Ryan Riess thought he spotted a tell from Jay Farber. So, he made the call.
“I was picking up a lot on his body language, like facial tells,” Riess said. “It was probably a really bad call. I’ll probably take some criticism for it.”
Yet, that’s how confident Riess was in his ability to win the World Series of Poker’s Main Event. He was willing to give away a sizable portion of his chips at a key moment in the heads-up match holding only queen high.
“I just had a good feeling about everything,” Riess said.
Riess, a 23-year-old professional poker player who lives in Las Vegas, declared himself the favorite in the days leading up to the final table of the 44th annual $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship. He then backed up his bravado by defeating Farber in a heads-up tussle on Tuesday night that lasted 91 hands and almost four hours.
“It’s exactly what I dreamt about. Everything,” said Riess, who earned $8.36 million and his first WSOP bracelet. “All the streamers falling and everybody supporting me. It’s pretty amazing.”
Riess was the youngest competitor at the final table and continued the trend of youthful champions during the “November Nine” era. Since the tournament underwent a format change in 2008 to delay the final table until the fall, the other winners have been 22, 21, 23, 22 and 24 years old.
He also is the latest in a string of 20-something standouts to emerge from the poker boom following amateur Chris Moneymaker’s Main Event win in 2003. Riess picked up poker when he was 14 and said he started running a $10 game twice a week in his basement in Waterford, Mich., with his friends.
“I won all the time, which I thought was kind of weird,” Riess said. “So I was like, ‘Maybe I should do this more often.’”
Riess went on to Michigan State and earned a degree in business. Last October, he traveled from East Lansing, Mich., to Hammond, Ind., to play in the WSOP Circuit Main Event, where he outlasted a field of more than 1,500 players and finished second, winning nearly $240,000.
“After that, that was my immediate goal, to continue to get better and play in the (WSOP) Main Event,” Riess said. “And it worked.”
The Circuit Event in Indiana also was the birthplace of Riess’ nickname, the “Beast.” Riess’ best friend arrived from Michigan before the final table, and the advertising major spread word of his buddy’s moniker to tournament officials.
“He’s really big on making a brand,” Riess said after the final table was set in July. “It clicked, and ever since then that’s my nickname.”
Throughout the two-day event at the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater, hundreds of enthusiastic fans chanted “Riess the Beast” each time he won a pot. Riess was mobbed on stage by several friends after he eliminated Farber, a 29-year-old local VIP host who won $5.17 million.
“I’m just so happy that all my friends and family were able to come out and watch me and support me. It’s just an amazing feeling,” Riess said. “I’m sure everyone had a great time.”
Thanks to social media and ESPN’s almost-live feed of the final table, observers easily identified Riess in his Calvin Johnson replica Detroit Lions jersey. Numerous comedians joked on Twitter that someone wearing a Lions jersey finally won the big one. And one popular sports columnist dubbed Riess “Megatron Nowitzki” in reference to his floppy hair.
“I did hear about that,” Riess said with a laugh. “Hey, I like it. Whatever they want to call me, I’m OK with it.”
Riess used aggressive play in the final hour to grind away at Farber’s stack and benefited from several strong starting hands throughout the “November Nine.” On the final hand, Riess held ace-king against Farber’s queen-5, and Farber was eliminated when neither player paired their hole cards.
Farber, the lone amateur at the table, doesn’t expect to give up his career in the local nightclub scene.
“I feel like I’ll be traveling a lot more for poker just because the opportunity is there and it’s hard to pass up,” Farber said. “But I’ll still work in the clubs. I love my job here. It’s arguably the best job in the world.”
Riess, who started play at the final table Monday fifth in chips, was vague when asked about the next step in his career but did say he was looking forward to his role as poker’s ambassador for the next year.
And he already has plans for the money.
“I’ll sit down with somebody and talk to them,” Riess said, “and figure out something to make sure I never go broke.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.