Earlier this month, it was already freezing in my city – Prague – but a beautiful Indian summer took over Malta. It was warm enough to swim in the sea and to wear that silk dress I had already packed away while taking out all my winter clothing.
Malta is a jewel, indeed. The small island in the Mediterranean has become the new must-attend poker destination, with the award-winning PokerListings Battle of Malta (BOM) leading the way. It’s also where I headed, in order to see firsthand what it takes to organize such a sensational poker event. Visiting Malta and attending the BOM, I had the opportunity to talk to professional poker player and ambassador Maria Ho, who hosted the event.
We sat down in the lobby of the tournament room at Portomaso Casino to talk about her childhood, Twitch, women in poker, the poker industry, and much more.
How are you doing? Are you enjoying it here?
This is my second year hosting Battle of Malta. I love the general energy here. Obviously, everybody is here to play poker and to win a lot of money, but they also want to have fun and you can feel that. In some of the bigger buy-in tournaments, people are much more serious and not as friendly, actually. I enjoy being here.
You played in the Main Event. How did it go?
I played the Main Event twice, I used my re-entry. It didn’t go well. It is interesting, though. I find that when I play in these kinds of situations, people want to knock me out, which I understand, and it is more fun. It’s a good story. I have to be careful, and showdown with good hands. There is not a lot of bluffing for me because people are going to keep calling. I always expect not to do great, because I have to adjust my playing style a little bit for the way that these players want to play against me.
— Maria Ho (@MariaHo) November 11, 2015
Your family moved to the States when you were four years old. What are your earliest memories from that time? Do you remember the relocation at all?
I don’t have a lot of memories from that time, but I do remember that for my parents and my sister it was tough, it was a big adjustment. We were very, very close growing up because of that. Obviously, there was a language barrier for my parents and for my sister, so, we hung out with each other all the time, because it was tough to make new friends in our community. Being the youngest in our family, it was a little bit easier for me, because I started going to kindergarten and elementary school in the States. I go and visit Taiwan all the time, but looking back, I feel really grateful that my parents decided to move us to the States. We have had a lot of really good opportunities from that. I am appreciative, because I know it was very hard for them.
Did you learn a lesson from this? Did it teach you something you could implement in your life?
I think I have very strong work ethic – from my parents. They didn’t have any money when they came to the States and they were able to really live out the American dream, which is obviously why people decide to emigrate. Watching what they have been able to do, I have been able to follow in those steps, to put in a lot of hard work. I am happy to always start from the bottom of something and to work my way up. I know that if you ever want to be good at something, you have to dedicate a lot of time, effort, and energy. I have never shied away from that. I think, honestly, that is what makes me successful in poker. Poker is very hard industry to get into and to stay in, especially for a woman. If it wasn’t for my parents, I would have never been so determined.
Tell me about your cooperation with Poker Central, 24/7 poker TV. What is your role in this project?
Poker Central – they are trying to become the first 24/7 poker network on TV, but we are in digital age. They want to have a presence online. This is my role – I am the digital poker ambassador for Poker Central. I host a show on Twitch for them two to three times a week. It is a way to cross-promote the content that will be aired on their TV network, but also to give people something to be excited about that they can watch online as well.
Do you enjoy streaming on Twitch? What do you usually do apart from playing poker? Why should poker fans join you there?
I compare Twitch to hanging out with your friends. Anytime I want to go and stream I’ll just send a tweet: Come hang out with me! And it is same like calling your friends and having them meeting you for a cup of coffee. It is very interactive, a very two-way thing, whereas when you watch someone on TV, you can´t interact with them in real time.
On Twitch, I am very active with people in chat. They can talk to me, ask me things, and I will respond right then and there to their questions. A lot of times I´ll do fun things like: Tell me what I should do next. Should I play a sit & go or should I play a cash game? They get to decide for me what to do. I think that is fun for people. I enjoy it, I like being able to give people insight into my poker strategy, and people like chances to learn from people who they may not be able to talk to about strategy on regular basis.
I noticed you streamed on Twitch with Daniel Negreanu. You two are friends, how did it go?
Daniel and I played heads-up for play money, which I think people were like: Oh, why would Daniel want to play seriously for play money? But I think it just goes to show how competitive we are, because for play money. Daniel and I took it very, very seriously. We also actually started drinking.
Daniel and I have been good friends for so long; we feel very comfortable with each other. We were basically a little drunk, playing for play money, then just hanging out with everybody on Twitch. Daniel is so much fun. And honestly, WSOP just aired, and every time I watch it, my heart just breaks that he didn’t make the final table, because there is really nobody else better as an ambassador for poker than Daniel.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to make it in the poker industry as a commentator or as a poker player?
I think that people have to have a lot of discipline and to spend the time to be good at whatever it is they want to be in poker – whether you want to be a player or a commentator. Sometimes people watch poker on TV and they see this lifestyle, they immediately think: Oh, that looks easy, that is something I want to do. I want to travel the world. I want to play poker. I want to report on poker.
I don’t think they realize that it is a job like anything else. A lot of people you see coming into and going out of the industry, they don’t stick around because they don’t treat it like a real job. Make sure you take it seriously. It is not just necessarily about making money and having fun. It is about being good at what you do.
Would your recommendation be different if you were talking solely to women?
A little bit.
You have to have thick skin, as a woman, to stay in this industry. It is not even about how guys perceive us or treat us. It is also just the fact that anytime you are a huge minority in any situation. It is going to be intimidating and you are going to face a lot more challenges than other people would.
