This time last year, Ryan Riess was a college student at Michigan State University dealing in a Michigan card room on the side. His life changed when he decided to take a shot in the massive WSOP Circuit Main Event at Hammond. The 23 year old took second place, banking almost a quarter million dollars. He stuck to his plans and finished school in December, then hit the Circuit grind hard, qualifying for the National Championship in New Orleans. He then pressed his luck in Vegas. Riess is one of several Circuit pros who made a splash this summer, including bracelet winners Bryan Campanello and Jonathan Taylor, not to mention break out star Loni Harwood. Riess recently Tweeted that Taylor, Harwood, Phillip Hui, Jared Ludemann, and Danny Illingworth, all Circuit regulars, would be his coaches for the final table.
The guy they call "Riess the Beast" has a chance to be the biggest Circuit success story of all time. More importantly, he has a shot at being poker's World Champion.
Name: Ryan Riess
Age: 23 (youngest in the field)
Birthplace: East Lansing, MI
Hometown/Current place of residence: Las Vegas, NV
Occupation: Poker Pro
Employer/Company Name: Self-Employed
Education: BA in Business Michigan State University
Marital Status: Single
Children (names and ages): 0
Years entered Main Event: 1
WSOP Earnings: $30,569
WSOP Cashes: 3
WSOP Final Tables: 0
Best Main Event Finish: none
We spoke with Riess shortly after the Main Event final table was set:
WSOP: The last time a Michigan State guy was this close, he actually busted out in 10th place.
Riess: Dean Hamrick. I used to work for him at Stacks Hold’em Bar. I worked for him until Hammond when I [went deep in the WSOP Circuit] Main Event. I quit that day, obviously. It went under, but Dean has a half a percent of me, so he’s sweating me. The last time Dean bought action of somebody late in a tournament at an incredible mark-up was Joe Cada in 2009 when he won it.
WSOP: It wasn’t that long ago that you were at a Circuit $365 final table in Black Hawk, now you’re on the game’s biggest stage. What’s been happening since then?
Riess: Just been trying to improve my game every day. I’ve been learning. All of my friends are absolutely amazing at poker; Loni Harwood, Jon Taylor, Jon Hilton, Bryan Campanello, they all won bracelets this year. Phil Hui, Danny Illingworth, the list could go on. I could name 100 of them.
WSOP: How did you get in with that crowd?
Riess: Just traveling the Circuit. I talk hand histories with them all the time and ask them for advice. We’re all just trying to get better. We’re all young. We’re about to be pretty good one day.
WSOP: You’ve already locked up a bunch of money, but what’s your mindset as November approaches?
Riess: Oh we’re going to win it. There’s no way we don’t.
WSOP: Is there a particular player at the final table who impressed you?
Riess: They’re all really good. Me and Carlos [Mortensen] went at it all day. He kept playing back at me and I wasn’t going to let him try to run me over.
WSOP: You’re 23 years old and the youngest player in the field. Does that mean anything to you?
Riess: No, not really. A lot of other people are probably more experience; like JC Tran, obviously. I honestly feel like I’m the best player at the table, so I’m just going to play my heart out.
WSOP: What kind of odds do you give yourself to win?
Riess: Oh I have to be the favorite.
WSOP: How did you get started playing poker and what’s lead up to this moment now?
Riess: I started playing poker when I was 14 years old. I actually taught myself. One of my friends learned how to play before me. He was playing and I was like, “Oh I want to play.” I basically just taught myself how to play and was always really good at it. I took it very seriously. I graduated from Michigan State in December so I didn’t have a chance to play many tournaments and randomly on a weekend I decided to drive out to the Hammond [Indiana] for the Main Event [and I placed second]. I got over a quarter million for that. I still finished college, then all of 2013 I’ve just been traveling playing tournaments.
WSOP: Did you ever consider putting your degree to work?
Riess: No. It was poker the whole time.
WSOP: Where did the prhase “Riess the Beast” come from?
Riess: My buddy Dylan who wears the green “Riess the Beast” shirt, he’s been my best friends since middle school. We went to middle school and high school together and just became better and better friends throughout time. In Hammond, going into Day 3 I called him and said, “Hey, I’m going to win this tournament if you want to come out and see it.” So he hops on a train from Detroit to Chicago. He has like $100 to his name, spends $70 on the train to [get to Hammond]. While he was there – he was an advertising major, so he’s really big on making a brand – he just thought of Riess the Beast and he told the WSOP people in Black Hawk and it clicked and ever since then that’s my nickname.
WSOP: You just mentioned your friend Dylan had $100 to his name, you’re about to have a heck of a lot more than that. What are you going to do to celebrate?
Riess: We’re about to celebrate tonight. Then, I don’t know. I don’t really have any plans yet. Just enjoy the moment and don’t spend all the money.
WSOP: Have you given any thought to how you might prepare or practice?
Riess: I’m just going to let everything settle and eventually I’m going to do research on the players and see if there’s other video footage of them playing. Obviously when [the WSOP airs on ESPN, I’ll] watch all of that and just study everybody. I feel like the people at the final table are going to be highlighted the most in the footage, so just study and continue to try and get better.
WSOP: What was your daily life like before you made the November Nine?
Riess: The last sixth months I’ve been traveling non-stop. I was in L.A. all of January and February. I had an apartment and played the entire L.A. Poker Classic. Then I went to [the WSOP Circuit at Black Hawk], then went home, then had to chase points to get into the [WSOP] National Championship so I went to North Carolina, Philadelphia, then went down to the National Championship in New Orleans. I didn’t cash, but I made Day 3. I’ve been out here the entire summer. I had a $20,000 score before this, but that’s about it – a couple other smaller cashes.
WSOP: Does this feel like a culmination of all that work?
Riess: I’m just happy. I honestly expected this– I do expect to win the tournament. I expected to be here the whole time. I’ve been playing amazing. I five-bet folded kings pre-flop on Day 3. I put in like a third of my stack and folded kings and I’m almost positive he had aces. I’ve just been playing really well and smart and using pot control and I think I’m going to win it.
WSOP: I know winning has been the plan the whole time, but what was the moment when you realized you really had a good shot at it?
Riess: After dinner break today. When the next level started, I had 5 million in chips and when that level ended I had 20 million or 25 million. It was just an amazing level. After that I was like, “Wow I’m really going to win this tournament.”
WSOP: I know you can hear your friends on the rail. What does it mean to have them here supporting you?
Riess: It’s awesome. My phone has been blowing up non-stop, Facebook and Twitter – just so much support. My entire family, like my dad always goes to bed at 9 o’clock. He’s awake in Michigan, it’s like 6 in the morning there now. All my aunts, my cousins, all my friends, everybody. It’s just amazing. The support – I couldn’t do it without them, honestly.
WSOP: You’re young, you’re 23. How many times have you played the Main Event?
Riess: First time. This is it. My first-ever poker cash – the first tournament I ever cashed in in my life – was this past October. Since then I’ve cashed in like 20 tournaments. I think I’m sixth in the world in [number of cashes] in 2013. I just play really smart and grind it out. It’s all about bagging and surviving.
WSOP: Obviously you take pride in your accomplishment, as you should. How much pride would you take in winning the Main Event?
Riess: It would be absolutely amazing. Everyone is already super proud of me and I’m obviously super proud of myself, but there’s still work to be done. There are eight more people to beat, so we’re not settling.