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Last Woman Standing

It's one of those good-news/bad-news stories. For the second time, professional poker player Maria Ho qualified as the last woman standing in the World Series of Poker Main Event. This year she finished 77th out of 6,683 entrants and took home $85,812 in prize money. In 2007, the game broke her heart with a 38th place finish and $237,865 for her trouble.

All told, she's won nearly $1.7 million in live tournament winnings. Nice as those distinctions might be, they're nowhere near as appealing as making the Main Event final table, playing for the world championship bracelet and competing for an ungodly sum of money. This year's first-place finish pays $10 million. Had a few things gone her way, Ho would have been the first female vying for the richest, most prestigious windfall in poker.

When the so-called November Nine play down to a winner this coming Sunday and Monday at the Rio in Las Vegas (ESPN airs the final table on Monday and Tuesday, November 10 and 11), Ho will be watching with interest and quite possibly licking her wounds. What she won't be doing is second-guessing the bluffs and heroic plays she made over the course of the $10,000 buy-in tournament. In fact, she's proud to have not kept her eye on the prize over the course of the Main Event.

"People can't do their best when they put too much emphasis on having a shot at $10 million," says Ho, who began playing poker during a break between college and a possible run at grad school. (She stayed at the tables and remains satisfied with her undergrad degree.) "You stop making the best decisions and become unwilling to put your tournament life on the line when you should." Speaking of which, she adds, "Being a woman helps. We only account for 3 percent of the players, and men think we're unwilling to bluff. Women are grossly underestimated."

Ho, of course, would have it no other way. She's suitably driven that recognition for being the last woman standing feels like a dubious honor. "It's not something I am shooting for," she says dryly. "I am always looking to make the final table. I would be the first woman to do it at the main event. Getting there is the dream of every poker player-male or female."

On Monday night, she'll join loads of poker fanatics in watching things go down inside the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio. If she herself does not have a shot at taking down the big one, who would Ho like to see walking away with eight-figures in prize money and a diamond encrusted bracelet?

"Mark Newhouse," she answers without hesitation, naming a well-known pro who hit the final table last year as well. "The odds of making back-to-back November Nines are astronomical. So he's going to have a chance to make history and is in a position [third in chips, with $26 million] to do it." Particularly impressive, she adds, "He's not afraid to lose it all and is a self-admitted degenerate. I guarantee that everyone at the table will care more about the $10 million than he will. And as soon as you start thinking about all the things you can do with the money, you mess yourself up."