Maria Ho on her role within the poker community, the battles she has had with her family over her choice of career, and why spirituality is the key to everything.
If I was a woman, I think Maria Ho would be one of those role models I looked at and secretly wished I was her.
I stand and watch as she delivers a flawless interview for Tencent Poker. Her interviewers are bombarding her with questions. She doesn’t have time to think. There is a camera touching her nose. And yet she delivers each line without blinking an eye. She even finished the interview speaking in Chinese.
And then I grab her.
Where to begin?
Well, she looks amazing, let’s start there.
“I like to consider myself a girl who is into fashion. It’s fun for me to get dressed up. How you look and feel is correlated. I feel like I want to present my best self. I do sometimes get up and put a t-shirt on.”
Do you feel the pressure to look good?
“Slightly, if I am honest. This always sticks out in my mind, but there is this photo of Clonie Gowen where I think she was just tired; maybe she didn’t get enough sleep, maybe there was bad lighting, maybe the photographer just took a bad shot? People are relentless, and 2+2 is not a place where people are friendly, and kind and they put the photo up years later and were like, “OMG look at Clonie.” And it’s just a bad picture of someone, and we all have bad days.“So I do feel pressure knowing that my picture is going to be taken, and I don’t want to become the next ‘Clonie Gowen photo’, but as I get older the less I care. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit of pressure.”
You have a brand to maintain, though.
“I have always taken pride in shaping how the mainstream views poker as an industry. I think it’s important for us to put our best foot forward in a lot of different ways. One of those is being more presentable because I believe there is a stigma about poker with people asking if it’s a career why are people turning up for work looking like they haven’t showered or have been wearing the same t-shirt for a week? I want to change that perception. It might seem like a superficial aspect of it, but I feel every little helps when we are trying to change the mainstream perception of poker.
“As a personal brand, I think it’s always reflected my personal values: wellness, health, self-improvement, so it’s important for me to take pride in my appearance and that doesn’t diminish my other qualities because I enjoy looking nice and spending a little more time in the morning on myself.”
Has there ever been a value that has been lacking in another person you have been in a deep relationship with that caused problems?
“I guess I would say the most important thing is spirituality. I have been more in touch with that side the older I get, and I find it difficult to be closely connected to someone who is not in touch with this spiritual side. It’s important for me to connect with someone on that level.”
What is your religious background?
“I was raised Catholic, my mother’s side is Catholic, and I was baptised as a kid. I went to a traditional Catholic church and for a few years, I went to private all girls Catholic school. Somewhere along the way, especially in my adulthood, I started to become a little less enamoured with organised religion, as I think most people do, because when you get to choose your beliefs instead of having them brought to you, I realised that organised religion wasn’t for me. I believe in a higher power, and I think a lot of the things religion may teach you regarding the core values and principles that are important for people in general, but the way they teach or enforce it is not something I agree with.
“I have stopped going to Catholic church and communing with religion in that way, but I feel stronger and closely connected to a higher power now than I ever have. I think that spirituality is a personal journey, and religion is a journey of just a few that they want the many to take – I don’t agree with that approach. It’s like different strokes for different folks. If someone can enter that environment and feel closer to the higher power they can believe in then that’s great. It’s just not for me anymore.”
Did moving away from your religion cause friction with your parents?
“Not really, because I think that my mum likes the idea of us being religious, but in practice not so much. I don’t believe she minded that I found my own path. Poker is not one of the things that my parents see eye to eye with me on, but in terms of my growth and journey with my spirituality they have been very open and understanding.”
I heard you say during your last interview that your parents asked you how much money you earned through poker and offered to 5x your net income to quit. How did that make you feel?
“It’s always hard because no matter what culture you grow up in you want to make your parents proud and want their approval. I have always grown up in a family where they would make their opinions known. They would strongly impose what they wanted on you.
“It’s hard when you choose an occupation that they don’t respect and are so against you doing that they think bribing you out of it will somehow work. It was tough for me to understand where they were coming from. You expect there is a line drawn between not approving and flat out being completely being unaccepting. It’s bordering on the unaccepting to the point where we had discussions on if I continued to play poker how it would affect our relationship which is a very serious conversation to have with your family.
“It’s never been in my personality just to go along with everyone else or to go with the grain. Nothing in my life has been that way. For some people they may succumb to that kind of pressure; I want to fight it more. In some ways, they fuelled my fire even more to succeed so maybe I have them to thank.”
When was the point you completely rebelled?
