Thirty-one year old Maria Ho has packed more success into her short career than most people do in a lifetime. She is currently ranked the 3rd female poker player in the world and has amassed over $1.6 million dollars in live tournament poker winnings. She’s also competed in season 3 of American Idol and season 15 of The Amazing Race. And among a myriad of other achievements, she’s managed to be the most cashing female at the 2012 and 2014 World Series of Poker and holds the record for most Last Woman Standing finishes in a World Series of Poker Main Event, winning an unprecedented three times in 2007, 2011 and 2014. We had the pleasure of speaking with her about her remarkable career.

JerseyMan: Where were you born and raised?

Maria Ho: I was born in Taiwan actually but I was raised in L.A. My family and I moved here when I was four years old, so I’ve basically lived here all of my life. I went to college in San Diego so I’ve never really left California.

JM: So you are still there?

Maria: Yeah, I’m based out of L.A. right now.

mho1JM: How did you get into playing poker professionally and, more to the point, how did you get to be so good?

Maria: In college it was just something I took on with my friends. I had a couple of guy friends who were playing a home game. They were very, very adamant that no girls were allowed in their game. Of course, I took it upon myself to make sure I got in. I showed up with a bunch of beers, and what guy is going to say no to free beer? So they let me play and I remember beating them the first time. I played so naturally. I thought, I’m good at this, this is my calling, I’m going to be such a good poker player! But of course I had no idea what I was doing. It just came from experience really. I would go to my local casinos and just play, and I was so fascinated and interested by the game. I studied the game and read books and before I knew it, when I was graduating college, I had been making all of my extra income from poker. I decided to take the leap into playing professionally. It was a long road; it was three or four years playing recreationally before I actually played professionally, but I’ve been playing for 10 years since now.

JM: So it really started because you wanted to beat the boys at poker?

Maria: Yes.

JM: That’s cool. Is this the sole way you earn money now?

Maria: Yes, it’s been my primary source of income for the last 10 years. Obviously now because poker is so popular there are other ways I can get income through poker, not just playing. I’m the host of a televised show and I also have sponsorships and things like that. But yes, I make most of my money from just actually playing in poker tournaments.

JM: Have you ever played in Atlantic City? 

Maria: Yes, I have played in Atlantic City. I’ve played in several of the casinos. I’ve played in the Borgata and I’ve also played at Caesars and Harrah’s.

JM: What do you think about the problems the casinos have been having recently?

Maria: I mean it’s kind of crazy. Did Revel end up closing?

JM: Yes.

Maria: I know that was open and they were supposed to have this amazing poker room but I never got a chance to go visit. Yeah, it’s crazy how the gaming industry kind of takes a hit in certain areas. I think that’s the thing about poker: poker has been here to stay and is still booming, whereas the rest of the gaming community in certain areas has been kind of suffering.

JM: What is the allure of poker for you?

Maria: I think the allure of poker is that I’m just a very competitive person and I kind of like going head to head with my opponent in that sense. It’s definitely a game of mental brain power, psychological as well. There are all of these aspects that get so interesting. It’s never the same, no opponent is ever the same, and no hand is ever the same, so you are constantly being challenged to think on the fly and to make decisions based on a limited amount of information. I really just like the strategic thing that goes into it, the kind of minds that it takes to be a good poker player. That’s always kept me really interested.

JM: So it’s both strategy and psychology for you, I guess?

Maria: Yeah, definitely.

JM: How good does it feel to beat the boys and how do they treat you afterwards?

Maria: That’s definitely one of the other things that interests me about poker as well is being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Ninety-seven percent of poker players are male. It’s really awesome to beat the boys, especially because they don’t expect it. Because there’s still a little bit of sexism in poker, especially from the standpoint of, I think, we are often underestimated and people don’t think we are taking it seriously. So obviously being one of the women that has risen up to the challenges of being a woman in poker and doing really well for myself, I think that’s definitely something that has been really awesome for me personally.

JM: You have lots of accomplishments. One of them is that you’re the Last Woman Standing at the World Series of Poker event in North America and Europe?

Maria: Yeah, I’m a three-time Last Woman Standing. In 2007 I got to 38 out of 6,500 people. In Europe I was the Last Woman Standing there. This year, 2014, I was also the Last Woman Standing out of 6,500 people as well.

JM: So in 2014 you have continued your reign as the Last Woman Standing?

Maria: Yeah, I think that the main mark of a good poker player is consistency. There is this allure of poker, like you can win millions of dollars, but there are so many poker players that have come and gone because they just didn’t have a lot of discipline with the way that they spent their money and the way they saved their money. There are also poker players that are kind of like flashes in the pan. I’ve been playing professionally for 10 years, so it feels good to kind of bookend between 2007 and now 2014. But I’ve still been able to do very well even as new competition is coming in, even now as poker players are getting so much better faster.

