After fighting through a total field of 6,598 to a spot in the final nine, then surviving a final table lasting nearly 400 hands over the last two days, Greg Merson of Maryland became the newest World Series of Poker Main Event champion, pocketing a cool $8,531,853 for his triumph. Merson's win also catapulted him past WSOP Europe Main Event winner Phil Hellmuth to clinch the top spot in the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year race.
On Monday afternoon the final nine players reassembled in the Penn & Teller theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada to determine who among them would emerge as champion. Merson began the final table third in chips behind fellow American Jesse Sylvia and the lone non-American final tablist, Andras Koroknai of Hungary.
Here's how the counts looked when the first hand of the final table was dealt:
1. Jesse Sylvia -- 43,875,000
2. Andras Koroknai -- 29,375,000
3. Greg Merson -- 28,725,000
4. Russell Thomas -- 24,800,000
5. Steve Gee -- 16,860,000
6. Michael Esposito -- 16,260,000
7. Robert Salaburu -- 15,155,000
8. Jake Balsiger -- 13,115,000
9. Jeremy Ausmus -- 9,805,000
It would take 30 hands for the first elimination to come. The 57-year-old Steve Gee -- the oldest player at the final table -- was eliminated in a dramatic hand versus Russell Thomas in which Gee shoved all in on a 7c-5d-4h-Jc-3s board holding 8d-8c and after a long tank Thomas called with Qd-Qc.
Thirty-five hands after that it was a short-stacked Robert Salaburu finding himself in the big blind and watching Sylvia open-raise all in from the small blind. Salaburu called with 7d-7h and saw Sylvia turn over Qc-5c, and Salaburu was safe after the Ad-As-4c flop and 2d turn. But the river brought the Qh to knock Salaburu out in eighth.
Just a few hands later, Michael Esposito began shoving his short stack all in repeatedly, finally getting a call from Merson in a hand in which Esposito held As-Jh but unfortunately for him had run into Merson's Ac-Ks. The community cards came 9s-7d-4s-6s-8c, and after 70 hands they were down to six.
Koroknai continued to maintain a healthy stack of more than 40 million chips, but got himself into a preflop raising war with Merson that resulted in Koroknai six-bet shoving with Kh-Qd and getting called by Merson who held As-Ks. The board ran out eight-high, and as Merson had Koroknai barely outchipped the latter was out in sixth while Merson assumed the lead.
Jeremy Ausmus began the final table ninth of nine, but managed to hold his own and wasn't at risk until committing his stack on a 9c-8s-3s-3d board with 10s-7d (open-ended straight draw) and getting called by Sylvia who held Ac-9h (nines and treys). The river was the 5s, sending Ausmus railward in fifth.
It was on Hand No. 135 of the final table that the next elimination would occur when Russell Thomas saw his Ah-9d fail to improve against the As-Kc of Jake Balsiger.
Play was then halted, and the final three players rested up for what would turn out to be an especially arduous and hard-fought battle Tuesday night.
When the trio returned, Merson led the way with Sylvia second and Balsiger the short stack. Here's what the leaderboard looked like at the start of play Tuesday:
1. Greg Merson -- 88,350,000
2. Jesse Sylvia -- 62,750,000
3. Jake Balsiger -- 46,875,000
Play once again started in the afternoon, and as it happened it wouldn't be until almost dawn on Wednesday for the tourney to be decided. In all it would take an incredible 264 more hands -- 399 total for the final table -- to find a winner, with all three players remaining alive for much of the way.
There were a few dramatic close calls before Balsiger finally was eliminated in third, and in fact all three players managed to hold the chip lead at one point during the night, although Merson was in first position for the majority of the way.
In one two-hand sequence, Balsiger survived an all-in with Ah-10s against Sylvia's Ac-Qs when a ten fell on the turn, then Sylvia turned around and made it through an all-in of his own with Ah-Ks versus Merson's Kd-Kh when the river brought Sylvia a saving wheel.
Ultimately Balsiger would fall in Hand No. 382 of the final table in a hand versus Merson. All in with Qh-10d against Merson's Kc-Qs, the board came 6s-6d-6c-Jc-5h and just two players were left.
Heads-up play began with Merson in front with 117,600,000 to Sylvia's 80,600,000. The pair traded small-to-medium pots for 16 hands, then finally a hand arose in which Merson had four-bet-shoved from the button and after a long period of contemplation Sylvia called with his remaining chips.
Merson had Kd-5d and Sylvia Qs-Js, and after the board came 9d-6c-3h-6s-7c, Merson had won.
2012 WSOP Main Event final table payouts:
1st: Greg Merson (United States) -- $8,531,853
2nd: Jesse Sylvia (United States) -- $5,295,149
3rd: Jake Balsiger (United States) -- $3,799,073
4th: Russell Thomas (United States) -- $2,851,537
5th: Jeremy Ausmus (United States) -- $2,155,313
6th: Andras Koroknai (Hungary) -- $1,640,902
7th: Michael Esposito (United States) -- $1,258,040
8th: Robert Salaburu (United States) -- $971,360
9th: Steve Gee (United States) -- $754,798
As mentioned, the win also meant Merson wins the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year race, with Phil Hellmuth finishing in second (for the second year in a row) and Antonio Esfandiari third.
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Play resumed three-handed on Tuesday afternoon, and as it happened it wouldn't be until almost dawn on Wednesday for the tourney to be decided. In all it would take an incredible 264 more hands -- 399 total for the final table -- to find a winner, with all three players remaining alive for much of the way.
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