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November 21, 2017

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Former roommates, close friends advance to WSOP Main Event final table

Jesse Sylvia will return in October with the chip lead but Russell Thomas not far behind


Steve Marcus

Gaelle Baumann, left, of France prepares to leave the stage after getting knocked out of the World Series of Poker’s $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold’em main event at the Rio Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Baumann finished in 10th place, just missing the final table. At right players Jesse Sylvia and Russell Thomas, right, celebrate.

WSOP's October Nine

Members of the October Nine reach for the championship bracelet held by Jack Effel, World Series of Poker tournament director, after making the final table in the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold'em main event at the Rio Monday, July 17, 2012. From left are: Russell Thomas, Jacob Balsiger, Jeremy Ausmus, Steven Gee, Greg Merson, Jesse Sylvia, Robert Salaburu, Andras Koroknai and Michael Esposito. All the players are from the United States except Koroknai who is from Hungary. Launch slideshow »

Players Compete on Day 7 of WSOP Main Event

Robert Salaburu, a poker player from San Antonio Texas, competes in the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold'em main event at the Rio Monday, July 16, 2012 Launch slideshow »

Final table chip counts

  • Jesse Sylvia — 43,875,000
  • Andras Koroknai — 29,375,000
  • Greg Merson — 28,725,000
  • Russell Thomas — 24,800,000
  • Steven Gee — 16,860,000
  • Michael Esposito — 16,200,000
  • Robert Salaburu — 15,155,000
  • Jacob Balsiger — 13,155,000
  • Jeremy Ausmus — 9,805,000

2012 WSOP Main Event Final Table Payouts

  • 1st — $8,527,982
  • 2nd — $5,292,889
  • 3rd — $3,797,558
  • 4th — $2,850,494
  • 5th — $2,154,616
  • 6th — $1,640,461
  • 7th — $1,257,790
  • 8th — $971,252
  • 9th — $754,798

It got to the point where Jesse Sylvia expected a text message a few minutes before the dinner break every day of the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Sylvia would look down at his phone, without fail, and find some variation of “where do you want to eat?” from a certain one of his pals. That friend was Russell Thomas, who also happened to be playing in poker’s world championship event.

“We would talk about chip counts, ” Sylvia said. “Not really discuss poker, but get each other pumped up to go on.”

Early Tuesday morning at the Rio, Sylvia and Thomas got as far as they could possibly go in the Main Event — at least until October. Sylvia and Thomas overcame undeniable odds in outlasting 6,589 other players to reach the final table together.

They both earned ninth-place money of $754,798 with a chance to go after much more, including the $8.5 million first-place prize later this fall.

After a day where he never stopped raking in pots, the 26-year old Sylvia is the chip leader with 43.87 million. The 24-year old Thomas is close behind in fourth with 24.8 million.

“I actually feel like I’m dreaming because this doesn’t happen,” Sylvia said. “In your dreams, the people you know are there and stuff. It’s just really weird that he’s here.”

Thomas first came into contact with Sylvia shortly before he graduated from Temple University with a degree in finance. Two successful Internet cash-game players, Thomas and Sylvia first met online and quickly hit it off.

They rented a place together in Las Vegas for the 2010 World Series of Poker.

“We spent a few months living in the same house,” Thomas said. “He’s one of my best poker friends for sure. It’s really unreal.”

Sylvia went on to split time between Las Vegas and his hometown of West Tisbury, Mass., continuing with his dream job of professional poker. Although Thomas made $84,526 for a final table appearance at the WSOP in his first summer out of college, he decided to take a more traditional career course.

Thomas became an actuary in Hartford, Conn., a job he continues to hold — for now.

“I don’t think I’m going back to work,” Thomas said. “I might tie up a few things there, but I think I’m done with work.”

Unlike previous years, this year’s final table features no established professionals who have long histories in poker. This is life-changing money for everyone left standing.

Like Thomas, the rest of the field felt overwhelmed even thinking about what was just accomplished Tuesday morning.

“I’m not going to be worried about money for a long time, I would say probably the rest of my life” said Jacob Balsiger, a 21-year old student at Arizona State University. “Every weekend I can do whatever I want now. It’s pretty nice.”

Balsiger planned to return to Tempe, Ariz., and start the party by the end of the week. Drinks are on him.

Sylvia will spend the three months before the final table re-forms at the Penn & Teller Theater doing the same. He said he would mix partying with vigorous study and practice sessions in preparation for when play resumes.

He won’t, however, need to prepare for Thomas. As if Sylvia didn’t have enough information on his buddy, he’s also already hatched a plot for the man that doubles as his greatest ally and toughest competition.

“I’m just going to poison him,” Sylvia joked. “He’s coming to visit and I’m just going to take him out then.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

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