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October 17, 2017

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Budding superstar Greg Merson takes chip lead at World Series of Poker

Jesse Sylvia and Jake Balsiger join Merson as the other two players to advance to final day


Steve Marcus

Greg Merson, left, stacks chips after winning a pot during the World Series of Poker Main Event final table at the Rio on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Jesse Sylvia is at right.

2012 WSOP Final Table

Greg Merson, right, talks with players during the World Series of Poker Main Event final table at the Rio on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Final table chip counts

  • Greg Merson — 88,350,000
  • Jesse Sylvia — 62,750,000
  • Jake Balsiger — 46,875,000
  • Russell Thomas — 0
  • Jeremy Ausmus — 0
  • Andras Koroknai — 0
  • Michael Esposito — 0
  • Robert Salaburu — 0
  • Steve Gee — 0

2012 WSOP Main Event Final Table Payouts

  • 1st — $8,531,853
  • 2nd — $5,295,149
  • 3rd — $3,799,073
  • Russell Thomas (4th) — $2,851,537
  • Jeremy Ausmus (5th) — $2,155,313
  • Andras Koroknai (6th) — $1,640,902
  • Michael Esposito (7th) — $1,258,040
  • Robert Salaburu (8th) — $971,360
  • Steve Gee (9th) — $754,798

The one poker professional capable of shifting attention away from the game’s world championship final table with his mere presence sauntered into the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio Monday evening.

Flanked by a bodyguard matching his every stride, Phil Ivey took a seat in the crowd of the World Series of Poker Main Event final table.

Ivey stayed for most of the first level as nine players competed for the $8.5 million first-place prize. He stopped by for one reason, and it wasn’t himself. Ivey came to support Greg Merson.

“He’s always been my idol in poker,” Merson said of Ivey. “At this point in my career, there’s not a lot of guys I really look up to a lot. I respect a lot of players, but I try to mold myself after him.”

After Tuesday night, poker players everywhere may attempt to mold their games after Merson. The 24-year-old from Laurel, Md., goes into the final day of the World Series of Poker with 88.3 million chips for the lead over the two other finalists who outlasted six more players Monday.

Merson started the final table in third but quickly showed why he had garnered the most substantial praise out of everyone left in the tournament. Ivey was one of many notable professionals who was so impressed with Merson that he picked him to win.

Even the other players at the final table agreed Merson was their biggest competition. Jesse Sylvia, who had the chip lead at the start of play Monday but fell to second with 62 million chips, said Merson was “out of my league” earlier this summer.

“Merson is probably the best player, and he has the most chips, so he’s probably the favorite,” sixth-place finisher Andras Koroknai said through a translator.

Koroknai’s demise was the best illustration of Merson’s power over the rest of table. Frustrated by Merson’s constant pressure and aggression, the Hungarian put in a sixth bet before the flop and went all-in for more than 40 million chips with King-Queen.

Merson called with Ace-King, two cards that dominated Koroknai’s holding. Merson’s hand held up after the five community cards were dealt to win an 85 million chip pot, the biggest in the tournament thus far.

Koroknai had more chips than two of the players below him, Jeremy Ausmus and Jake Balsiger, combined at that moment. He had no reason to take a risk with a subpar starting hand like King-Queen and likely cost himself at least $1.2 million with the misstep.

But Merson sensed it was coming. He even told Sylvia five minutes before that Koroknai was on the verge of succumbing to a major mistake.

“He just blasted off,” Merson said. “I just kind of felt like it was going to happen.”

Sylvia and Balsiger knocked out Ausmus and Russell Thomas, respectively, shortly after to inch their chip stacks closer to Merson’s.

They’re going to need all the help they can get against Merson in the last round. Merson started slow Monday but stayed patient until he began getting dealt premium hands he could play.

“I got Ace-King 37 million times, which is nice when people put money into the pot,” Merson said. “It makes life easy. I didn’t really think I had a single bluff, at least that worked. I just played solid.”

Merson’s steady disposition at the table is what attracted Ivey, who signed the world-champion hopeful to a sponsorship deal with his new poker training site

“I love his demeanor and I think he’ll be calm,” Ivey said in an exclusive interview with ESPN earlier in the day, “He’ll know when to put the pressure on, and he’ll know when to back off. I’m expecting him to win — hopefully.”

It’s all surreal to Merson. Although he had built an intimidating online reputation, Merson was largely unknown to most of the poker world before winning a WSOP bracelet and $1,136,197 in a $25,000 buy-in event this summer.

It’s unheard of to nab a win that prestigious and follow by making the final day of the Main Event. Merson could become the first player in 12 years to win the Main Event after already having another WSOP title.

He’s relaxed and ready.

“All the pressure that would have come with this moment was relieved by me winning a bracelet before this and winning a big score,” Merson said.

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

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