By Bill Ordine
With poker player Greg Merson's supporters waving a Maryland flag in the stands at the Rio All-Suites Hotel casino, the Laurel native earned $8.53 million in winning the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas on Oct. 31.
Merson, wearing an Adam Jones Orioles jersey, battled two other competitors for nearly 12 grueling hours before the 24-year old finally eliminated Jesse Sylvia of Massachusetts with a hand of King-high with a pair of 6s on the board against Sylvia's Queen-high to win poker's biggest prize.
Throughout the event, which was televised on ESPN with a 15-minute delay, the chip lead changed hands among the final three, Merson, Sylvia and Jake Balsiger, but Merson held the advantage for most of the night.
"I wasn't concerned," Merson said. "I felt confident and I felt that as long as I played well, I could live with [finishing] one, two or three. It would still be a lot of money, more than any other tournament."
Sylvia, 26, collected nearly $5.3 million for second place and Balsiger, 21, of Portland, Ore., received almost $3.8 million for third. The Main Event actually began in July with a field of 6,598 entrants and was pared to nine players. That final table of nine reconvened on Monday and played down to the three aforementioned players beginning at 9 p.m. Oct. 30.
In addition to winning the Main Event, Merson also won the World Series of Poker Player of the Year award, given to the player who accumulates the most points in WSOP tournaments played in America and Europe. Merson had also won a WSOP tournament just before the Main Event started, which paid $1.13 million.
During the weeks leading to the final table, Merson's past drug addiction and rehabilitation became a familiar part of the tournament's storyline. Merson, who went through a detoxification earlier this year, has been candid about his troubles that led to his dropping out of the University of Maryland and how they had adversely affected his poker game.
"If people can look to me, I hope it's for two things," he said. "One, if you're really passionate about something and you have a dream, it can come true if you work hard enough. And second, if there's something in the way, fix it. Be responsible for it, don't blame anything else and work on it yourself."
At the Rio's Penn & Teller Theater, where the final table was played, Merson had a vocal cheering section of Marylanders, including pro players Anthony Gregg of Columbia and Christian Harder of Annapolis. Steve Dannenmann, the Severn accountant who finished second in the 2005 Main Event, was also there.
One of Merson's most famous backers, though, was Phil Ivey, often called the world's best poker player. Before the final table, Ivey made Merson the favorite to win the tournament. The Marylander was third in chips when the final table of nine began and had the lead when it got down to three.
Merson said he was flattered by Ivey's praise, but said he still had work to do to get to Ivey's level.
"I hope to get there … both in what Phil Ivey has done in poker and in the business world," Merson said.
Looking ahead, Merson intends to hit the big-time poker circuit starting with January's PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Then it's on to Australia, and finally a stop at Macau's booming casinos for cash games. He'll also continue to play poker online where it's legal.
Meanwhile, Merson is also hoping that Maryland voters approve table games during next week's election so he can play closer to home.
"It would be nice to have to drive only 15 minutes for a game," Merson said. "It doesn't have to be high stakes. It's good to be able to get together with the guys for a night out where it's just a social thing."
Posted Oct. 31, 2012