Earlier this week, a previously little known 23-year-old poker player called Ryan Riess won the World Series of Poker Main Event and $8,361,570. Riess won not only a phenomenal amount of money and the opportunity to have his photo in papers the world over – I saw him staring at me over a large block of money in London’s Metro newspaper on Wednesday morning – but he also found himself on a high, if not well remunerated, pedestal. Pros, players and trolls the world over had the chance to watch his plays and his acceptance speech many times over. Button folds were brought into question as was his preparation for the event, but one thing more than anything else was scrutinized: his claim to be the best player in the world.
“All the way you’ve had this incredible certainty that you’re going to win this. What gave that to you?” asked former EPT presenter Kara Scott.
Riess, still dewy-eyed and grasping his jewel-encrusted bracelet, thanked God – this was an American sports finale, after all – and then uttered the words, “I just think that I’m the best player in the world.”
World Champ (for a year)
The winner of the Main Event adopts the unofficial title of World Champion for twelve months and it’s long been accepted that holding that office doesn’t make you the de facto best player. Sure, there have been some great players that have won the Big One; Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and Jonathan Duhamel are among the names that spring to mind. Others, think Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold, show that winning one big tournament might give you the crown but not necessarily automatic respect. While Riess may have to work hard on that front (he has ‘just’ one other big live score), he certainly doesn’t lack confidence or the will to prove himself. We decided to speak to some members of Team PokerStars Pro and find out exactly how important that level of confidence is. Where better to start than a man that’s been there before.
French-Canadian Duhamel won the Main Event in 2010 for $8.9m and is well aware of how important the mental side of the game is.
“Self-belief is key in a lot of sports, especially poker. Without it you can’t win. That being said, it’s easy to see Riess was just living the moment; when you win the biggest tournament of the world, it is tough to contain your emotion. While I’m sure Riess might regret having said that, you have to believe in yourself and in the way you are playing. It is key for winning,” said Duhamel.
Talent > Confidence > Talent?
The interesting point to consider here, and one that you might be able to apply to your own game, is how much Riess’ confidence propelled him towards the final table and into that winner’s photo. Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu, who recently won the WSOP Player of the Year title and the WSOPE High Roller, isn’t shy of shaking things up, but even he was probably surprised how much of a stir his tweet caused a couple of months ago.
I win at poker because I believe I can. That may sound absurdly simple and silly, but at the core, that's really the reason I'm able to win.
— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) September 20, 2013
Many seemed to miss the point. Negreanu wasn’t suggesting that simply believing you would win would automatically take you to the final table or that aces would magically appear in your hand, but that if you didn’t believe in yourself then winning would be that much harder. Harder to bang out a chunky bluff-raise. Harder to lay down a big hand. Harder to make thin value bets when checking behind was an easier option. Just… harder. And the converse is true. Playing with the wind at your back is so much easier, as Vanessa Selbst explains.
“It’s definitely important to have confidence in your own game, especially when playing in very high-pressure situations. Questioning your play can be very dangerous, especially if it causes you to fail to pull the trigger on a big bluff or a big call. In all honesty, I think most of what catapulted Ryan Riess to victory was a fortunate run of cards, but I’m sure his self-confidence allowed him to pull off some key bluffs during HU play or to make big folds like laying down AQ to a 14BB shove from David Benefield,” said Selbst.
Selbst, who recently broke $8m in live tournament cashes, isn’t a stranger to winning. She counts back-to-back NAPT titles among her poker credentials. Those were scored while her fellow Team Pro Jason Mercier was notching up double wins in NAPT Bounty for a combined $721,600. Mercier has close to $10m in live cashes and has been one of the top rated tournament players for the past few years
“I think that self-belief is very crucial towards being successful in poker. Ryan believing that he was the best player at the table combined with him playing extraordinarily well was a lethal combination that propelled him to victory,” said Mercier.
Even between some of the most successful players on the circuit there’s a difference of opinion. PCA Super High Roller winner Scott Seiver, a player not known for mincing his words, was among Riess’ detractors on Twitter, “There is still hope for poker because people seem to think Riess is playing well.”
Seiver has won $8,415,665 in live tournaments, only marginally more than Riess raked in with one $10k bullet, but it’s understandable that someone who’s clocked up 14 six- and seven-figure cashes might consider that they’re better positioned to say who is or isn’t the best player in the world.
It’s not just about making the correct decisions, says EPT Sanremo champ Liv Boeree, but also about the table image you can project. Playing with confidence not only makes you play better, but can also force your opponents off balance.
“Having confidence in yourself, even excessively (as it appears to most onlookers) will give you conviction in all of your plays. This conviction can and will be picked up by your opponents who then may play differently and sub-optimally because they are more intimidated by you. I think this applies even more so in a tournament like the WSOP main event as there are more amateurs than in usual 10ks who are more affected by a player overflowing with self-belief,” explained Boeree.
Advice on how to pull out a nosedive
Building confidence is easy: you play more and you win more. Unfortunately it’s easy for that virtuous circle to break and a loss of confidence often coincides with a downswing.
“You start second guessing every move you make. When that happens just take a break, do something else, something fun. Go for a walk, go play some sports, spend some quality time with friends or family. After a little break your brain will stop second-guessing every decision and it will only be for the best at the poker table,” said Duhamel.
Whether the chicken or the egg comes first it’s hard to say that a loss of self-belief and a downswing aren’t inextricably linked. Riess’ confidence in his ability will have to carry him through if he wants other people to buy into his claim that he’s the best player in the world.
“Ryan Riess has a lot more to prove than win the Main Event before I’d call him the best player in the world. To me the best players are Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu. They are so incredibly all-round and have stood the test of time in all their games,” said Dutch grinder Lex Veldhuis.
None of this is to say that Riess did or didn’t deserve to win, but up there, on that high pedestal, they’ll be plenty of people looking to knock him down.
“During the final table of the Main Event, it was for sure Ryan Riess (who was the best player), but last six months I think my teammate from PokerStars Daniel Negreanu has definitely got it,” said Bertand “ElkY” Grospellier.
Poker is about excellence and consistency, which Negreanu has demonstrated in spades making this year his second best since 2004, when he won the WSOP Player of the Year title for the first time.
Confidence and performance in poker has similarities with many sports but few as much as golf. Hours, if not days, of perfect execution can be destroyed by one small mistake. A hook here or a missed c-bet there can unravel your game and ruin your hard work in seconds. If you lose your faith in yourself, or maybe just even question it, then the repercussions of a single slip-up can shake you to the core.
All-time great golfer Jack Nicklaus, winner of a record 18 major championships, once said, “Confidence is the most important single factor in this game, and no matter how great your natural talent, there is only one way to obtain and sustain it: work.”
Confidence will come when you work on your game, but it won’t magically appear or keep itself alive. Then again, there’s no harm in keeping your fingers crossed for a little bit of run good too.
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Rick Dacey is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog.