(Photo by Joe Giron)
What began on a sweltering late summer afternoon last September in Bossier City, Louisiana ended on a nationally-televised stage at the 2012 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
The largest and most successful WSOP Circuit season in history -- both in terms of attendance and prize money -- produced the second annual National Championship.  This invitation-only gold bracelet event was comprised of the top 100 qualifying players from the 17-tour stops held between September 2011 and May 2012 around the United States.  The WSOP Circuit's top players were joined by 57 of the best WSOP qualifiers, determined by their point ranking over the past two years in gold bracelet events.
Coming out on top of a stacked field of the WSOP's most accomplished players over the past two years was Ryan Eriquezzo, a professional poker player from New Haven, Connecticut.  He initially earned his way into the National Championship by winning the Main Event held at Caesars Atlantic City, in March.  That victory was parlayed into an even bigger win here in Las Vegas, which now stands as his greatest poker achievement.
Eriquezzo's victory on the ESPN Main Stage at the Rio on Wednesday night paid $416,051 in prize money. He also received the most coveted prize in the game of poker -- the WSOP gold bracelet, his first.
Even though the WSOP Circuit has been played for eight seasons, the National Championship is a relatively new concept.  Eriquezzo became only the second WSOP National Champion, following Sam Barnhart's inaugural victory last year.
The upcoming 2012-2013 WSOP Circuit schedule will be announced shortly -- which will include more stops and notable improvements.
Question: You qualified by winning at Caesars Atlantic City three months ago and here you are on the stage now.  Talk about that journey to get here.

Eriquezzo:  It’s pretty amazing, because I was pretty disenchanted with poker around the time that the Caesar’s Main Event happened.  I was on a horrible, horrible downswing and I was ready to take like another avenue.  I had worked really hard at this and I wasn’t really succeeding and the Caesar’s Main Event was going to be one of my last tournaments probably, as a professional.  Well, I won that, then I got bankrolled for the summer and I came out here and I had an awful summer.  Coming into the end of the summer again and I was really excited for this one and we banged it out.  It’s insane.  The field was so hard.  It was all elite players.  I was really able to focus and get it done.  I ran well and had a lot of support from people and it’s just incredible.  There’s no words.  It won’t sink in for I don’t know how long, but it definitely isn’t registering what is actually happening in my life right now and with the schedule the way it is, with it in between the Main Event, its been just hectic constant playing poker like I have a stack in the Day Three of the Main Event tomorrow.  I have to go play tomorrow and I played the first two days of this and Day One and Day Two in the middle of this, its been crazy, so I am just exhausted, I am in shock.  I’m full of gratitude. There are no words, its amazing.

Question:  You are used to playing a lot of $300 buy-in tournaments and $500 buy-in tournaments and you dream of this stage, you look at these lights, you look at this atmosphere, and television cameras.  Is it what you expected?

Eriquezzo:  I mean, it is -- because I am close friends with a lot people who have been in the opportunities to final table World Series events and I do play on the higher levels and the bigger buy-ins too.  So, I know a lot of these guys and I am pretty used to it.  It’s amazing to be here.  You know, everyone comes out here at the beginning of the summer -- its like a dream, its like we are all going to cash, we are all going to win bracelets, everyone is like pumped and then by like week three or week four everyone kind of loses steam with that but its still like this is the ultimate dream, winning a World Series bracelet -- there is nothing better.  I can say for the rest of my life, 'I am a bracelet winner.'  I worked hard at it for a long time, so it’s just so gratifying and so fulfilling.  You see the support I have from my friends, like we are a tight-knit group and we all work really hard at this thing, I would be on any of their rails in the same situation.  It’s amazing,  I am so grateful, I am so blessed.

Question:  Did you make any adjustments when you got to the final table?
Eriquezzo: This experience with TV and stuff and the pocket cams was entirely new.  It was entirely nerve racking.  I didn’t know how to like check my hole cards.  I have very specific mannerisms I do at tables, in terms of betting and looking at my hole cards and this thing was like very cumbersome and I had to reset myself a lot, it was awkward at first.  But, in terms of knowing that there was filming of my hands didn’t affect my play at all.  I just decided I was going to come out here and just play my game and if people wanted to critique my game later, they can critique and talk crap and say I played this one bad or I butchered this hand, but I was just going to stay true to my game plan and what I was going to do, and I did it.  We got there, so I couldn’t be more grateful.

Question:  Is it more special to win a one-of-a-kind prestigious event?

Eriquezzo:  Oh yeah -- this was the one that we were talking about final tabling when we came out here this summer.  I was like 'I am going to win that title, I am going to win that National Championship.'  It’s just so prestigious, you have all these people who have grinded and traveled the country to do this and you have some really sick top-tier people, the invited players were incredible, Eugene Katchalov and Sam Stein -- these players that are just world-class.  Brian Rast was deep in it with chips.  You get to play with these guys and really see if you hang with them and see if you belong on this stage and I have always thought my game was on that level and I always strive to get there and beat a tough field.  I am so grateful for the opportunity.  I am so grateful I ran well.  It’s just humbling at the same time.  It’s just like start to think it might never happen for you and it’s just amazing.

Question:  You said at the beginning you were thinking about quitting poker and doing something else.  How are you feeling about that now?

Eriquezzo:  I’m not quitting poker now.  My heart is back in it.  I’m starting to enjoy the game a little more.  I’m going to take some time off, for sure.  I need six months after the Series to cool off.  It has been a really long grind, but I’m going to come back refreshed.  Keep an eye out for me.

Question:  Can you address the final table distractions and the unique circumstances in terms of anything you feel comfortable discussing.

Eriquezzo:  I just had a lot of people this week that are close to me telling me, ‘You’re at the final table of a $10,000 event.  Just focus on poker.  The life stuff was put in public.  It shouldn’t have been, whatever.  It’s no one’s business we’re not going to talk about it.  Let’s focus on winning this tournament -- and you’re in the Main Event.’  Hey, I have a lot of great, great people who have kept me on track and said, ‘Listen, you’re playing the National Championship, you’re playing the Main Event today, tomorrow...’  It was a distraction obviously, but I was kept focused, for the most part, by the closer people in my life.  It was a blessing.  It could have been a catastrophe for me.  I think I handled it as well as I could have.

by Nolan Dalla