LAS VEGAS -- Greg Merson, Jesse Sylvia and Jake Balsiger are the last three players standing at the World Series of Poker Main Event, and they will play for $8.53 million Tuesday.
Sylvia knocked out Russell Thomas with four players remaining more than seven hours after play began Monday evening at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Thomas won $2,851,537 for finishing in fourth.
Merson, who began final table play Monday with 28.725 million in chips, finished the day as chip leader with 88.35 million. Sylvia, who started the day with 43.875 million in chips, has 62.75 million. And Balsiger finished the day with 46.875 million. He began final table action with 13.115 million in chips.
If Balsiger wins, he will be the youngest person to win the Main Event. Joe Cada won the WSOP Main Event in 2009 when he was 21 years and 356 days old. If Balsiger wins Tuesday, he will be 21 years and 281 days old.
The Main Event champion will win $8,531,853. The runner up will win about $5,295,149. And the third-place finisher will win $3,799,073.
Merson joined the fray at the top when he knocked Michael Esposito out of the Main Event in seventh place.
First, Merson rivered a 10-high flush to beat Esposito's two-pair. That hand saw Esposito fall from 15.12 million to 9.625 million in chips, while Merson climbed from 21.615 million to 27.7 million.
Then Merson delivered the knockout blow. After opening the betting with 1 million, Esposito moved all-in for about 10.8 million. Merson, who had about 33 million in chips at the time, called instantly with Ac-Ks. Esposito tabled As-Jh, but a board of 4s-9s-7d-6s-8c provided him no help and he was out of the tournament in seventh place. Esposito won $1,258,040 for finishing seventh.
And Merson was at 45.5 million and climbing. Merson's next scalp was Andras Koroknai.
Earlier in the night, Sylvia forced Koroknai to fold the better hand (Koroknai had A-4 to Sylvia's Q-J) by five-betting. Koroknai started to push back against the aggressive play by raising and re-raising as the night wore on. But he made one move too many, and it resulted in Merson breaking the 85-million chip barrier.
The Koroknai blowup began innocently enough. Merson raised from the button to 1 million. Sylvia, in the small blind, re-raised to 2.6 million and Koroknai raised it to 5.3 million from the big blind. Merson then raised it to 9.2 million and Sylvia folded. Koroknai answered Merson's raise by pushing all in for about 40 million. Merson, who began the hand with around 42 million, called quickly and showed As-Ks. Koroknai showed Kh-Qd. A board of 2c-3s-8h 7s-7h gave Merson 85.6 million in chips and sent Koroknai packing.
"I thought the button (Merson) and small blind (Sylvia) were betting light," Koroknai said after his elimination. "And with the range of hands they were playing, I thought I had a lot of blockers," added Koroknai through a Hungarian interpreter. "I obviously regret that decision."
Koroknai won $1,640,902 for finishing in sixth place.
Sylvia needed a bit of good fortune against Robert Salaburu to stay at the top of the pack early.
Salaburu began the day with 15.155 million in chips. He'd worked his stack up to about 20 million when he called an all-in bet by Balsiger, creating a pot of 22.8 million. Unfortunately for Salaburu, his pocket queens couldn't crack Balsiger's pocket kings, and he was left with 9.925 million.
Salaburu dropped below 8 million before he found a spot to try and double up. Sylvia, with more than 46 million, pushed all in pre-flop with Qc-5c. Salaburu made the call with pocket sevens. With a board reading Ad-As-4c-2d, Salaburu was almost home. But a queen hit on the river, knocking Salaburu out of the tournament. Salaburu won $971,360 for finishing in eighth.
Sylvia also knocked Jeremy Ausmus out of the tournament. Ausmus started final table action as the short stack with just 9.805 million. But he kept grinding away and eventually cracked the 20-million mark.
But Ausmus’s chips started to disappear again. And when he tried to double through Sylvia with about 16.7 million chips remaining he fell just short.
On a board reading 3s-8s-9c-3d, Ausmus pushed all in and Sylvia called. Ausmus showed 10s-7d for an open-ended straight draw. Sylvia showed Ac-9h for a pair of nines. The five on the river was no help for Ausmus, and left Sylvia with 63.5 million in chips.
Ausmus won $2,155,313 for finishing fifth, and seemed pleased with his performance.
"If you would have told me I would have 24 million at one point, I would have thought I had doubled up at some point," Ausmus said. "But I never really did that. I just slowly picked my spots. I went all in a few times, but never got called. And people were just dropping."
"Of course I wanted to win," Ausmus added. "But this is good. Everyone expects you to go out in ninth when you're in ninth...This was a tough table. I was happy to move up a few spots."
Thomas vaulted in serious contention for the Main Event title when he made a hero call to knock Steve Gee out of the tournament after nearly two hours of play.
With the board reading 7c-4h-5d-Jc-3s and about 13 million already in the pot, Gee pushed all in. to create a pot of 24.8 million. Thomas, who had Gee covered by about 3 million, thought about his decision for four minutes before making the call and tabling pocket queens. Gee had pocket eights, and exited the tournament in ninth place.
Gee won $754,798 for finishing in ninth -- a good pay day for any poker player. But he was hoping for much more.
"It's very disappointing, standing here, being the first person eliminated," Gee said after his elimination.
"I told myself earlier I wasn't going to play scared. I was playing to win."
Gee displayed that desire to win when he successfully bluffed Thomas to win a pot during the first hand of final table action. But with the bluff revealed just 15 minutes later on the nearly-live ESPN coverage, word spread quickly that Gee had stolen a pot.
"The hole cards (knowledge) changed how we play. We normally don't have (players) running to the rail every 15 minutes to get a hand history."
"I have a tight aggressive image, but that earlier hand (I bluffed on) had a definite impact (on my image)," Gee said.
Thomas admitted after his elimination that Gee's early bluff was a factor in calling the big bet.
"I already knew he was capable of bluffing when he three-barreled me on the first hand of the day," Thomas said. But there were other factors at play as well.
"In his interview, he said, 'Everyone expects me to be a nit because I'm 55 years old,' so I knew he was trying to change that image," Thomas added.
Thomas also said he was comfortable with the range of cards Gee was likely to play in that situation.
But shortly after his big hand against Gee, Thomas started to struggle.
"It was a little frustrating. I think ace-nine was the best hand I picked up in the past 50 or 60 hands. I just ran card dead the last two levels. I think I'm happy with how I played."
The ace-nine Thomas referenced was the hand that put him out of the tournament. In that hand, Thomas raised to 1.5 million and Balsiger, who had 30.825 million in chips, moved all in from the big blind. Thomas thought about it briefly and then called.
Balsiger showed As-Kc and Thomas was in trouble. The board was no help for Thomas, and his night was over.
The Main Event began in July with 6,598 players vying for poker's most coveted championship. After the tournament played down to nine players, the Main Event paused for 102 days to allow ESPN's weekly taped coverage to catch up with the action. Monday's final table action was broadcast nearly-live -- there was a 15-minute delay to comply with Nevada gaming regulations -- on ESPN 2. Tuesday's championship action will be broadcast nearly live on ESPN with the same 15-minute delay.
Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.