And then he went on a roll, morphing from a relatively unknown online player to a who-is-that-guy professional in tournaments and cash games. Merson entered the WSOP’s Main Event having won more than more than $1 million in 2012. He picked up a huge Twitter following. Even Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps became a fan. Earlier this week, Phelps said on Twitter: “Wishing @Gregy20723 good luck!! Sorry can’t be there kid!!”
Play at the final table, televised on ESPN, began Monday with the nine remaining players from more than 6,000 who started the Main Event in July. Nearly 100 of Merson’s family members and friends were in the audience at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio Hotel, cheering, “Gregy! Gregy!” Some held signs with enormous pictures of Merson’s face.
The table was whittled down to the final three players for Tuesday night’s action, with Merson up 26 million chips on Sylvia and 44 million on Balsiger. Merson started hot, winning the first seven of eight hands. He played quick and aggressive, in striking contrast to the lack of movement, emotion or eyeball activity behind his sunglasses. (He recently took up yoga.)
But Balsiger and Sylvia were not patsies. They wouldn’t go away. And the three battled back and forth, taking a 10-minute break every two hours.
Merson’s best hand came early Wednesday, when he bluffed Balsiger, who had put up more than 13 million chips, by going all-in when he only had a queen-jack with a 9-8-3-4-6 showing on the table.
Balsiger, who had a queen-10, quickly folded. The Las Vegas Sun later called Merson’s move “the bluff of the year.”
Balsiger was eventually eliminated, taking $3.8 million in third-prize winnings back to Arizona State. That left the two pros: Merson and Sylvia. About 8:45 a.m. Maryland time, 12 hours after play began, Merson was dealt a king-5. Sylvia pulled a queen-jack. There was a betting war, and Merson went all-in. Sylvia thought about it a while, then called.
It was all on the line now. Merson’s body actually showed movement. He even flashed a nervous smile. Sylvia stood up and walked around.
And then the community cards were dealt: 9-6-3-6-7.
Merson, with the king high, won.
His friends and family rushed to the floor as the confetti streamed down.
“Greg Merson is the new Main Event champion!” the ESPN announcer said.
“He cleared so many hurdles on and off the felt to make this final table and now has announced himself as one of the game’s bright stars.”
“What a beast, Greg Merson,” another announcer said. “What a beast.”
Merson’s father said his son, physically and emotionally drained, promptly went to his room to attempt to sleep. In coming weeks, his son will ramp up a sponsorship deal just signed with poker legend Phil Ivey. He’ll move into a condo he just rented near George Washington University. And he’ll continue his career as a pro poker player — a not-so- crazy idea, after all.
“I guess,” his father said, “he proved me wrong.”