JM: I read that you are the most cashing female player at the 2012 and 2014 events. That true?

Maria: I’m the most cashing female with eight cashes. I think that’s tied for 11th overall, including men as well.

JM: How has your game evolved?

Maria: That’s the thing about poker, the game is always evolving. There’s always new strategies and there’s always new ways to play. I said every hand is different and your opponent is always different, always constantly changing, and you have to be able to have a really wide range of skill sets and strategies that you take in to play. Nowadays there are so many resources online. Not only are there books, but there are people that will play poker online and record their entire screen during a tournament. Then they will talk over their playing and explain their entire thought process per hand. That’s obviously a great resource because you are basically in the mind of a very skillful professional poker player. They are called poker training sites. Essentially, there are videos you can watch for hours and you honestly feel like you are picking the brain of a poker genius. That’s definitely helped me a lot. There are so many ways to get better at poker if one has an interest in poker. There is really no excuse not to be good.

JM: So you feel like your game has improved and that you’re actually continuing to improve it as you go along. 

Maria: Yeah, definitely.

JM: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Maria: Definitely the whole Last Woman Standing thing, for several years, is a big one. I think my biggest accomplishment is the general sense of feeling like I’ve made my mark in poker in a way that I think is going to benefit poker players in the future. I feel like I’ve helped get other women in the game. I get a lot of fan mail all the time from women saying, “I watched you on ESPN and it made me feel like, ‘Oh yeah woman can play this game and it’s not just for men. I never thought I could do it but watching you play made me realize we are just as good as everyone else in the game.’” I think that’s the kind of impact I am most proud of. There are still so few women in the game and I think that women are not only as good as men but probably could be better. We have instinct—I think we have a good natural feel for poker and for reading people. Women have that female intuition. It’s really important to me that I’ve reached out somehow to other women that are interested in this game.

JM: My understanding is that you were on The Amazing Race and American Idol as well?

Maria: Yeah, I was on The Amazing Race, Season 15. My partner on the show was also a female professional poker player. I was on American Idol, and made it to Hollywood week, Season 3. That was a long time ago. I think I was 18 when I auditioned.

JM: Is this kind of what folks in California, who know the ins and outs out there, are able to go out and audition? Some of the other folks I’ve read about out there, they have the opportunity to do that so why not?

Maria: It’s obviously a huge city with all these opportunities that can come to you. As far as being on The Amazing Race, there were a lot of people who were watching another female poker player on The Celebrity Apprentice and loved how competitive she was. And they saw that there is this interesting dynamic a female player can bring to a reality show, so The Amazing Race thing came about because they really wanted us to be part of the show because of that factor that we bring.

JM: Was your partner on The Amazing Race also the one you refer to in your column in Bluff Magazine, as your best friend or “lady lifer.”? 

Maria: I think we want to take credit for that because we haven’t heard it anywhere else either and we might want to say that we coined that. Yes, she was my partner on The Amazing Race.

Yeah, she’s my best friend. We met each other playing poker actually in 2008. So when you find somebody—it’s so rare for other woman to be in poker in the first place—who shares your interest and your career, we became really good friends by traveling together so much. Now we really just do everything together. Honestly, something like being on The Amazing Race together really just bonds you or breaks you. Luckily for us it bonded us. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing that only we can understand, so that has definitely strengthened our relationship throughout the years.

JM: How did you do on The Amazing Race?

Maria: We [finished] 6th out of 12 teams. We were the only all-female team on our season. I would say the physical challenges on the race were rather difficult for us so we were eliminated on a physical challenge. We definitely gave it our best though.

JM: What plans do you have for the future now that you have taken on the boys and beaten them in their own game?

Maria: You know I have a lot of different things I would like to do. I don’t really see myself playing poker for the rest of my life because I think there are just so many other ways in which I want to help others and help the community around me. Poker doesn’t really give you a lot of room to do that. Right now I’m hosting the TV show. I think there are still lots of ways I can involve myself in poker without actually playing. I definitely want to start my own business of some sort. I’ve always felt like I’m an entrepreneur and there are definitely a lot of things I want to do outside of poker, but for now poker has been really good to me. I feel like I have some more left of me to show the boys, so we will see.

JM: So I take it you will be doing this for a few more years?

Maria: Yeah.

JM: You said you’re hosting a TV show, what show is that exactly?

Maria: It’s called Heartland Poker Tour.

JM: Where can we see you next?

Maria: Heartland Poker Tour airs in pretty much in all 50 states. You can just check your local listing for that. The World Series of Poker is airing, just aired live last week, but they have reruns all the time on ESPN and ESPN2.

The next poker tournament I’m going to be playing in myself, I’m actually traveling to Malta to host a poker tournament that I’m playing in. People can find all of these live recordings on poker sites. There’s one called I have a website that they can also look at for how I do,