Moments after the University of California, San Diego handed Maria Ho a diploma in 2005, she knew her career goals were destined for a job that required skills beyond her degree in communications.
Ho participated in the college's graduation ceremonies with her classmates. Afterward, she jumped on a plane to Las Vegas to take a seat at the World Series of Poker.
"I decided right then I was going to be a professional poker player, and I never looked back," Ho said.
Almost from the outset, there has not been a reason to reconsider that career move.
Ho, 29, has cashed 13 times at the World Series of Poker since 2005, including six times this year. Her career earnings at the tournament are nearly $960,000 and were enhanced by two significant finishes.
In 2007, Ho was the last women player to be eliminated at Main Event, finishing in 38th place and earning $237,865. Last year, she placed second in $5,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em event, earning $540,020. It ranked as the single largest payday earned by a female poker player at the World Series of Poker until Allyn Jaffrey-Shulman won the Seniors event this year and earned $603,713.
Ho, however, had her sight set on loftier goals.
Going into Friday's round of the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship at the Rio, Ho sat in 163rd place out the 720 players remaining in the event with a healthy chip stack of 382,000.
Later Friday, she was eliminated from the tournament, finishing in 323rd place and earning $32,871.
Sometime Monday night or early Tuesday morning, the final table of nine players will be set. The group will return to the Rio on Oct. 28 to play for the crown.
"I've never won a major title in the live arena and obviously winning the Main Event is what every poker player dreams about," Ho said earlier Friday. "I came amazingly close in 2007. You sometimes wonder if those opportunities will come your way again. I'm pretty fortunate."
World Series of Poker officials have been promoting the success female players have experienced this year. Two players, Jaffrey-Shulman and Vanessa Selbst, won individual event bracelets in mixed gender events, breaking a four-year dry spell. In addition, female players have reached nearly a dozen final tables in individual events.
Of the 6,598 players who entered the 2012 Main Event, 211 - 3.2 percent - were female.
Going into Friday's action, Selbst was in 12th place with 814,000 in chips while World Series of Poker newcomer Gaelle Bauman of France - who held the chip lead going into Thursday's competition - was in 46th place with 599,000 in chips.
The goal for Ho and other female competitors is to match the feat reached by Barbara Enright in 1995, who is the only woman to make the final table at the Main Event. She finished fifth.
"We're all trying to change that," Ho said. "It would be great for woman poker players to make this happen."
Ho, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to the Los Angeles area with her family when she was 4, has found success away from the poker rooms.
She has served as an on-camera host for WSOP.com and ESPN360. She has written for several poker publications and serves as the celebrity/poker spokeswoman for the WinStar Casino in southern Oklahoma, which is a 90-minute drive from Dallas. She also has a budding career in her family's real estate business.
Her biggest notice outside of poker came in 2009 when Ho and fellow player Tiffany Michelle competed in the CBS television reality series, "The Amazing Race," finishing sixth out of 12 teams in a race around the world.
"It's always nice to be able to shed some light in the mainstream community on poker in a positive way," Ho said. " 'The Amazing Race' was a great opportunity because I'm a super-competitive person, and it gave us a huge audience."
Michelle, who Ho call's her "best friend," owns the second-best finish by a woman in the Main Event in the past 12 years, placing 17th in 2008. Her $334,534 payday stood for a year as the most money a woman ever won at the Main Event until Leonor Margets' 27th place finish in 2009 earned her $352,832.
"Tiffany and I are incredibly close, and I was really happy with her run," Ho said. "I know she would be very happy if I could break her mark."
Ho played poker recreationally in college before advancing into low stakes poker games. As a tournament player, she spends about six months a year on the road. When home in Los Angeles, she often avoids the card rooms.
"Sometimes you just have to tune it out," Ho said.
This weekend, the Main Event field will be sliced to 27 players or less by Sunday, with those players returned Monday to play for a seat at the final table.
On Friday, the payout bubble was reached. The top 666 spots earned at least $19,227.
Seven of the nine final table participants will earn more than $1 million. While the poker's world champion collects more than $8.5 million and the most expensive gold bracelet ever awarded, the runner-up still wins almost $5.3 million.
The prize pool for the Main Event was more than $62 million.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.