LAS VEGAS -- There's no better moment in poker than watching the crowning of a new world champion. On Tuesday night, tears and emotions flowed from the hundreds of friends and family of Ryan Riess as he won the 2013 World Series of Poker main event. As the final card hit the felt, the 23-year-old from Clarkston, Mich., standing on the rail with his supporters, fell to the ground. He had outlasted the field of 6,352 players and, in what was the greatest moment of his life, was simply overcome. Cheers, streamers and photos snapped in the seconds that followed, and out of everyone who had made the trek to the Rio, the first people on top of him to celebrate: his parents.
Others tried to pile on, but Riess stood up and hugged his mom and dad who were beaming. He was in tears. His mom, voiceless from cheering on her son, was also in tears. At 23, their son had fulfilled his dream.
"He's just a gentle soul," Cheryl Riess said after the win. "We're just so proud."
The pride on her face grew as he left his supporters and went over to his devastated opponent, Jay Farber. They embraced, both of them sub-30 millionaires with great promise ahead not only in poker, but life. The two had bonded throughout the November Nine process, and over the past two days it was clear they shared a great amount of respect for each other.
Riess left Farber and went back to his crew. They were his rocks through nine grueling days of main event play. He gave out high-fives and countless hugs before being presented with the bracelet and the $8.3 million stacked in bundled bricks.
"I was overwhelmed with joy," Riess said of his championship moment. "I was so happy. I started crying and I was just speechless. My parents told me they were proud of me and they loved me. It was awesome."
Riess made his way back to the friends that he missed the first time around. Everyone had their moment of celebration with him. A moment none of them will ever forget.
The 89-hand heads-up match featured highs and lows for both players, but it was clearly Riess' night. Farber entered heads-up with the lead and extended it early, but Riess found an aggressive gear that he didn't display during Monday's play, giving him the boost. He kept constant pressure on all streets and on a short stack without the cards, Farber couldn't compete. Riess ground his opponent down and, as his A-K defeated Farber's Q-5, he earned the victory. Ironically, those are the two cards that were engraved into the WSOP bracelet in May as placeholders for the champions actual cards.
Riess leaves the Rio with a spotlight that will follow him throughout the rest of his career. He began that career just 13 months ago on the WSOP Circuit and its motto of "First the ring, then the bracelet" came true once again. This time, that bracelet is the biggest one of all.
Many of his friends are Circuit grinders who aspire to accomplish what Riess has just done. He wasn't just playing for himself Tuesday night at that final table, but for a group of players who put their heart and soul into the game for their "one time." He represented the thousands of dreamers who play the professional game at a lower financial level and gave a face to a tour that needed a true icon. Riess' deep roots on the Circuit and this victory can benefit the tour and, while some may strive for his attention to promote different initiatives, hopefully the WSOP will realize that Reiss' most important asset to the game may be his ties on that front.
Riess, more than any of the recent WSOP champions, can make a difference in getting new players into the game.
After Greg Merson won a year ago, I pointed out that his effort as ambassador may have been completed prior to the final table. He wanted to escape the tournament scene and simply go back to the biggest cash games in the world. This year, it's entirely different. Riess doesn't have a game plan, and that may be the best thing for him. He turned down all sponsors prior to the final table because he didn't want anything standing in his way. He wanted to make his own decisions and have a clean slate no matter what happens. Well, kid, you've got plenty of time, and money, to figure it out.
Riess will continue to be a role model for his brother and sister and his degree in hospitality from Michigan State will, for now, go unutilized. What matters most to the champ at this moment is his family and friends. At 23, it shouldn't be any other way.
Enjoy your moment, Ryan. You've earned it.