“I think it was gradual and also the more I saw my older sister veer to one end of the spectrum of doing the perfect daughter in their eyes the more I gravitated towards the other end of the spectrum. The older I got and the more I was thinking for myself and trying to understand the differences between cultural pressures and defining for myself what is the line between what makes me happy and what makes them happy I came to this realisation that I didn’t have it in me to follow the path they had laid out for me.”
At what point did you realise that you needed to be more than just a poker player?
“It’s easy to be poker-centric. When I started my focus was one track minded to be in the game and be the best. I had no focus or thoughts of anything except poker when I was in the game. You are not verbalising anything, all your thoughts and decision making goes on in your mind. It makes you internalise a lot of things. Throughout my years in the game, I always wanted to be bigger than poker or make poker bigger than what it is.
“There are so many smart, intelligent thinkers in poker who aren’t using that energy on something else. I want to do that, and I find it’s been so good for my game to have found my voice and bring poker and life a little more full circle and bring a connection that’s more relatable for everybody and not just this strategy game where people aren’t sharing information ever.”
Are there times when you don’t feel like you fit in?
“I feel like I am an outsider in poker, even for as long as I have been in the game. I can walk down the hall and see all these people I know but when I think about who I am I feel different to a lot of people, and I don’t feel like I belong even after all this time. I feel more comfortable in everything else outside of poker, but I spend most of my time in poker – an interesting dynamic for me.
“The more time I spend in poker, the less social I feel in circles outside of poker. Poker has this funny way of making me feel like an outsider, but I feel so different from people outside of poker. I can’t relate to them as much. When I am standing in a room full of doctors, lawyers, etc. I am disconnected from them. We have so much freedom in poker it’s difficult to find perspective and relate to people who don’t live in this world. I am a very social person, but I think poker has made me less social.”
Is this because at the poker table the level of discussion is very often surface level so you don’t get the opportunity to form deep, meaningful relationships?
“It’s funny because if you are with poker players, all they want to talk about is poker. When you are outside of poker, and they find you are a poker player all they want to do is talk about poker. I find myself giving people the same token answers and therefore I don’t connect on a deeper level.”
Are you lonely?
“I guess you can say that. Poker is a very lonely game. It’s you versus your opponent and very internal. You aren’t bouncing ideas off people within the hand. In very serious moments in poker, there is no talking at all. It’s lonely in general travelling from place to place without roots.”
Can you remember a time when you was deeply connected?
“I think it’s probably when I am talking to someone about spirituality – mine or theirs, or the lack thereof. Every conversation I have about this topic, where I think it could divide people, it makes me closer, and I think I know them a lot more.
“I am all about energy and vibe. I believe in things like that. There are a handful of people in my life who I felt strongly connected to them immediately, and I contribute that to energy.”
Where do your moments of gratitude come from?
“Those moments come when I am doing philanthropy. Back in LA, I volunteer a lot. A poker player has a lot of free time. It’s so easy to throw money at a cause, and that’s not a bad thing, but there are different avenues. If I have time, and poker has afforded me that time, I want to be more hands-on and connect with these people, and see what their circumstances are like. I don’t just want to go to Paypal and click the ‘Donate Here’ button. It’s more gratifying to show up; roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in whatever you do.”
When was a time you were operating on auto-pilot?
“A lot of my growth has happened in my late 20s and early 30s. There are two kinds of people in this world. Some people are always trying to be better and are more self-aware. Then you have people who are happy to coast because facing your demons is hard or trying to change actively something you don’t like about yourself is more difficult than accepting that you are a certain way.
“I have never been happy with the status quo because it’s within my power to change things I don’t like about myself. I feel empowered by this idea that I can change. It’s important for me. I have a lot of growing to do, but based on the things I have faced in life I know how that process works, and I feel confident that anything that comes my way I feel sure in who I am in my ability to find the next step to becoming a better version of myself.’
Who or what is the villain in your life?
“It’s what all people deal with. We are all flawed, and there is something that you will feel insecure about. I am human. In a moment I might make a decision that might not reflect my values, but with age, I have learned forgiveness. I am hard on myself, and it can inhibit growth in some people, because they are so focused on the mistake, instead of how they can approach the situation differently if it is raised again. I am more solution orientated.”
What does the future hold for you?
“I love the fact that I don’t exactly know, and I don’t have that path carved out for me, yet It involves something broader and outside of poker. I am passionate about so many things; things I want to try, industries I want to be a part of. I haven’t done everything I want to do in poker. I have more to get done before I can leave, but I see a bigger picture in my future.”