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A world of competition: Q&A with Maria Ho

26 June 2017

While the World Series of Poker is in full swing, soaking up all the attention of most of the poker world, the eSports circuit is continuing to expand. The latest big development is the Amazon App Store's new Mobile Masters invitational series, the first of which took place last weekend, on 23 and 24 June, in Newark, New Jersey.

The Newark invitational consisted of three eSports events for the games Vainglory, Summoners War and Hearthstone. Professional poker player Maria Ho took a few days away from the tables at the WSOP — where she had already cashed in four events — to host it, adding to a rapidly growing resume of eSports and poker hosting gigs in addition to her lifetime tournament earnings of more than $2 million. One of the top-ranked female players in the world, Ho has been playing poker professionally since 2005 and has 44 WSOP cashes, including three as the WSOP Main Event's "Last Woman Standing."

Casino City grabbed a few minutes of Ho's time last week to talk about the event, the relationship between eSports and poker, balancing her many projects and where we'll be able to find her next.

How did you get involved in this event?
Last year, the Amazon App Store had their first mobile gaming tournament in December, and it was in Vegas, and that was called Champions of Fire. And I think that kind of got the ball rolling in terms of my partnership with them. I hosted that event as well, and I guess it turned into a bigger thing where they wanted to invest more in the eSports world. They created this idea of the Mobile Masters, where there's a lot of mobile games, especially that are available in the App Store. They wanted to bring together the casual gamers, but also the competition side of eSports. They'll be hosting this invitational series, the first one in Newark this upcoming weekend, and then in August in LA, and it'll end up culminating in a couple of other events down the road.



Walk us through your role in these events a little. What do you do to prepare for them?
I think the way that I can really tap into this eSports world the best that I know how, coming from the poker side of things, is I really know what it feels like to be in the heat of competition and to be playing for high stakes and to be in a very big arena when it comes to such a competitive environment. My job, I think, as a host is to bridge the gap.

I want to be able to get inside these gamers' heads — how will they play under pressure, and how they have prepared for an event like this? My job is to present that to the viewing audience, but also to really just connect the viewers with the gamers. Because eSports obviously is very technical, just like poker, in the sense that the strategy involved is so high level, so maybe somebody who's watching who wants to get into this game may not understand it.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert in all of these games either, but you know, we have—there's broadcasters on the side of the strategy things, and I think my job and my role is just to be able to kind of connect the two, of the casual audience and the hardcore gamers.

Maria Ho has amassed lifetime tournament earnings of over $2 million.

Maria Ho has amassed lifetime tournament earnings of over $2 million. (photo by Ned Stoddart)

You've been involved in several high-profile eSports events over the past year or so. How did you first get into eSports?
I feel like eSports and poker have a lot of similarities, and I feel like poker was almost on a similar trajectory that we see eSports being on now. We just didn't really quite get there, but eSports is really hitting the market.

When I first started playing video games as a child, it was very similar to poker in that I didn't think I could make a living playing video games, but I enjoyed them, and when I was younger that was a hobby that I had long before I discovered poker. And now that we see that eSports can be such an interesting spectator sport, we would obviously love to see poker have that revolution again, you know, the poker experience before Black Friday — a very huge increase in the popularity, and we see that happening with eSports now and eSports is taking over.

ESports does seem to have high crossover appeal with poker. I won't ask you to speak for other people, but what's similar about them that appeals to you? What's different?
Well, I think it's because if you do come from a heavy poker background, you spend so much of your time studying poker strategy. I guess people who do that and devote their time to the study of the theory of poker, they love learning theory and they love learning strategic things. And all eSports games — all of the games that the gamers are playing — have a very high level of strategy. So there's a similar approach in the way that we can study the game, whether it's a video game or poker itself, and so I think that's why there's a lot of crossover.

And it's also because we love competition — I mean, there's no way someone can be playing poker for a living and not enjoy competing at the highest levels for the highest stakes. And now, because there is so much money in eSports, and there's so many events like Mobile Masters that offer really good prize pool, it becomes a thing where people are enjoying that same level of competition; it's no longer them just playing a video game in their home. I think that poker players really find that appealing, obviously.

