Learn Op-Ed: On the Champ Saying He’s “the Best Player in the World”

Ryan Riess

The conclusion of another World Series of Poker Main Event last week was followed as usual with much discussion regarding the play at the final table, with all nine players’ decisions and the relative good or bad fortune experienced by each providing much for players and fans to contemplate.

Within the poker community one rarely encounters consensus about anything, in particular regarding the quality of players’ performances in a tournament. The WSOP Main Event especially tends to produce a wide variety of responses as observers debate whether or not the players’ relative skill levels were accurately reflected in the outcome.

As any of us who have played even a little bit of poker well know, the game most certainly tends to reward the most skillful players, but luck also plays an important role, too. Those who have played for a while realize how over the long term, better players usually come out ahead and less skilled players usually lose.

A tournament like the WSOP Main Event has such a “deep” structure — with long, two-hour levels and slowly increasing blinds and antes — savvy tournament players often can minimize their risk-taking and position themselves to have a better chance to last longer in the event than can their less seasoned opponents.

Even so, such players still have to avoid being unlucky — often multiple times — in order to negotiate a path through such a huge field. Those making the final table almost always have had a lucky moment or two (or ten) along the way, although it is usually also true that they’ve made many smart decisions, too, to help them get there.

Knowing how much luck can matter when it comes to poker tournaments, some couldn’t help but react when winner Ryan Riess answered a question from ESPN's Kara Scott about his self-confidence in their short interview after his victory by saying “I just think I’m the best player in the world.”

It was certainly a provocative thing to say, with many of the ensuing debates fueled by respondents asking questions of each other. Does Riess really believe what he said? Will he now try to prove himself by playing big buy-in games or tourneys? Shouldn’t Main Event winners be more humble? Who does he think he is, Muhammad Ali?

After the river card of the last hand was dealt, Riess’s supporters piled on top of him in a joyous celebration that resembled how that other World Series ended just a week before when the Boston Red Sox clinched the title in Fenway. But suddenly there was a different kind of piling on happening as many took to Twitter and the forums to respond to the new champion’s “best player” claim.

Rich Ryan related some of the commentary regarding Riess’s statement in his “Five Thoughts” piece last week for PokerNews, adding that like Phil Hellmuth — another player who has experienced tournament success and who has never been shy about playing up his own talents — “Riess is now a polarizing figure because of his own self-confidence, which is a great talking point for members of the media and entertaining for the fans at home.”

Riess was interviewed on Fox News the day after his win, with Shepard Smith bringing up the “best player” statement during the brief segment. Riess said how it had been an idea he’d been expressing for several months leading up to the WSOP, an explanation that made it sound as though it might have had more to do with improving his own self-confidence than with singing his own praises — more of a boost than a boast.

Regardless, that interview on Fox News also brought up a different issue that made me think of Riess’s post-tourney claim in yet another context. While joking around with Riess, Smith asked the 23-year-old what he planned to do with his winnings, to which Riess replied he planned to invest a lot of it and probably buy a house.

“That sounds stupid... you know what I would do?” replied Smith.

“What’s that?” said Riess.

“Put it all on black,” said Smith.

Riess politely chuckled, playing along with Smith’s attempt at humor. The joke made me think how in the broader public’s mind, the skill element of poker isn’t always appreciated as much as it is within the world of poker players and those who follow the game closely. Indeed, when one thinks of the most common misconceptions about poker, the idea that “poker is all luck” (and like other forms of gambling such as roulette) is near the top of the list.

It was hard to know for sure, but Smith didn’t seem too convinced by the idea that Riess was the “best player in the world,” not because he had watched him play but because of a preconception about poker not really being a skill-based game. Whatever Smith believes, there are definitely others who aren’t familiar with poker who have that idea that it is primarily a gambling game like other games in the casino where players really are just hoping to get lucky in order to win.

All of which leads me back to the possible significance of a poker player winning the most prestigious and most coveted tournament in poker and then making a statement afterwards highlighting how skill was necessary to win — that his winning was a consequence of being the “best player,” not the “most lucky.”

Sure, within the poker world — where we know poker involves both skill and luck — we’re going to debate such a claim endlessly. But when it comes to letting the broader public know that poker is in fact not strictly a luck-based game, might it not be such a bad thing to have our “champion” focus on how skill prevails in poker?

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