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From Circuit to stardom

9/17/2013

Watch Ryan Riess' journey to the WSOP main event final table every Tuesday night on ESPN.

Since the World Series of Poker Circuit began in 2005, nearly 1,500 rings have been awarded to hundreds of poker players from around the world.

During these past eight years, the Circuit has allowed poker players to climb through the ranks and establish themselves in the poker world. Grinding their way through the WSOP Circuit, some players like Dwyte Pilgrim (three-time WSOP ring champion and World Poker Tour Champion), Alex Masek (former all-time ring leader with six WSOP Circuit titles) and Doug Carli (the all-time leader in WSOP Circuit cashes with 77 and in WSOP-related cashes with 106) have made a name for themselves. However, none of these players has ever captured the most coveted prize in poker: a WSOP bracelet.

This summer, the WSOP Circuit grinders changed all that when four of the regular tour members emerged victorious at the WSOP in Las Vegas. Former WSOP ring winners Jonathan Taylor (three rings in 2012-13 season including the Black Hawk main event), Loni Harwood (two rings in 2012), Bryan Campanello (2013 Black Hawk $365 no-limit event) and Jonathan Hilton (2013 Council Bluffs $365 no-limit event) all won their first WSOP bracelets this summer and cemented their legacies in the world of poker. Unbelievably, all of these great WSOP Circuit stories may have already been topped by the performance by one person: Ryan Riess.

The 23-year-old battled through 6,352 entrants this summer at the WSOP main event, and at the end of Day 7, he achieved one of the pinnacles of poker and became one of this year's November Nine. Now, the East Lansing, Mich., native is trying to become the second player from the Great Lakes State (Joe Cada was the first in 2009) to win the WSOP main event in the past five years, but this isn't Riess' first brush with poker success. Last October, in his first WSOP Circuit event, Riess finished second at the WSOP Circuit Hammond main event, the largest WSOP Circuit main event of the 2012-13 season.  Riess competed against 1,523 entrants to earn a healthy $239,063 and kick-start his poker career, but originally, he wasn't even planning on playing the event.

"I was actually working [as a poker dealer in Lansing] the night before the Hammond main event," said Riess. "I finished dealing at 11 p.m. and one of my friends really wanted to go play in Hammond. I had nothing to do the next day so I decided to go. We just drove down there four hours that night."

Without any sleep and barely enough money to play, Riess decided to roll the dice and register anyway. He'd previously played in a couple of smaller live events in Michigan, but this was a different beast.

"This was definitely the biggest live event I had played in," he said. "During the tournament, I just grinded it out to the next level and next break."

The next thing he knew, the then-senior at Michigan State University was at the final table, ultimately finishing runner-up to Joshua Williams after a marathon 18-hour session on the final day. Although thoroughly exhausted, Riess was ecstatic at his accomplishment and, more importantly, to suddenly have a significant bankroll. Like most players of this generation, Riess began playing poker right after the historic 2003 victory by Chris Moneymaker. After graduating high school, he entered Michigan State University and decided to pursue a degree in Hospitality Business with an emphasis on casino management. While in college, Riess honed his poker skills by not only playing, but also dealing poker.

"If you really want to get better at poker, [dealing will enable you] to see the game from a different perspective. … I feel like you can learn a lot from that if you take it seriously," he said. "Many times, I would guess what people had. I was right so often and I thought maybe I should take this a little more seriously."

Before his runner-up finish in Hammond, Riess planned to enter the casino industry upon graduation.

"The plan after graduation was to get a job because I was basically broke at the time," he said. "I wanted to pay off my student loans, while playing poker as much as I could. Fortunately, the score in Hammond gave me an instant bankroll and allowed me to follow my dream right from there."

After graduating from Michigan State in December 2012, the Spartan dove right into the poker world with the blessing of his parents.

"My parents had no problem with me playing poker as long I graduated from college," he said. "Since I had my degree, they had no problem with me pursuing my dreams and having a backup plan if things did not work out."

Initially, Riess loved traveling from city to city, following the WSOP Circuit and living out of his suitcase. His poker goal from the outset was to qualify for the 2013 WSOP National Championship, but it was harder than he had expected, especially after his early success. The long grind was made easier as he made more friends along the way and began discussing poker strategy with them.

"I knew a handful of people when I started, but I met a lot more traveling," he said. "Players like Jonathan Taylor, Loni Harwood, Phillip Hui, Danny Illingworth and Jarod Ludemann. They helped me in many ways throughout the season. Talking hands and strategy and ways to play different tournaments from the main event to a $365 turbo."

Throughout the first half of 2013, Riess utilized his poker prowess and his strategy sessions with his friends to earn 16 cashes. Eventually, he achieved his goal at the Chester, Pa., stop where he final tabled a $365 no-limit event, securing enough points to receive an at-large bid in the National Championship. Unfortunately, with lofty expectations, he ended up falling just short of the money at the 2013 WSOP National Championship, won by Jonathan Hilton.

"I set a lot of expectations for myself for that tournament. I finished around 27th and only 16 cashed. It was pretty frustrating. My bankroll was dwindling at the time after taxes and touring. The min-cash was about $17,000, and that was a lot of money."

Riess forged ahead, playing in a conservative number of events this summer, all of the $1,000 or $1,500 no-limit variety.  Cashing in three events prior to the main event, it was his 11th-place finish in Event 30 that was originally the highlight and lowlight of his WSOP.

"I was happy for getting as far as I did [with 2,108 entrants], but disappointed on how I busted. ... but you can't complain about $20,000."

The cashes were enough to convince him he was ready for the main event, and his journey to the final table began with a memorable Day 1A table draw that featured Mike Matusow, Tripp Kirk (another WSOP Circuit grinder) and T.J. Cloutier. He ran well early on in the tournament, getting quads twice on Day 1 and steadily building a solid stack for the first few days. Not one to play conservatively, Riess could've busted just before the money bubble, needing to fade a six-outer for a massive pot.

"I wasn't short-stacked, but I ended up all-in with 10 people from the money," he said. "It was extremely stressful for me, I don't know if I had ever been so nervous in my life up until that point. … I had pocket queens on a J-9-3 flop and he had 10-8. We got it all-in on the flop for about 50 big blinds and I held, which gave me a huge pot."

The rest of the way, Riess rode a roller coaster of chips and emotions to the final table. He entered Day 5 in the top 50 in chips (with 239 remaining), then began Day 6 seventh in chips (with 68 remaining), only to become one of the short stacks to begin the final day. Entering Day 7, Riess started the day 22nd out of the final 27 players, but was still focused on the goal at hand. He found his double-ups early and observers watched as the excitement built across his face with every elimination. He ended the day with 25.8 million in chips and will begin the final table in fifth place.

He's made his way from the Circuit into the poker spotlight in a hurry, but its the support of his friends from the tour that have kept him focused, and their continued presence will make him a dangerous competitor at the upcoming final table.

"In a lot of sense, I do feel I'm representing them," said Riess. "A lot of players were talking that we were just circuit kids, but a lot of them crushed it this summer. And I'm representing them on the biggest stage in poker. And I hope I make them proud."