May 11, 2022

Lessons in decision-making and risk-taking from a professional poker player

Source: Courtesy of Christina Gandolfo

Mario Ho is one of the highest ranked female poker players. Originally from California, she studied communications at the University of California, San Diego, where she first dabbled in poker. As a professional, she reached the final table of five World Series of Poker, was inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame and racked up over $4,000,000 in earnings. By earning these and other accolades, Ho gained valuable insights into decision-making, risk-taking, and confidence.

How did you start playing poker?

I grew up enjoying card games and strategy games, but I didn’t discover poker until my first year of college. Some guys who lived in my dorm had a Friday night poker game, and for some reason there were never any female guests. This piqued my curiosity, and one day I crashed their poker game. They taught me that night and I quickly got the hang of the game. I was hooked, and it didn’t hurt that the first time I played, I ended up winning.

I worked from the lowest stakes and started playing some of the bigger tournaments. I ended up getting a good score in my first World Series of Poker. This propelled me, and after two years, I decided I was going to pursue poker full time.

What skills helped you succeed in the beginning?

I’ve always had a good grasp of in-person dynamics. And while societal norms don’t encourage women to take risks, I’ve never been risk averse. I was more aggressive than most players around me, especially for a female player.

I was also able to manipulate people’s perception of me. It was clear that once people saw me as a non-threatening poker player – because I was a minority or a woman in a male-dominated space – they underestimated me. I played with the idea of ​​”I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not that competitive, I’m here for fun and if I win, great.” I was playing on their misperceptions of who I was at the poker table, so I got by a lot.

What body language cues do you look for in your opponents?

I think the mainstream media paints a different picture than what poker players actually use as physical reads. This is not a “poker face”; it’s about certain patterns of people’s behavior that they don’t realize they’re telegraphing. For example, I’m a poker coach and one thing I always tell my students is that when the cards are dealt, instead of looking at your hand first, you want to watch everyone while they look at their hands. If someone is interested in their hand, they can physically place their hand over their cards to show ownership, instead of preparing to fold and physically return the cards to the dealer.

Another thing is how people advance their chips to bet. When players take the time to decide, they don’t have an automatic response. If you have the best starting hand, a pocket ace, you know you’ll play it. But if you get a mediocre but pretty good hand, maybe a jack and a ten of the same suit, you might play with your chips a certain way while you deliberate.

It’s not that I can look someone in the eye and say, “I know you’re bluffing. It’s a combination of little things that I add up every moment of the hand to make my final decision.

How do you know when to take a risk?

Poker is a game of limited information. When every piece of information isn’t readily available to you, you have to make quick decisions based on the deductions you’ve made throughout the hand. To spot a good situation to bluff, I must first analyze my opponent. Is my opponent more risk averse than some of the other players at our table? If they are, they are a good candidate for me to bluff against. If they’re not willing to risk calling me on my bluff and getting it wrong, it’s easier for my bluffs to spend a higher percentage of time.

It’s also about finding a situation where people seem disinterested in the pot. You can sometimes tell by the way a player is sitting upright, or engaged in the cards as they come out, that they are very interested in the hand. Sometimes there will be four to five players involved in a hand, and only one person seems really interested in the outcome. My bluff only needs to work against this one person.

Of course, there’s a game-theoretic calculus when talking about a good place to bluff. Not everything is instinctive. Do I have the right cards in hand? Am I preventing my opponent from making the best possible hand?

How do you decide to take risks in life outside of poker?

When we talk about the fact that poker is a game of limited information, it allowed me to not need to have full control or know exactly what is going to happen, and to take that leap of faith. I just need to know that I have a justifiable reason why I want to do this. I teach poker and I tell my students this: be intentional. Do not bet without reason. You have to say, “I’m betting at this point in the hand because of X, Y, and Z.” That’s what I do with everything else in life. I just need to have a reason in the moment with the information I have. Once I’ve made the best decision, I have to give up, even if that result doesn’t work out.

If not, how does your poker decision-making process apply to your life?

Poker gave me more agency to defend myself. I am constantly someone who is considered an outsider. When it comes to professional poker, there are only about 3% women. I often face situations where someone tries to bully me, because bullying is a big part of the psychological side of the game – if they make you feel like you don’t belong or don’t you’re not good enough to play, you’ll end up questioning your confidence.

A big part of poker is a kind of negotiation. It’s about whether you represent a good hand and how well your bet tells a story. You’re trying to get people to believe you, and that’s how a bluff works. I had a few business ventures as I moved away from poker. I’ve been able to find myself in favorable positions when it comes to negotiating for me and I feel like when I tell a story from A to Z it totally makes sense and I rationalize everything I say.

What psychological challenges does poker involve?

This game involves a lot of psychological courage as the outcome does not always reflect your level of effort or skill. Luck is part of it. You can make the right call every moment of the hand, but you can always end up losing. I think it’s hard for a lot of poker players to let go of the idea of ​​meritocracy, like if you put in the energy and effort, you’ll get paid.

In life, when you touch the fire and you get burned, you know not to touch it anymore. But in poker, you have to go back every time and be ready to put your hand on fire.

Do you ever get tired of the mental calculations involved in playing poker?

One hundred percent. When people think of poker, they probably think that you don’t have to be in great physical condition to play it. But I have a strict diet where I meditate in the morning to clear my mind. A tournament can last 10 or 12 hours. Fatigue is common and sets in quickly. You have to be sharp, because a small mistake can cost you the tournament.

It’s not even the fatigue of playing badly – it’s when you go on autopilot but you shouldn’t. You should never rely on a default strategy, as you must always adjust and adapt your strategy to adapt, exploit and have a counter-strategy to what your opponents are doing.

How do you stay mentally fit?

Meditation and yoga. I work on my breathing a lot. It’s something to hide my words and my neck pulse. I control my breathing in situations where I’m bluffing or I have a big hand and I get excited. People say I have a good poker face. But it’s not my impassive face, it’s my breathing.

On a different note, sports betting has become increasingly popular. What advice do you have for newcomers?

Now that sports betting is more legal and accessible, people are taking it very seriously. Sports betting is similar to poker in that you always try to take calculated risks. You never want to overtake yourself. You also don’t want to be emotionally attached to the outcome, as you are not in control after placing your bet.