poker is not for them. Truth is it's a great game and it doesn't matter whether you're male or female.
To be honest I even believe that women may have an advantage over men in poker because I think we have good instincts.
Is it not hard for a man to lie to a woman? I feel like I can always tell when a guy is lying to me.
PL: You travel a lot. Have you noticed if there are maybe some countries where women are more encouraged to play poker?
MH: Maybe not countries but I've seen it in different parts of the US. For example in LA, in Southern California, there are more women than men in some of the highest-stakes cash games.
I think in certain places where women don't have a lot of traditional roles or jobs, like LA, a lot more women play poker. You have to have a very strong mind and sense of who you are to do something like that.
You have to be very tough to play poker.
PL: We've talked about your best memory. What's your worst one?
MH: I don't know if I have one. It's not a really bad moment, but I think I'll always think about my second place at the WSOP.
It's not a bad moment though, I won a lot of money and it was a great experience. But being that close to a bracelet ... you never know when it will happen again.
It was in 2011 and I haven't managed to come that close since then, even though I made a final table. So you wonder if maybe that was your only chance.
I don't want to sound ungrateful but at that point I didn't care about the money. I just wanted to win the bracelet.
PL: What are you most proud of in your career? Is it your last-woman-standing titles?
MH: No, I wouldn't say that's what I'm most proud of because I don't like to put too much emphasis on the separation of men and women in poker. Acknowledging women in that way has its limits.
My personal proudest accomplishment is the fact that I've lived my life and my life in poker in a way I'm proud of. There's always some scandal in poker, some people that are maybe not very trustworthy, there's a lot of money ...
But thanks to the way I was raised I've always played poker with absolute integrity. I respect this game and I've never lied, cheated or stolen from anybody to get where I'm at.
I did it all on my own without stepping over anyone. I think that's what I'm most proud of and not that many people can say that because money makes people do some crazy things sometimes.
I think my parents would be very proud of the way I handled myself in this game in the midst of the shadier characters out there.
PL: Are there that many ''shady'' players?
MH: I think there are. Of course there are also really great people in poker.
But it's a very selfish, individual game with a lot of money on the line. It pushes people to make bad decisions.
PL You're more than just a poker player, you've also played on the World Mahjong Tour. Do you still play?
MH: Growing up in Chinese culture it's very normal to learn how to play mahjong from a very young age.
I always played recreationally but for this event they wanted to invite somebody who's a professional in a different game but who also knows how to play mahjong.
It was very interesting because even though mahjong is very different from poker it really felt like a poker tournament.
They all knew each other, everyone had their own strategy, you could tell that they'd already played against each other before and knew a lot about their games.
I still play for fun but I'm far from the level that the top mahjong players are at. It's like night and day.
PL: Is there a lot of money in mahjong?
MH: Not really in the tournaments. The money there is mostly in private games – a bit like a poker home games you know.
PL: What did you learn from your experience on The Amazing Race?
MH: It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, mentally and physically. The main thing I learned is that I'm a lot tougher than I think I am.
There were so many things I had to do that I had never done before, so many times I wanted to quit, but I realized that when you push yourself you have no limits. I didn't know that.
When there is a million dollars on the line, when there are millions of people watching you on TV, you just don't want to give up.
I've never been very physical, I didn't play much sports when I was growing up, so I always felt very challenged by everything I had to do on the show.
I may not have been the best, we may not have finished first, but I finished everything we had to do and I wasn't afraid to try things I've never done before.
PL: Like what?
MH: So many things. But at one point, for example, we were in the desert in Dubai, it was 120°F.
At that point any normal person would have been delirious from being out there. We had to dig up water urns, it took us 3 or 4 hours... It was so exhausting.
It's mind over matter. Physically you're basically always on the verge of fainting but you keep going.
PL: What pushed you in these moments?
MH: The main reason I pushed myself and never gave up is because of Tiffany (Michelle).
When you have a partner you don't want to give up and rob them of the chance of winning.
If it had just been myself, I hate to say it, but I might have quit. I just didn't want to let her down.
PL: So when you play poker together, who wins?
MH: Actually, we never play poker together! Maybe because if we did, we'd just fight. (laughs)
PL: We'll never know who's the best then ...
MH: Let's not get crazy, I do think I'm definitely the better player. (laughs)
PL: You're also a great singer and you've even been on American Idol. Could you imagine making a career out of it?
MH: I would love to. Music is my passion, even more than poker. I love music and I enjoy singing even more than I enjoy playing poker.
But that's a dream. The realistic side of me is conscious that it's a very tough career. It's such a difficult industry.
If I ever had an opportunity to do that for a living, I would love to. It's not something I'm actively pursuing though, but I guess you never know.
PL: You're also a very spiritual person. What do you think is the key to happiness?
MH: I think the key to being happy is sharing happiness with other people. Every single day you have a choice to be in a good mood, be happy, be nice and kind to other people.
Being able to put a smile on someone's face makes me happy. It's all about sharing joy.
It's essential, especially in this day and age when people tend to walk with their heads down, they're so busy all the time, no one says hi to anyone... It's a very lonely way to live your life.
Personally I feel much better when I know that I'm affecting some positivity and positive change in other people.
PL: What is your goal in life?
MH: Ultimately I want to use the money that I make in poker to start a charity or help a better cause than my shopping habit.
The best way for me to enjoy my life is to make somebody else's life better. There are a lot of great causes that matter to me: I love working with children, I love working with single mothers or women who are in domestic violence situations.
I would like to find a way to help a lot of people at once whether it's with my time, my money or both.
PL: Isn't in hard to live in that world when you're idealistic?
MH: It is a problem, especially in poker. I see so many things that don't fundamentally fit with how I see myself.
Sometimes it's a bit of a struggle to stay in the poker world when some things about it go against my own ideology.
As you said, I'm a bit of an idealist and I would like to see a world where we're not sitting at a table taking money from each other when there might be better ways to spend our time.
There are so many smart people in poker, I feel we could do so much more. Especially when you see the way some young players spend their money.
Sometimes I'd just love to talk to them and help them see the bigger picture. That's probably also why I don't think I can play poker professionally for the rest of my life.
PL: For you, where's paradise on Earth?
MH: Honestly, paradise for me is where my family and my friends are. But if I had to pick one place in the world where I could be forever I would say Maui.
Hawaii in general is the most relaxing place, I'm so lucky to have been able to go there multiple times.
The sound of water is so calming and relaxing... I would love to live on a beach somewhere.
PL: You also seem very connected to nature.
MH: Yeah. I think a lot of poker players are now getting into being healthier and more active.
I love hiking, I love being outdoors. When you're playing in a casino all day all you want is some fresh air.
When I know I'm going to play poker I always try to start the day with some fresh air. It makes me feel so much better.
PL: Outside of poker, what are your addictions?
MH: Shopping... (laughs)I just can't have enough shoes and handbags.
I wish I had a better excuse for what I spend my money on, but no, just shopping.
However, I feel pretty lucky that I don't have any kind of addiction to table games like blackjack, even though I spend so much time in the casino.
I only have the one addiction, shopping, but it's so bad...
PL: How about pickles though?
MH: Yeah, I do love pickles. (laughs)I never liked them growing up, I thought they looked disgusting.
But 3 years ago I started grocery shopping for myself and I tried it. I swear I can eat a whole jar of pickles by myself.
PL: Is there one question no one has ever asked that you'd like to be asked?
MH: I think you asked a few of them. I like when people ask me questions outside of poker, like about what makes me happy, my ideas or my spirituality.
I'm much more than what I do for a living. Those are the things that are the most important to me. It defines me way more than poker.