As far as the difference goes, I think there's some parts of certain games in the eSports world that involve a lot of dexterity, or things like muscle memory and things that you might have to practice a lot to become very good at these games, whereas in poker, not so much.

You said you used to play video games as a kid. What kind of games did you play?
I played a lot of Super Mario Brothers when I was really young, but then when I got a little bit older I started getting into Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. And then when I was in my last few years of high school and early college years, I was playing CounterStrike, which is still extremely popular. I mean all of those games, Street Fighter and CounterStrike, you see those games being played in the eSports world at high levels now. So it's kind of cool to start getting back into those games as well, because I've discovered other, newer games along the way — like I've been playing Hearthstone, because it has so many ways for me to cross over from poker into Hearthstone. But it's been nice to play more Street Fighter now, because I see that people are actually competing in that game.

Is all this eSports eating into your poker playing or study time? Is it difficult to balance all of it and still stay focused?
You know, it's funny, because I obviously still consider myself to be a professional poker player first and foremost, but I have ventured a lot into the broadcasting side of things with poker, and then now hosting in the eSports world. So I really enjoy that I'm diversifying my time, and I would say that I definitely feel like my schedule's very, very full, but I enjoy doing all of these different things.

It's kind of nice to step away from playing poker sometimes, and maybe to play a little bit less in order to have these opportunities and to be able to be a part of another world that I think is very similar to poker. Because they are — even though eSports is so popular, I still feel that, like poker, it's very niche in its own way, and the community operates with its own set of rules and its own codes. And it's been really interesting to get more inside of that and become friends with gamers and see their world, and I feel it's kind of nice to have that balance after being so immersed in poker for so long.

She's also a self-proclaimed "eSports junkie."

She's also a self-proclaimed "eSports junkie."

I was Twitter-stalking you earlier; are you at the WSOP right now?
I am, yeah. I've been here since the beginning. And you know, it's funny: This is the first summer in — gosh, seven years, maybe, that I've left the Series in the middle to go somewhere else. I usually play a full schedule of tournaments, but obviously this is just such an exciting opportunity that I just couldn't pass up. And I'm really excited not only to take a break from poker, but this is a brand-new venture for Amazon App Store, and so I'm excited to get to be a part of it from the ground up and hopefully Mobile Masters is going to be here to stay.

Will you be back for the Main Event?
Oh no, yes. I'm literally taking a red-eye, I'm hosting this for two days, I fly right back and then I'm planning on playing another prelim on Sunday, right when I get back, and then I'll be here for the duration, until after the Main Event.

You have your own Twitch stream and you were doing a Twitch stream for Poker Central, but both channels are currently short on new videos. Do you have any plans for future Twitching?
Yeah, you just made me think of it: Poker Central doesn't have a lot of content on their Twitch channel anymore because they launched a subscription-based service called PokerGo, and that's where they put a lot of their content —all of their new content is on there, and that's where WSOP live streams can be found now.

As far as my own Twitch channel, I love being on Twitch, I love the community and I loved the fact that people were learning how to play poker by watching my stream, I thought that was nice. It was a very two-way street; it wasn't like I was broadcasting to the Twitch community and I wasn't getting any feedback or I wasn't getting to interact with others. It's so incredibly interactive. So I really do want to get back on Twitch at some point on my personal channel, but of course it takes a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of presentation, because I wouldn't want to have really sporadic streams. I would want to give the community something more consistent when I'm on Twitch. But the way that I can still be involved in the Twitch community is through hosting things like the Mobile Masters, because that's going to be streamed live on Twitch, and so I still feel very much a part of the community even though I'm not broadcasting it myself.

You have your own Pokerography special on Poker Central this season, which was released just last week. Can you tell us a little bit about the making of that? How involved were you in the process of putting it together? Were you happy with the final result?
We shot all of the interview pieces for that Pokerography last summer, and I mean, if you think about the list of people who also were asked to have a Pokerography — Mike Sexton, Daniel Negreanu — these are legends of the game that I feel very honored to be alongside. And so it was pretty great.

