Think limit hold’em is dead? Don’t tell that to Maria Ho . The 27-year-old pro has made a living off the game for the last five years playing $100-$200 and up whenever she’s not competing on the circuit.Though she has successfully branched out to high-stakes mixed games and no-limit tournaments, Ho remains passionate about the game that gave her a start. Ho was also crowned the last woman standing at the 2007 World Series of Poker main event, but insists that she’s looking for more out of her poker career. Here’s a look at her story.A Knack for CardsHo was born in Taiwan, but only spent 4 and a half years there before making the move to the United States. Her parents, along with her older sister, loved playing games around the house.“Growing up, my parents played a lot of card games around the kitchen table,” Ho remembered. “My dad actually played Texas hold’em recreationally for quite some time. It wasn’t until college that I learned it.”Ho had moved south of Los Angeles to attend the University of California, San Diego and was in the process of getting a bachelors degree in communications with a minor in law when the she was bit by the hold’em bug.“I had a bunch of guy friends who would hold these poker nights from time to time,” she said. “They basically told me I had no shot at winning, but I was way too stubborn to stay away.”Just like that, Ho was hooked. She began balancing her morning classes with evening trips to the local Indian casinos, where she could play at the age of 18. She spent four years doing this, slowly moving up in limits while working hard for her degree. By the time she was ready to graduate, she had a tough decision to make.“I was in school and working on my degree, but I was able to spend a lot of my down time learning the game and building a bankroll. I worked from $4-$8 to $8-$16, then I moved to $20-$40. By the time I had classified myself as a professional, I had already moved into the $40-$80 and $60-$120 games. I literally graduated, and then got on a plane to come to Las Vegas for my first World Series of Poker event.”Limit Hold’em, Poker Dinosaur?Why limit hold’em? Ho explained why she chose the structured betting of limit over the anything-can-happen variance of no-limit.“You have to remember, I started playing poker back in 2002, which was right ahead of the Moneymaker boom,” she recalled. “Limit hold’em cash games were still the main game at the time and in Los Angeles, they are even more prevalent. It was the first game I learned, so I guess I just got comfortable and stuck with it.”While many in Las Vegas are lamenting their lack of options when it comes to mid- to high-stakes limit hold’em, Ho sees it as a blessing that more players aren’t picking up the game.“People always tend to claim that it’s a dying game,” she said. “Well, I can only see that as a positive. It means that there aren’t a lot of younger players who are eager to pick it up and really master it. That keeps the games soft. Now we get a lot of high rollers who get into the game and figure that it they know how to play no-limit, then they must be well suited for limit. They have no idea that it’s a completely different animal. Not that many people are interested in learning the nuances of limit, so I think my edge is still there and will be for quite some time.”Her unfailing optimism aside, many would still be questioning the validity of her claims. After all, how many fish just stroll into a $100-$200 game filled with pros?“It’s true, the worst players in the room are generally the ones battling it out at $3-$6, but that doesn’t mean that the high-stakes area doesn’t have its fair share of fish. Once you get past a certain point, say $100-$200, the games start to attract those players who not only have a lot to lose, but almost have fun losing as well. Those guys are there to gamble, not to play poker. Head into the Commerce Casino on any given night and you are bound to see two or three horrible players at each the high limit tables.”The Last Woman StandingLimit hold’em cash games were and still are very profitable for Ho, but one cannot get by on limit alone. She had to learn no-limit and eventually move onto tournaments.“I don’t want to say that I learned it all on my own, because that’s just not true. While I did read some books here and there and learn mostly by trial and error, I picked up a lot by sweating Kenny Tran back in the day. He was nice enough to let me sit behind him as he played and see what he was doing with different cards. That was a really invaluable way to learn that the books couldn’t offer.”In 2007, Ho entered the WSOP main event and became the last woman standing, eventually bowing out in 38th place and picking up a nice payday of $237,865. Though she was flattered by all of the media coverage she received, she does have some reservations about the attention thrown her way.“I think that singling out the last woman standing is a nice distinction to make, especially at the WSOP , because it draws attention to the fact that there aren’t a lot of women in poker,” she said. “Anything that draws more women to the game is a good thing and should be celebrated. Women need to see another woman succeed, they need that source of motivation and courage to go after it themselves. At the same time, as a professional player, I don’t ever want to be known as the last female player left in the tournament or even the best female poker player in the world. My motivation is to be the best regardless of my gender and I don’t want to send the message that I’m happy with just beating out the three percent of the field that is also female.”This year, amateur Breeze Zuckerman was the last woman standing in the main event, but didn’t get much television time after failing to crack the top 100. Female attendance was down at the 2010 WSOP overall and for the second year in a row, a woman failed to win an open event. So what needs to happen to make poker more appealing to women?“There are still so many women that I talk to on a personal basis that are honestly intimidated to sit down and join a table full of men,” Ho explained. “Even if the men are accommodating, there is still a lot of protocol that players are kind of expected to know from the beginning, such as how to bet, when to bet and what you can and cannot say. If a woman sits down and is immediately thrust into that atmosphere, she may not have a good experience and may never come back. That’s why ladies events are so important. There’s nothing wrong with providing women an arena to compete amongst themselves until they are comfortable enough to jump in with the rest of the poker community.”Though Ho wasn’t intimidated when she first sat down at a card table, she did have to make adjustments along the way in order to counteract what her opponents were doing.“When I first started, I got a lot of men who were trying to bully me around. At the time, I really wasn’t aware of that female to male dynamic. Over the years, it’s changed a lot. Now, when I’m recognized, I get a lot of passive play. If I’m up against someone who doesn’t know who I am, then I might get a lot of aggression. It’s become really important for me as a professional to be able to discern how I’m viewed by each player and adjust accordingly. Some men think women are weaker and can therefore be pushed around, but there are a surprising number of men who are uncomfortable playing against women as well. Either way, I’ll be there to exploit it.”Standing the Test of TimeHo is still searching for that marquee victory, something to put a stamp on her career and solidify her foothold in the poker world, but if it all went away suddenly, she would exit with no regrets.“If I had to quit tomorrow, I could still hold my head up high knowing that I was able to sustain a living for five years in this industry,” she said. “A lot of players have come and gone during that stretch, but so far I’ve been able to keep my head above water and stay ahead of the curve, and that’s satisfying in a completely different way than winning a tournament. It’s all about standing the test of time. This is a hard way to make an easy living and it’s longevity that is the mark of a truly successful player.”Ho isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon, but with a fiery determination and knack for looking on the upside, one could bet that she’s just getting started.
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