Ryan Riess was a high school student at Our Lady of the Lakes in Waterford, and once or twice a week he’d have some of his friends over for a friendly game of poker.
“Very small stakes, of course,” Riess told MI Bets. “It was $5 buy-ins. I think we once got up to a $20 buy-in.”
As it turned out, Riess enjoyed the games so much that when he got to Michigan State, he continued to play — and work as a poker dealer — all while getting his degree in hospitality business. He quickly became a student of the game. The itch to try his luck in the world of professional poker pulled at him — and his parents were along for the ride.
“They were very happy that I got the degree, as a lot of people who get really deep into poker in college end up not graduating, because it’s hard to put 100 percent of effort, time, and energy into poker while also succeeding and doing well in school,” Riess said. “They were happy I graduated, that I had the backup plan, but they fully supported me following my dreams.”
That was December 2012. By the following July, in one of poker’s greatest Cinderella stories, Riess made the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event. When the “November 9” came back four months later to complete the tournament, Riess had quite a crew to witness his ascension to the poker stratosphere.
“It was almost all Michigan people,” Riess said. “A few friends from college, but a ton of friends from high school. Plus aunts, uncles, cousins — the whole family came out. It was awesome having everyone there.”
And it was made even more awesome when the rookie took home the bracelet, and with it, an eye-popping $8.36 million top prize.
“I was 23 years old, so naive,” Riess said. “Right after I won, I went to Disney World and then to the Bahamas and Australia. I was traveling non-stop that year, because after you win the Main Event, you’re thrown into this poker ambassador role, whether you want to be or not. That one year is kind of crazy, trying to represent the game the best you can. I don’t know when it all hit me, but it was a blessing I was so young and naive at the time.”
After the victory — and during the whirlwind travel schedule — Riess “moved” to Las Vegas, though when one moves they are usually coming from somewhere else.
“I don’t even know technically where I was living at the time that I won,” Riess said. “I was traveling, playing poker, but right after I won the Main Event I moved here.”
A lot of changes since then
A lot more has changed — both in poker and in Riess’s life — since the victory.
As far as online poker goes, Riess said solvers have all but “solved the game,” and Riess spends much less time in online poker rooms.
“I used to play a ton online — I don’t think I missed a Sunday in four years,” he said. “Now it’s just once in a while.”
And cash games are also a thing of the past for Riess.
These days, it’s the 50 or so days spent playing at the World Series of Poker, which just kicked off this past Tuesday, plus a few Florida tournaments and a tournament in the Bahamas he plays in.
As for the rest of his time?
“I’m married with three girls, ages 7, 4, and 2,” Riess said. “I get to spend most of my time with my family.”
Speaking of family, it’s just a matter of time before he teaches his oldest how to play poker.
“I was playing online the other day, and she was watching me, and I was kind of explaining it to her,” Riess said. “I will definitely be teaching her. I mean, I love poker probably more than anyone you’ll ever talk to.”
Photo: Getty Images