The river card is dealt and the biggest poker tournament in the world is over. Friends swarm the stage, looking to hug, high-five and celebrate with their champion, Greg Merson, but the champion isn't there. While a mass of humanity swarms a now-vacant seat, its occupant is on the move. Not toward those who have been cheering and chanting in support for 12 hours, but toward his devastated competitor, Jesse Sylvia.
The two embrace, understanding that nobody else can truly comprehend the magnitude of the moment. They share a few words before heading their separate ways and finally, a smile comes across Merson's face as he walks toward the madness that awaits.
It seems appropriate that the final story of the 2012 World Series of Poker would be about Merson. After navigating his way through a nearly 11-hour three-way battle against Sylvia and Jake Balsiger, Merson's eventual heads-up victory over Sylvia put the finishing touches on a WSOP that will be remembered for years to come. Merson, a cash-game superstar with a heavy online background, emerged to the forefront of the poker industry in a short period of time. We often say the world champion always gets the spotlight, as they should, but with Merson, things are different. If you talked to his friends, they'd say Merson always seemed destined for greatness. With his victory on Tuesday, those dreams have come to fruition.
Merson's victory is the culmination of an unexpected journey for a player who respects the game more than many others. We're talking about a guy who spent most of his summer at the Bellagio cash tables, and doesn't like to play tournaments, but turned his sights to the Rio to tackle -- and achieve great success in -- the short-handed WSOP events.
We're talking about a guy who turned a seven-event WSOP stint into the Player of the Year award. We're talking about a guy who 11 months ago was fighting the toughest battle of his life, against drug addiction. Merson turned professional challenges into millions and personal challenges into a way to help others. On Tuesday, he earned the greatest prize a poker player could ask for, and as he shed a few tears while being presented with the bracelet that sets him apart from the rest, the poker community appreciated and applauded his efforts and what he will mean to the game.
Merson's focus is a constant throughout this life. Over the past two days, he turned his cell phone off, making sure that he wasn't distracted in the least. For 400 hands, fans around the world witnessed how you truly maneuver during a final table and how keeping composure is everything. The social space appreciated his efforts and commented about his abilities. He wasn't getting the typical "he just got lucky" shtick. Merson's performance showed an intricate knowledge of the game, and no matter how long the action, Merson's mentality remained the same: The only thing that would satisfy him was the bracelet.
"You can't let fatigue get in the way," Merson said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I've pushed myself through tons of hours of poker in the past, and you just have to get through it somehow. I'm never going to have an opportunity like this again."
Merson understands the magnitude of his accomplishments and what they mean on a broader scale. He wanted to win tonight not just for the bracelet, but to become poker's ambassador and to do something with it. He wanted to win and become the Player of the Year and have two banners, boasting his successes, in the hallway of the WSOP each year. Finally, he wanted to make enough money to head to Macau and never have a bankroll concern ever again.
"I'm looking into getting into the biggest cash games in the world," said Merson. "That's always been my dream."
His dreams are big and his supporters keep him on track. He credited fellow poker pro Christian Harder for his wisdom during the final table and for many others who stood by his side throughout the past few months. He respects the history of the game and after his news conference on Tuesday afternoon, he went out of his way to shake Doyle Brunson's hand. Finally, he cherishes what and who matters most in his life and took the diamond-crusted WSOP bracelet and put it on his mom's wrist during the celebration.
Merson is on the right path, and the final table offered only a glimpse at what may be in store for Merson throughout his poker career. He probably won't be seen much at the tournament felt, but that's not a problem. His abilities were on display for the past two days, and the impact of his win has already been felt across the world. He's a superstar and his future is bright. Congratulations, Greg, on becoming the 2012 WSOP main event champion. We look forward to seeing you continue to grow as a person and excel as a player.