A 24-year-old Maryland poker professional won the World Series of Poker main event, outlasting his final opponents in a marathon card session of nearly 12 hours for the $8.53 million title on Wednesday.
Greg Merson emerged with the title before dawn in Las Vegas after a session that proved a showcase for his skills amid the unpredictability of tournament no-limit Texas Hold 'em. On the last hand, Merson put Las Vegas card pro Jesse Sylvia all-in with a king high. Sylvia thought hard, then called with a suited queen-jack.
"This whole stage is nothing you could ever prepare for," Merson said.
Merson's hand held through the community cards - two sixes, a three, a nine and a seven - to give him the title and put his name alongside former champions including Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan.
After an exhausting session, he's ready to join them.
"I feel pretty good - got all the tears out so now I feel relaxed," Merson said.
Merson also pushed past Hellmuth for the series' Player of the Year honors, proving himself the top performer throughout this year's series of card tournaments in Las Vegas and Europe. Merson also won a tournament bracelet this summer in Las Vegas for a no-limit Texas Hold 'em 6-handed tournament.
Sylvia won $5.3 million for second place.
"That was nuts, man," Sylvia said. "I thought whoever was going to heads-up was going to be much deeper than we were."
Merson's victory over Sylvia, 26, came after the pair outlasted the last amateur at the table, 21-year-old Jake Balsiger. The Arizona State senior hoping to become the youngest World Series of Poker champion was eliminated in third place, more than 11 hours into the marathon.
Balsiger gambled his last chips with a queen-10 and was dominated by Merson's king-queen. Merson's hand held through five community cards, forcing Balsiger to exit the tournament no richer than he was starting Tuesday's finale.
The political science major, who has vowed to graduate, won $3.8 million in third.
"I have some homework due tomorrow, my Supreme Court class," Balsiger said. "I didn't do it last week because I was in a final table simulation, so my professor's probably not the happiest with me."
Even before Balsiger was eliminated, the players set a series record by pushing beyond 364 hands at the final table. Balsiger lost on hand 382, while Sylvia lost on hand 399.
All three players traded chips, big bluffs and shocking hands during their marathon run.
"It was kind of swinging emotionally," Sylvia said. "Thinking that you're going to be heads-up and then to make something on the river, and think you're going to be heads up and someone else hits something."
They started play Tuesday night having already outlasted six others at a final table that began on Monday. But they refused to give in with roughly $4.8 million on the line - the difference between first and third place.
"This is exciting," Balsiger told his tablemates as the game played out as part mental sparring, part plain luck.
Merson took a commanding chip lead early with perhaps his gutsiest play of the tournament - sensing weakness in Balsiger and re-raising a 10 million chip bet all-in with just queen high. Balsiger couldn't call, and Merson moved up to more than 100 million in chips.
He didn't have that chip lead for long.
Several hands later, Balsiger wagered the last of his chips with an ace-10 and was well behind Sylvia's ace-queen with his tournament at risk. But a 10 came on the turn, allowing Balsiger to double up.
Then, Sylvia went all-in against Merson, his ace-king against Merson's pocket kings. A four on the river made a wheel straight - ace through five - and vaulted Sylvia to the chip lead, sending his supporters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino into a frenzy.
Later in the session, Balsiger doubled his chips before Sylvia took back the chip lead.
And so it went - par for the course in poker, a game where skill is significant, but luck is certainly a factor.
Balsiger eliminated Russell Thomas in fourth place just after midnight early Tuesday to set up the trio's final showdown. Merson went into play Tuesday night with 88.4 million in chips, compared with 62.8 million for Sylvia and 46.9 million for Balsiger
Merson picked up hands and took control of the three-handed table at the start, picking up strong hands and building his stack to more than half the chips in the tournament.
But Sylvia's fold of a strong hand - a nine high flush - likely kept him in the tournament after he finished contemplating Merson's bet of nearly 3 million in chips. Merson held a queen high flush in a cooler-type hand - one that gamblers in Sylvia's spot routinely lose on.
Sylvia went into the nine-handed final table with a chip lead but lost it to Merson after Merson benefited from an opponent's unforced error.
Merson eliminated Hungarian poker professional Andras Koroknai in sixth place, calling Koroknai's all-in bet with an ace-king and finding Koroknai with king-queen - a marginal hand for the situation.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions in 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists played Monday night until only three players remained, leaving the top three to settle the title.