"I just think I'm the best player in the world!"
Ryan Riess exclaimed this bold statement during his post-victory interview with ESPN's Kara Scott just after winning the 2013 World Series of Poker main event. Some poker players were taken aback by such an audacious claim.
Looking back five years later, Riess thinks he might not have been so outwardly brash at the time if he had the chance to do things over again -- but he also clearly remembers having a strong inner belief in himself and his game.
"I might not have been that up front in my statements, but I truly feel that you really have to believe you can do it," Riess said during a recent interview with ESPN. "I definitely was not the best player at the time and had some of the least experience at the final table. But I truly believed I was going to win. And I feel that was important. No one else will have faith in you if you don't have faith in yourself. Sometimes you may sound crazy, but I think it is really important to believe in yourself."
The 28-year-old Michigan native is amazed at how quickly time has flown since he raised the coveted diamond encrusted WSOP main event bracelet over his head and claimed more than $8.3 million in the process.
"I can't believe it! It's pretty wild. It seems like it was just a couple of months ago. It has gone by so fast."
Riess' road to the 2013 November Nine can really be traced back to October 2012 at the WSOP Circuit stop in Hammond, Indiana. On a whim, he drove down to play in the circuit main event and finished second, winning $239,063. The cash helped start his journey to the WSOP National Championship (since renamed the Global Casino Championship) and, ultimately, the 2013 WSOP main event final table.
"I was a full-time student at Michigan State University, and I was dealing poker to help pay the bills and to get better at poker. During a weekend, I drove with some buddies down to the Hammond [WSOP] circuit event and ended up finishing second in the main event. That gave me the bankroll to start playing full time -- and the rest is kind of history."
After capturing the 2013 WSOP main event, Riess had to adjust to the changes and consequences that came with being the reigning champion. He admittedly became complacent as he reaped the benefits of his win, and Riess' game suffered as a result.
"I was traveling all over the world, but I was focused more on enjoying myself at the beach or nightclub than improving my poker game," Riess said. "I had never traveled to any of these places before and wanted to enjoy myself. Having just won the WSOP main event, I didn't have the urgency to try and win."
As is the case with any WSOP main event winner who continues to play tournaments all over the world, Riess' visibility and profile caused players to treat him differently -- and he had a difficult time adjusting to his opponents' unorthodox plays, which caused him to start overthinking every decision.
"I definitely made a lot of mistakes, as it became a guessing game for me over the next couple of years," Riess admitted. "Everyone was playing differently against me because I was [a WSOP] main event champion. They all would have hidden agendas, whether it was to show a bluff or just bad beat me. I began to level myself and think everyone was trying to bluff me, but they weren't. It made the game a lot harder, and at times it became very frustrating."
The overthinking and self-leveling throughout the next year took its toll. Ultimately, 2014 ended up being his worst year as a tournament pro as he cashed for less than $60,000 all told; to that point, and from there on, Riess hadn't cashed for less than $239,000 since his career really kicked off in 2012.
Over the next couple of years, Riess began to play more online poker in Canada, and close contact with poker friends helped lead to an eventual improvement and return of confidence in his game.
"Living in Michigan, I would travel over the border to Canada every Sunday to play," said Riess. "Also, for all SCOOPs [Pokerstars' Spring Championship of Online Poker] and WCOOPs [Pokerstars' World Championship of Online Poker], I would always go to Canada and get an apartment with some friends, like Anthony Zinno, Chance Kornuth, Alex Foxen, Kristen Bicknell and Sam Panzica. We would just stay there and grind for days. Watching these incredible players play day-in and day-out and talking with them really lit a fire under me to take my game to the next level.
"Working with these top players allowed me to develop a new appreciation for the game. I'm also a very competitive person, so when I saw my friends winning and I'm not, it really motivated me to get better and made me work harder."
While working diligently on his game in 2015 and 2016, Riess earned over a quarter million dollars each year in limited travels around the world. His focus once again became playing the best poker he could while letting partying fall by the wayside.
"Now, the goal became different. Instead of traveling, sightseeing and partying, I was there to play poker and win money."
During this stretch, Riess began to dabble in high-roller events and found some initial success, including back-to-back cashes (13th and 6th) in €10,000 high-roller events at the European Poker Tour stop in Dublin, in February 2016, for more than €120,000. Riess also relived some of his main event magic from 2013, when he had another deep run in the 2016 WSOP main event, finishing in a respectable 271st place.
Though the level of competition is far higher in the high-roller fields he started to take part in more often, Riess enjoyed the challenges these tournaments represented -- and it also gave him the opportunity to not be the guy with the biggest target on him every time out.
"In these high-roller events, if you look at the earnings of the players, I sometimes have the least career earnings at the table. When I play these events, I can relax and just play my best. I don't have to level myself anymore. I love playing in these high buy-in events, because everyone is trying to play their best also. Nobody cares who they are playing against. At the low buy-in events, people are trying to do fancy stuff and take home a story for their friends. These high-roller events are so enjoyable to me."
Surprisingly, all the high-roller regulars, which is a relatively small group of players, have become very sociable with one another.
"Everyone is really friendly. We have all played against each other and everyone knows how each other plays. You even get to know the wealthy businessmen as they regularly play the events. It's all the same people event after event, and you really build friendships with all of them."
Like the WSOPC win was the prelude to his main event success the following year, this initial burst of success in high rollers set Riess up for a very successful year in 2017.
Riess entered rarefied air that April by winning the World Poker Tour Seminole Hard Rock main event in April for $716,088 -- his biggest score since his main event victory. Over the next eight months, he garnered four more six-figure scores, including another victory in August in a €10,000 buy-in event at the PokerStars Championship in Barcelona, two €25,000 buy-in cashes in back-to-back months (November and December), and a third-place finish in the $10,000 WSOP Heads-Up Championship. He'd end the year with more than $1.8 million in cashes.
With the 2018 WSOP in full swing, and the main event just a couple of days away, Riess continues to fight every day to try to win his second bracelet -- one of the distinct goals he has set for himself.
"Yeah, I definitely want another one," said Riess. "I got third in the $10,000 Heads-Up event last year, and I thought that was going to be the one, but I'll have to wait."
Also, with only eight players owning the title of Triple Crown winner (a WSOP bracelet, WPT main event win, and EPT main event win), Riess is only an EPT main event away from becoming the next player added to this elite list. Since he plays on the EPT regularly, this objective has become his biggest focus in poker.
"That's the next thing on my radar. I play a lot of the EPT events and love them," said Riess. "I really haven't been that close in a main event but definitely want to get one and become the next Triple Crown winner."
As he works toward building up his post-WSOP resume, Riess appreciates the journey that's taken him to where he currently stands. Whether the next big win is right around the corner, or a little ways away, he couldn't be happier with where things stand right now.
"It's cool to look back over the last five years, and I feel like I've come a long way. While the game became frustrating for a while, I have truly developed a new love and appreciation for the game and look forward to the next chapter in my poker career."