They involved me a lot; they asked me who some of my closest friends both in and out of poker are, so that they could interview them for my Pokerography. And actually, my sister ended up being the biggest contributor on my Pokerography, and I think that was good because there's a lot of biographical information about me before my poker career that I think a lot of people might not have known, and she was able to really share some insight on that. And all of the pictures and things that they used in the Pokerography were things that I dug up from my old photo albums of my childhood, of my high school years and things like that.

I thought it turned out so well. It was very humbling to hear all the nice things that a lot of people that I respect and look up to in the poker community have to say about me. It doesn't really feel like I've done anything special enough for them to feature me next to or to have these people say such nice things about me. But of course, it's always nice to have the validation of your peers, especially when poker is so competitive naturally. But seeing their support was very, very overwhelming.

You've been involved in quite a lot of projects lately! How do you keep from burning out?
That's a good question. I drink a lot — no, I'm just kidding. You know, I do get burned out quite a bit, but I would say it's mostly from the playing part of poker.

As far as traveling or broadcasting things and hosting things, I don't feel like that burns me out as much. It's the 12-hour grinds at the poker table that burn me out, so I really just like to have quality time with my friends when I take time off, or when I want to unwind or relax.

I already travel so much that it's actually more appealing to me to just stay at home and watch Netflix or something, but when I really want to connect with people and put myself in a social setting, all I really want to do is go to a nice dinner and have a few drinks with my friends.

This lifestyle takes its toll on a lot of the relationships that I have, so whenever I do feel burned out or I want some time away from the tables, I just want to spend it with a lot of my friends that are actually outside poker.

Maria Ho

Maria Ho

ESports and poker both skew heavily male, and I know in poker there has been an ongoing, if not always very productive, conversation about getting more women to play. But I was wondering if you had any advice for women, especially younger women, who are just started to get interested or might be interested in poker or eSports.
I think that in this day and age, there's so many different career paths that are so unconventional — and not only for women but for men as well. So my advice to women is to embrace the fact that there is no real set path for us now. There is no standard of, "OK, these are the kinds of jobs that women should be doing or these are the kinds of career choices that women should be making."

If video games are your passion or poker is your passion, then I just encourage them to pursue that, because I think a lot of people end up going a traditional route and that's not what they end up loving doing. But if you're going to spend that much of your time dedicated to learning poker or learning a video game, then you might as well try to take it as far as you possibly can. And I think women before used to be a little bit apologetic about things that they would do that didn't seem to fit with gendered stereotypes. But in video games as well as in poker, there is no gender barrier for us — there's no reason why we shouldn't do as well as the men, and I think we should really use that to power us.

What other upcoming events, either in poker or eSports, are on your schedule that you're looking forward to?
Well, after the Series is over, but before the Mobile Masters event in LA, I will definitely be taking a vacation where I won't be playing any poker. I usually go to Hawaii, to Maui — that's one of my favorite things in the world. So I'm really looking forward to that. And I'm really looking forward to the Mobile Masters in LA, because my family hasn't ever really seen me on the hosting and presenting end of things. They've come to watch my final tables in poker and whatnot, but they've never really seen me do the other things that I'm involved in now. They're actually going to come to that event, and I'm really excited about that.

Can you tell us anything about any other upcoming projects in the works?
I do have a couple. I will be announcing — I can't really talk about this yet, we haven't announced it — but there is another poker show that I'm going to be a part of and doing strategic commentating on. And that will start filming in September, but I'm not allowed to say what it is yet. But look for me to be doing more strategy commentary for poker — I'm still very much involved in poker, even though I'm very, very excited about the direction of my new venture with Amazon. I definitely still have a passion for poker and I still want the opportunity to do poker broadcasting.

Other than that, my main casino sponsor, WinStar World Casino and Resort (in Oklahoma), has a big tournament series in September that I go to every year, and that's usually the first time I play any poker after the Series — I usually take a fairly long break after the World Series, so it's the first tournament in the fall that people can find me at. I will be at WinStar World Casino for their River Tournament Series.
A world of competition: Q&A with Maria Ho is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.