He wandered the Rio keeping an eye out for his idols and avoiding speeding scooters.
This year, he’s the reigning World Champion.
“It’s very different. I remember the first time I was almost star-struck in a sense and now I’m the star.
"Before I’d come here and be like ‘Oh, that’s Phil Ivey,’ or ‘Oh, that’s Greg Merson,’ and now a lot of people are saying that about me,” Riess told PokerListings on a break from the $1k Turbo event at the Rio.
“So it’s kind of cool, I get to meet a lot of fans and take pictures and sign autographs and stuff, it’s fun.”
Short-Stack Hopes to World-Champ Dreams
"I wasn''t really thinking about winning"
Riess came into last year’s WSOP with slightly more than $265,000 in tournament earnings but no straight-up tournament victories to his name.
Then Riess went on to win the biggest tournament out there. Thousands of players go into the Main Event hoping -- even thinking -- that they’ll win, but that reality only comes true for one person.
Ironically, the fact that he might actually become the world champion dawned on Riess when he was a short stack.
“[The moment came] probably on Day 7 when there were 27 left. I was short-stacked going into the day and I wasn’t really thinking about winning,” Riess said.
“I had a really good table draw with Chris Lindh to my right. He was playing really aggressive, so I thought maybe if I could double once or twice off him it’d put me in a good spot to have a chance to win it.”
Riess did continue to chip up and made it to the November 9 fourth in chips with 18.3 million. He then came back in November with an army of fans wearing “Riess the Beast” t-shirts.
Riess did some more eliminating and chipping up and got heads-up with Jay Farber. Riess had another uphill battle in front of him, though, as he started the heads-up match with 85.58 million in chips to Farber’s 105 million.
But Riess overcame again and took down the Main Event, changing his life forever. It’s also forced him to change the way he plays.
Everyone Wants to Take Down the World Champ
The odds are stacked against a repeat.
“I’ve had to change my game a little bit, people play a lot more against me,” Riess said. "Like earlier I raised and this guy shoved 20 BB with 9-10 offsuit just because he wanted to beat me.”
Riess has already played six events this series and scored one cash, finishing 36th in the $1,500 Pot-Limit Hold’em event for $4,120.
Last year, Riess’ buy-ins were constrained to $1,000 and $1,500 events with one $2,500 event as well as the Main. Now the reigning champion can afford a little more.
“[My goal is to] win a bracelet. I’m playing, at max, like 28 tournaments or so. So I’m playing a lot of tournaments, trying to give myself the best shot to win one,” Riess said.
“Almost all in NLHE, I played a pot-limit hold’em earlier and cashed in it so I’ll probably play the $10K PLHE. Maybe one or two PLOs, but mainly NLHE and try to do it again.”
Only four players have won the WSOP Main Event back-to-back: Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar and Johnny Chan.
The fields back then were significantly smaller, of course. Moss defeated a field of seven players in the inaugural WSOP Main Event and then beat a field of six the following year.
Out of the four, Chan faced the most opponents for the double victory, facing 152 in 1987 and 167 in 1988. Chan then came close to clinching a third win the following year but fell second to Phil Hellmuth.
"It's the Best Poker Spectacle in the World"
With this year’s Main Event featuring a $10m guarantee Riess will face one of the largest Main Event fields in history.
It's the best poker spectacle in the world"
Whomever clinches this title will have to dodge a minefield. Riess’ advice to first timers: enjoy it.
“Just have fun,” Riess said. “It’s the best poker spectacle in the world.”
Aside from having fun Riess suggests staying away from the pits -- a problem he had a few years back.
“I know a lot of people who will come out here with five or ten thousand to try and give it a shot to win a bracelet and after the first day, they lost half their bankroll playing blackjack or something,” Riess said.
“Stay away from the pits, stay away from the strip clubs, just have fun.”