LAS VEGAS -- Greg Merson survived 11 hours of three-handed play and then beat Jesse Sylvia heads up early Wednesday morning to win the World Series of Poker Main Event and $8,531,853. Sylvia won $5,295,149 for finishing in second, while Jake Balsiger finished third and won $3,799,073.
With the win, Merson also claims the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year title, passing Phil Hellmuth, who won the WSOP Europe Main Event earlier this fall.
All three players held the chip lead at some point during three-handed play.
Merson began three-handed play Tuesday with 88.35 million in chips. He began final table play on Monday third in chips with 28.725 million
In terms of hands, this was the longest Main Event final table in WSOP history. It took 399 hands and more than 13 hours of play at the final table to crown Merson champion.
Merson eliminated Balsiger 11 hours after play started Tuesday evening. And about an hour later, he busted Sylvia out of the tournament.
"I just had to keep grinding it out," Merson said after winning the championship. "People either play too tight or too loose shorthanded. But for the most part, this three-handed match was pretty solid."
"You can't let fatigue get in the way," Merson added. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I pushed myself through hundreds of hours of poker in the past (for this reason). And you're probably never going to get an opportunity like that again."
Merson also noted his experience gave him an edge over Balsiger. "There were certain spots where (Balsiger's) hand reading was off and he probably made calls he wished he didn't where I don't think Jesse or I would have done that."
Merson said his next goal in poker is to "play in some of the biggest cash games around the world."
Merson beat Sylvia on the 17th hand of heads-up play when his Kd-5d held up against Sylvia's Qs-Js. Merson had 117.6 million chips when heads-up play began. Sylvia had 80.6 million.
"I'm just happy, man," said Sylvia. "If you had told me at the beginning of this tournament I was taking second place, I would have said, 'OK, deal.'
"That three-handed session was such a marathon. For all the players, at some point they thought they were reaching heads-up (play). It was (big) emotional swings."
Sylvia also walked away impressed with Balsiger. "Jake put up a fight. He really did," Sylvia said.
Like Sylvia, the 21-year-old Balsiger walked away happy with his Main Event experience.
"A year ago, I was playing 25-cent 50-cent online so making $3.8 million (is pretty good)," Balsiger said.
"My expectation (entering today) was to get third and I achieved that," Balsiger said with a grin.
"I did not expect (11 hours of three-handed play)," Balsiger added. "But I don't really have any regrets about the plays I made."
Balsiger said he had modest expectations when final table action began.
"I mostly didn't want to get ninth," Balsiger admitted. "When Steve Gee busted out I said, 'We can open up now.' Then people kept bouncing and I kept getting chips and I thought, 'This was nice.'"
But as nice as it was, Balsiger's immediate future has more to do with school than poker.
"I have some homework to do tomorrow," said the Arizona State senior. "I didn't do it last week because I was doing final table simulations. My professor is probably not too happy with me and I have to get back in his good graces."
Balsiger does want to play more poker in the future, however.
"Playing in this tournament against such good players, I feel like I progressed a lot as a player. When you're playing 10 hours against Greg and Jesse, you're getting a lot better."
On a day that was frequently long on atmosphere and short on drama, fireworks erupted shortly after 11 p.m.
First, with blinds at 500,000/1 million, Balsiger moved all-in from the big blind for 18.325 million. Merson folded, but Sylvia, who had 60.75 million, called and tabled Ac-Qs. Balsiger showed Ah-10s, and it looked like after nearly six hours play, the Main Event final table would finally reach heads-up action.
A flop of Jc-8d-4h brought no help to Balsiger, and the crowd -- dominated by large contingents of fans supporting Sylvia and Merson -- buzzed in anticipation.
The ten of clubs hit on the turn, giving Balsiger unexpected life. And after dodging a river king, queen or a nine, Balsiger had doubled up to 38.8 million, while Sylvia dropped to 42.425 million.
Minutes later, Merson ended a raising war with Sylvia by pushing all of his 116.75 million in chips to the center of the table with pocket kings (Kh-Kd). Sylvia called with Ah-Ks, and once again, the crowd at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino thought they were headed for heads-up play.
Balsiger ran to his rail with a smile on his face. And Sylvia's fans called for an ace. The ace never appeared. But a flop of 3s-5c-2d gave Sylvia seven outs -- the three remaining aces or a four to make a straight. The eight on the turn didn't help either player. But a four on the river doubled Sylvia up to 85.5 million, and brought Merson back to the pack for the second time today -- this time with 74.325 million.
Merson took control of the tournament on two separate occasions, but struggled to deliver the knockout blow.
Merson won three of the first four hands played to crack the 90-million chip mark. And 45 minutes into Tuesday's action, he became the first player in this year's tournament to collect more than 100 million chips. But Merson couldn't pull away, topping out around 105 million, and started to drift back to Sylvia and Balsiger.
Sylvia and Balsiger stayed patient while Merson pulled out to an early lead. Sylvia started the day with 62.75 million in chips. Balsiger's starting chip stack was 46.875 million. And neither player was in danger of the blinds catching up to them for several hours.
And their patience paid off. While Sylvia and Balsiger occasionally traded places on the leader board, Merson continued to bleed chips, and eventually rejoined the pack with 73.4 million, compared to Sylvia's 65.9 million and Balsiger's 58.675 million.
Merson stopped the bleeding when he flopped a full house -- eights full of kings -- against Sylvia. Merson only won 5.1 million on that hand. But it seemed to shift momentum and Merson started to chip up again.
Merson made his big move back up the leader board at the expense of Balsiger.
Balsiger had hit the 70-million chip mark at this point, and was only trailing Merson by about 10 million.
With the board reading 3c-9h-8s-4h-6s and 32.5 million in the pot, Balsiger bet 13 million. Merson pushed all in and Balsiger folded. Then Merson showed the Qh-Jh for a busted flush draw and Merson found himself with 110.2 million in chips.
Merson eventually claimed about two-thirds of the chips in action before Sylvia took the lead back from him.
Merson then reclaimed the chip lead from Balsiger and Sylvia, and eventually knocked out Balsiger when his Kc-Qs held up against Balsiger's Qh-10d.
While the players worked hard to stay focused over the 12 hours it took to complete final table action, the fans found a variety of ways to amuse themselves as they waited for the infrequent dramatic hands.
Balsiger's rail featured women singing, "Hey, sexy Jakey" whenever he won a hand. There was a horn player among Sylvia's fans who played whenever Sylvia won a big hand. One of the crowd favorites -- the "Chicken Dance."
Merson's fans and Sylvia's fans occasionally tried shouting over the top of each other.
At one point, it looked like an older lady on the Sylvia rail was trying to get some of the younger women to flash Sylvia to give him a pick-me-up. The flashing, as far this reporter could observe, never happened though.
And the Twitterverse wondered whether Balsiger would still be the youngest Main Event champion at the rate the tournament was moving (and yes, he would have been -- but point taken).
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.