Poker as a trend lost its juice somewhere around 2008, a victim of federal crackdowns on online poker and bros' short attention spans. But poker as a source of revenue can still be extraordinarily profitable, provided you're good and lucky all at once. Ryan Riess, a 23-year-old professional poker player, demonstrated that late Tuesday night by winning the World Series of Poker's Main Event and taking home an $8.4 million payday.
Riess won in a brief but dramatic head-to-head matchup with Las Vegas club promoter Jay Farber, the conclusion of a 62-event tournament that began back in May. The $10,000 Main Event started with 6,352 players and, in the summertime, got whittled down to the so-called "November Nine," nine players who returned this week to determine a champion. Seven of the players were knocked out during a nine-hour session on Monday. That left only Riess and Farber to play for the championship at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Farber began the evening's play 19 million chips ahead, with 105 million chips. But Riess hammered away with both big plays and nibbles, and by the end of the night had Farber down to 14 million chips against Riess' own 176 million. And then came the final hand. Non-poker fans, you might want to skip the next couple paragraphs.
Farber drew a Queen and a five of spades, and decided to go all-in. Riess noticed something in Farber's behavior, a repeat of the moves he made earlier in the evening when Farber had won a huge pot through a bluff.
"I was picking up on his body language and facial tells," Riess said. "When everybody was screaming then, he did the exact same thing." That alone would have been enough to get Riess to call Farber's bluff, but Riess had the literal ace in the hole: his draw was an outstanding Ace-King of hearts.
Then came the flop: four-Jack-10. A Queen would be no help to Farber, as it would have given Riess a straight. So only one of the three remaining fives in the deck would help Farber. Neither of the final two cards was a five, and the tournament was over. Riess had won the diamond-encrusted World Series bracelet he'd coveted since he was 14 years old ... which, let's remember, was only nine years ago.
This being Vegas, each player brought his own entourage. Riess' crew wore "Riess the Beast" t-shirts. Farber's included a rowdy panda, a nod to Farber's "Combat Panda" nickname, and a bro-horde that mocked Riess' height, hair, and hometown of Detroit. Presumably no one was sorry to see them lose.
Even so, Farber did have a compelling backstory. A club promoter and amateur, he sold several stakes in his winnings to raise a portion of the $10,000 entry fee. It was a solid return on investment; Farber won $5.2 million, and thus his stakeholders stand to win $520,000 for every $1,000 they invested.
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- Ryan Riess