Editor's note: Coverage of Jesse Sylvia's run to the WSOP main event final table continues every Tuesday night on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
April 15, 2011.
In the poker world, that day will always be infamously known as "Black Friday." Millions of players were affected as the online poker world was essentially shut down across the United States. Many players, especially those who played on Full Tilt Poker, lost significant portions of their bankrolls. Some chose to turn their efforts to live poker. Others decided to take up residence overseas to continue playing online. A few decided to take a break from poker altogether.
However, for Jesse Sylvia, Black Friday may just have helped ignite his poker career and indirectly, helped him fulfill every poker player's ultimate dream: making the World Series of Poker main event final table.
Growing up on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, Sylvia was brought up playing card games with his extremely competitive family.
"My dad would play cribbage a lot and [we] played gin rummy with my mom. Me and my sisters were competitive about everything, not just card games."
The 2012 October Nine chip leader was introduced to poker by the movie "Rounders" and a few years later by the 2003 WSOP main event champion, Chris Moneymaker.
"I was a kind of Moneymaker-era type of kid," he said. "That got me really excited. That's when me and my friends started playing poker routinely. I was a byproduct of poker suddenly getting really big and also loving games and competing against people. It's very tough to be a professional athlete, but poker is something I could always compete in."
Entering college at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sylvia was introduced to online poker, changing his life forever. After some initial ups and downs, especially due to less-than-optimal bankroll management, he finally captured a six-figure score that made him seriously consider playing poker full time. Surprisingly, his parents were supportive of his decision to forgo a traditional work path after college.
"They have always been supportive of just about everything I've done," he said. "My dad was a little more approving and my mom was a little more reserved about it. I think with the [WSOP] final table, she'll be OK telling people what I do."
After graduating, Sylvia decided to try his hand at playing online professionals. That choice of vocation afforded him the ability to travel, which was another one of his passions.
"I'm a big of fan of traveling a lot and exploring different places. And I love the idea that you could just have your computer and your brain and that's all you really needed. I would go to a coffee shop and grind for a couple of hours and then go back and hang out with my friends for the rest of the day."
After a couple of years honing his game playing cash games online and at home on the East Coast, Sylvia decided to move to Las Vegas to be closer to the action. Just after he arrived in Sin City, it was April 15. Although seemingly devastating at first, this industry-altering event helped Sylvia become the player he is today.
Sylvia was luckier than most, as the majority of his online bankroll was on PokerStars, which he was able to withdraw. That money allowed him to play live poker. Sitting across the table from his opposition instead of behind a computer, Sylvia became more social within the poker community, helping him improve his all-around game.
"[Playing live] definitely helped a bit [with my reads] but, more importantly, I developed a group of poker friends that I wouldn't have had [without Black Friday]. I got to talk with them about more hands and strategy."
Sylvia roomed with some of these players, allowing him to discuss poker relentlessly and shape the way he plays today.
One of his former roommates is not vicariously living the WSOP final table dream through him, but literally with him. Fellow October Niner Russell Thomas was one of Sylvia's roommates, and during the 2012 WSOP main event this summer, they would discuss hands during the breaks and joke about making it to the final table. As they got closer and closer to the final table, both exclaimed that it became "an absolute dream scenario."
Sylvia credits his former roommate with his early poker development, especially calming Sylvia's game down from his original self-professed ultra-aggressive style.
"[Russell] taught me how not to be a donkey," Sylvia joked. "Russell would look at some of my hand histories and would just laugh. And I needed that. I did not have any friends who played poker and needed someone to give me the kick in the a-- to tell me that I played that hand poorly."
Thomas confirmed their collaboration and their exchange of poker philosophies.
"When we roomed together, he was $1/$2 no-limit hold 'em player, and I coached him a little bit about hand-reading and ranges. By the end of summer, he really improved a lot and moved up to $5-$10 a few months later, and just started crushing it," recalled Thomas. "He has taught me, too, as we have a little bit different styles he is looser and a little more aggressive."
On the last day of the WSOP main event, both players were thoroughly rooting for each other. "It would have been really disappointing if one of us didn't make it just because we had both made it so far," Thomas said.
There were a couple of times where it looked as if Sylvia would not survive, especially on Day 7. Prior to that day, except for a key hand against A.J. Jejelowo, Sylvia had steadily chipped up and was never truly in jeopardy, playing a low variance style. However, on Day 7, he surmised that he needed to take bigger risks to make the October Nine.
One of those chances occurred about two hours before dinner break on Day 7. With 22 players remaining, Sylvia was dealt pocket aces (Ah-Ad) and got involved with a critical hand with fellow October Niner and 2012 WSOP bracelet winner, Greg Merson. After a flop of Jc-8c-3s, the two competitors pushed all-in, as Merson held Qc-10c for a huge combo draw. When the 3c hit on the turn, Sylvia believed that his 2012 WSOP main event ride had come to an end.
"Everyone went ohhhh," said Sylvia of the crowd at the feature table. "And I was pretty much writing off the tournament at that point."
But the dealer saved Sylvia on the river, flipping over the 3h for a full house.
"I don't even think I saw the final card come down, but my rail went wild," he said. "I did a double take and spun around and went a little nuts. When that card came down This was my sign that I need to keep fighting, and this is my tournament to go for it."
After this hand, Sylvia knew he was close to making the final table -- not only for him, but also for his family and hometown.
"I come from a very close-knit community; it's a small island," Sylvia said. "Everyone kind of knows each other. The idea of bringing out half the island to come cheer me for the final nine would be just so exciting. I was in a mindset that I had to make the final nine."
After the Day 7 dinner break, Sylvia kept riding the momentum to the top of the leaderboard. He won a huge flip with K-Q against fellow October Niner Robert Salaburu's Js-Jh, then about two hours later, Sylvia and Scott Abrams shoved all-in for the largest pot so far in the 2012 WSOP main event. Holding 7s-7c, Sylvia flopped a set on a Kh-7d-3d board, but wasn't out of the water quite yet. Abrams had a massive draw holding Kd-Jd.
"I wasn't very excited about seeing the flush draw," recalled Sylvia. "I will have to hold versus a draw most of the time and this time I needed to hold for the chip lead."
With the entire room holding its collective breath, the dealer turned the Qc and rivered the 6c. With his elimination of Abrams in 12th place, Sylvia earned the chip lead and has the honor of holding it for nearly three months. The final table hiatus has allowed him to focus on his game and dream of how the final table will play out. Along those lines, he has one specific vision in mind.
"The ultimate dream would be playing Russell heads-up, because I have amazing respect for his game. It would be so cool."
No matter the results of October's final table, Sylvia turned the nightmare of Black Friday into an ideal experience so few will ever enjoy. He's the chip leader in the biggest tournament of the world. There's no doubt that when the cards hit the air once again, he'll be ready for whatever may come his way.