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Winning the Big One

Greg Merson conquers final table for World Series of Poker Main Event title

by Sean Chaffin


ESPN’s cameras were poised and ready to capture an exciting final table in the 2012 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in late October as the remaining three players settled in to battle it out on live television for the $8.5 million top prize and a gold championship bracelet valued at $150,000.  When play began on Oct. 30 shortly before at 6 p.m. at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, who would have guessed that 11 hours later the same three players would still be at that table?

This year’s Main Event played host to an epic final table.  The large and raucous crowd at the Penn and Teller Theater witnessed an almost 12-hour battle that finally came to an end when 24-year-old poker pro Greg Merson’s Kc Qs held up against Jesse Sylvia’s Qh 10h.  Merson’s accomplishment is the biggest in the poker world.  He had to overcome a field of 6,598 players who plunked down $10,000 each for their shot to win poker’s premier event en route to the title.

An added bonus for Merson is that his victory assured him a WSOP Player of the Year title.  The honor would have gone to “Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth if Merson finished in any other place except as champion.  Merson had a huge WSOP even before the Main Event.  He earned a bracelet in the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Six-Handed Championship and brought home a cool $1.1 million for his victory in that event.

“I’ve played a lot of long cash games in my career which helps you prepare for something like this.  But this whole stage is something you can’t ever really prepare for,” Merson said shortly after winning the tournament and tearfully placing his gold bracelet on the wrist of his mother.  “I couldn’t feel better for everyone who I’m sharing this victory with.”


     The final nine players returned to action in Las Vegas on Oct. 29.  The near-live coverage by ESPN has added an even more dynamic element to the annual poker spectacle and as play resumed under the bright lights, the biggest mover at the table was 21-year-old Jake Balsiger.  He came to the final table in seventh place, but managed to control his chips and move into the final three the following day.  Balsiger battled gallantly throughout the final three-handed action, even taking the chip lead at one point.

Balsiger, a political science student at Arizona State University, would have become the youngest Main Event champion in history had he emerged victorious.  As it turned out, he would have to be satisfied with a third-place finish and $3,799,079.  Facing a table full of experienced players, Balsiger adjusted his game and made some great plays.

“Really, all I hoped to do was make it to fifth place,” Balsiger said at the WSOP news conference.  “I’m freerolling this.  I came here feeling like I had already won.”

The chip leader entering the final table, 26-year-old Jesse Sylvia played fantastic poker throughout and battled back and forth with Merson for the chip lead after surrendering it.  Sylvia, a native of Martha’s Vineyard, MA, found himself at a 2-to-1 disadvantage in chips when heads-up play began after 11 grueling hours of three-handed play.

About 30 minutes into heads-up play, Merson was crowned the champ and Sylvia took home almost $5.3 million for his second place finish.  With a few diehard fans still cheering on the players, the final hand was played about 5:45 a.m. local time (PST).  From nine players to champion, the entire final table lasted 18 hours.


The road to poker stardom has been an interesting one for Merson.  A native of Laurel, MD, Merson is a self-admitted former drug abuser who has been through rehab twice and now credits yoga with keeping him balanced and down to earth.  He spoke of his past battles with drugs and alcohol addiction and recovery after his victory.  He hopes his own story will inspire others.

“That’s where a lot of emotion comes from.  I could possibly not even be alive right now; and that’s no exaggeration,” he said.  “I did not bring that story out to the public to get pity.  I just felt comfortable releasing that information; sharing my story and trying to help other people.  I have had a lot of people private message me.  Anything I can do to help the community with this problem, because we live such a crazy lifestyle, it’s easy to get caught up in that stuff.  So, this is something I look forward to ­­­­­- to helping more people with whatever I can do.”

Merson admits he got caught up in the “poker lifestyle;” a young man with quite a bit of money who was ready to party.  Does he worry about the possibility of a relapse now that he has a major cash infusion?

“No.  Not at all,” he said. “That’s the first thing I think of every day when I wake up.  I never want to do any of that again, ever.  And now coming out in public about it makes me even have to act more responsibly.  I mean, if I did something it would have to be in hiding and it’s going to be pretty hard to hide anything now.  I feel very good about my recovery.”

Merson is a huge fan of Baltimore’s sports teams; especially the baseball Orioles and he wore one of their jerseys both days at the final table.  Unlike the Orioles magical season that ended just short of the World Series, Merson’s run didn’t come to an end until he had joined the growing list of poker “young guns” to achieve greatness on poker’s largest stage.  The last five bracelet winners in the Main Event have been 24 years of age or younger.  Despite the long hours at the table, Merson says he was able to stay focused and alert.

“You can’t let fatigue get in the way.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he explained.  “I have pushed myself through tons of hours of poker in the past.  Obviously, you have to get through it somehow and don’t do anything dumb because odds are you’re never going to have an opportunity like this again.  I just thought I had to keep grinding it out, you know?”

“People either play too tight or too loose short-handed, but for the most part, this three-handed match was pretty solid.  I mean, Jake (Balsiger) struggled in certain spots, perhaps from lack of experience.  But Jesse (Sylvia) played really well,” Merson commented.  “I couldn’t really do much because Jake was having problems in certain spots, and I was out of position with Jesse (to my left) so I couldn’t really do anything.  That made me have to go in limping, and so, from there, I just started grinding away.  I picked my spots and ran good when I needed too.  I built up a stack on a key hand where I had K-K to A-K.  I was winning a bunch of pots before that.  You just can’t give up.”

That will to win certainly paid off for Merson.  He instantly became recognized as the world champion of poker and an ambassador to the game.  The cash doesn’t hurt either.  As for what’s next, this poker pro has no intention of slowing down after so much recent success on the felt and already has plans to return to playing the game he loves.

“I’m ready to go to Macau.  I had already planned on going there,” he said.  “Obviously, this gives me some more opportunities.  That’s what I am looking forward to the most, which is getting into the biggest cash games in the world and not blowing all my money.”

2012 World Series of Poker Main Event final table results:

1st – Greg Merson, $8.5 million

2nd ­– Jesse Sylvia, $5.3 million

3rd – Jake Balsiger, $3.8 million

4th – Russell Thomas, $2.85 million

5th – Jeremy Ausmus, $2.1 million

6th – Andras Koroknai, $1.6 million

7th – Michael Esposito, $1.3 million

8th – Robert Salaburu, $971,000

9th – Steve Gee, $755,000


Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Rockwall, Texas.  His new book, RAISING THE STAKES:  True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces, is available as an eBook and in paperback at,, and  He is also editor of; all about poker history, lore, and people.  If you have a gambling or poker story idea, email Sean at


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