Two poker professionals and a college student traded chips, big bluffs and shocking hands during a marathon final run at the World Series of Poker -- and were no closer toward settling the $8.53 million crown after more than six hours of play.
Arizona State senior Jake Balsiger and card pros Greg Merson of Laurel, Md., and Jesse Sylvia of Las Vegas began play Tuesday night having already outlasted six others at a final table that began on Monday. But they refused to give in to one another, with roughly $4.8 million on the line -- the difference between first and third place.
"This is exciting," Balsiger told his tablemates just before midnight Wednesday in a game playing out as part-mental warfare, part just plain luck.
Merson took a commanding chip lead with perhaps his gutsiest play of the tournament -- sniffing weakness in Balsiger and re-raising a 10 million chip bet all-in with just queen high. Balsiger couldn't call, and Merson moved up to more than 100 million in chips.
He didn't have the chip lead for long.
Several hands later, Balsiger wagered the last of his chips with an ace-10, finding himself well behind Sylvia's ace-queen and his tournament at risk. But a 10 came on the turn, allowing Balsiger to double up.
Then, Sylvia went all-in against Merson, his ace-king against Merson's pocket kings. A four on the river made a wheel straight -- ace through five -- and vaulted Sylvia to the chip lead, sending his supporters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino into a frenzy.
Par for the course in poker, a game where skill is significant, but luck is certainly very powerful.
Balsiger eliminated Russell Thomas in fourth place just after midnight early Tuesday to set up the trio's final showdown. The 21-year-old is seeking to become the series' youngest ever no-limit Texas Hold `em main event champion, besting a 2009 record set by Joe Cada.
Merson, 24, went into play Tuesday night with 88.4 million in chips, compared with 62.8 million for Sylvia and 46.9 million for Balsiger.
Each competitor is guaranteed at least $3.8 million.
Merson picked up hands and took control of the three-handed table early, picking up strong hands and building his stack to more than half the chips in the tournament.
But Sylvia's fold of a strong hand -- a nine high flush -- likely kept him in the tournament after he finished contemplating a Merson bet of nearly 3 million in chips. Merson held a queen high flush in a cooler-type hand -- one that gamblers in Sylvia's spot routinely lose on.
Sylvia, 26, went into the final table with a chip lead but lost it to Merson after Merson benefited from an opponent's unforced error that cost him the tournament.
Merson eliminated Hungarian poker professional Andras Koroknai in sixth place, calling Koroknai's all-in bet with an ace-king and finding Koroknai with king-queen -- a marginal hand for the situation.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament, and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists played Monday night until only three players remained, leaving the top three to settle the title Tuesday night.