I would recommend they not give up very easily. There are a lot of women who would walk through those doors and then, after a few bad experiences, they want to leave. I encourage women to stick it out. I feel women have such a distinct advantage in so many ways in this industry, whether it is on the playing side or anything else. I would love to see more women stick around.
Do you believe ladies events are the answer to getting more women into the industry? Obviously, women get the chance to play live and feel comfortable, but there are no men and they cannot get used to the male-dominated environment playing the women´s events only.
I still play ladies events. I want to encourage more women to play. Especially when I am there, I like to talk to women about playing in open events. But it is like what you said. I do feel if you only end up playing women´s events and you feel comfortable there, then you are never going to get used to having to play with mostly men. The concept of women´s events is a good way to get women into the door – starting to play tournaments. But if we continue having women´s only events, no one will be actually forcing the women to step outside of their comfort zone either.
Tough question. I don’t think we can ever get completely rid of ladies events, but at the same time I would like to see more women want to make the leap between just playing ladies events and playing the bigger open events.
Negreanu recently tweeted a question regarding women in poker. He also indicated and questioned whether it has something to do with biology. Are women predisposed to be less competitive? What is your take on this?
I actually do agree with that to a certain extent. I think that naturally women are probably not as aggressive as men. In order to love this game and to play this game a certain way, you have to be very aggressive. There is some biological considerations that might not come naturally to women. I don’t think it is because women aren’t competitive, but rather it is because society has also encouraged women to not be as competitive as we want to be. When we are very competitive, it is looked at as negative. When men are competitive, it is looked at as they are manly. It is a problem with society
Sure, biologically, there is some small factors that I agree with. Overall, I think women aren’t encouraged to play this type of game at young age. They are not encouraged to compete in this way. They are not encouraged to be very aggressive and to take big risks. If women grow up in society that makes them feel like they should not be doing something, then of course they are not going to try.
What are your suggestions to attract women to the game?
I think it is overall about giving them a more comfortable environment and being friendly. When I play ladies events, the thing I noticed first and foremost is that everybody is very, very friendly to each other. Everybody makes the other people feel comfortable.
When you sit down at a table full of men, they are usually very quiet; they are not very talkative. If we sit down somewhere and we feel comfortable, we will come back. A lot of pros in the community can also do a lot. There are some guys who don’t play poker professionally and they say certain things to women at the table to make them feel like they don’t belong here. It is important as a community to make sure that we are very inclusive.
You just visited Valetta, the capital of Malta, for the first time. What was it like?
It was beautiful. There was this amazing cathedral we went to. There is so much history in Malta. Coming from North America, we don’t have a lot of cultural, historical landmarks. It is always amazing to look back and see what life was like thousands of years ago. I always enjoy going somewhere where I can also learn about culture and history. Sometimes, when you travel for poker tournaments, you never leave the casino. So, I was really excited that I got the chance to see that.
Have you ever been to Prague?
Yes, I have. Not for poker, just to visit with my family. I loved Prague. I won’t be playing in Prague this year, but when I talk to poker players, it is probably one of their favorite places.
What variants of poker do you play? Do you prefer tournaments to cash games?
I play pretty much every variant of poker. I definitely play H.O.R.S.E., all the mixed games; badugi, triple draw, Omaha 8 or better, Stud 8 or better. I prefer tournaments to cash games now, but when I first started with poker I was playing a lot of cash games.
I think people can make a better living playing cash games, but there is something about tournaments: There is a huge draw, with being able to win a lot of money in a short period of time, and also playing for a title, for a trophy, for the glory. Lately I have been more focused on tournaments, but when I do play cash games, I enjoy playing mixed games. I don’t really ever play any NLH cash games. And I play online quite a bit.
What kind of people do you surround yourself with?
I try to surround myself with nice and kind people. In every industry there are people you don’t want to be associated with. In poker, where money is a huge factor, people always know when you won or cashed in a tournament. Players have a lot cash on them all the time. There are certain people who don’t have the best intentions. I don’t care if someone is a great player or a random player, that’s not the kind of person that I want to be friends with.
I want to be friends with people who are nice and kind and that care about other things – other than poker. People in poker are just a little bit too focused on the game, but there are so many other things we can do with our free time, so much good that we could do. I am interested in talking with people who have aspirations outside of poker.
Is there such a thing as real friendship among players?
I would say, mostly, people in the community are acquaintances. I’ve been in poker for 10 years and I can count on one hand how many poker players I count as real friends… who I trust. It is just the nature of the situation.
You see the people all the time because you travel the circuit with them, but you don’t really spend quality time with them. Then, you go to the poker table and you play a tournament against them. Sometimes you are the reason they lose money, or they are the reason you lose money. When someone is standing in a way of your success, it might be hard for people to develop real friendships. I find it very hard to have real friends in poker. Most people get to know each other on a very superficial level.
What kind of poker will be played in 2030?
At this rate, with how good people are getting at poker, it is actually scary. It is not going to be No Limit Hold’em. That’s not going to be the game anymore because I think we need to find the game that relies on even more luck. The skill level of poker has gotten so high that I just don’t even think we are going to be able to survive. This game, this industry, will not be able to survive with how good people are getting. We may be playing Indian poker by that time. You just put it on your forehead and we´ll be playing for millions of dollars.
Editor’s Note: Thanks so much to Maria Ho for agreeing to do this great interview with Liba! Be sure to follow Maria on Twitter. All images in the article provided by Maria and used with permission.