- Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com
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For 103 days, nine pokers players had something substantial weighing on their minds. They were forced to wait for their chance of a lifetime where their golden ticket to a nine-man sit-and-go could result in $8.5 million, a diamond bracelet and the honor of being poker's world champion. Preparations of all sorts seemed endless and on Monday, the day finally arrived. With friends and family supporting each and every decision at the Penn and Teller Theater in Las Vegas -- wearing T-shirts, hats and patches, or holding signs, playing the trumpet or being the biggest cheerleader possible -- this was an experience that by itself changes one's thoughts about a final table. It's a show, a spectacle, a celebration and the culmination of the industry each year.
For six individuals, their dreams were shattered Monday. Eight hours of exhausting decisions and some brutal cards left three survivors who will return Tuesday, where the stakes are even higher. Greg Merson, Jesse Sylvia and Jake Balsiger each know what Tuesday night may bring. All will leave Las Vegas extremely rich, but only one of them will emerge the victor.
Here's a look at the final three:
Greg Merson: 88.3 million in chips: It seems like destiny that Greg Merson is in this position. Merson's 2012 WSOP featured only seven events. His results included his first WSOP victory in the $10,000 six-handed event and a fifth-place finish in the four-handed event. He also finished 21st in another six-handed event. Notice a pattern?
Short-handed play is truly Merson's bread and butter. It's how he makes his living as an online professional poker player, dominating the short-handed cash games. He knows how to put pressure on his opponents and capitalize on key situations. Once the field was down to six, everyone knew it was advantage: Merson.
"I was so stoked as each person went out," he said. "I really didn't want to do anything dumb. I wanted to give myself a shot, even if I was short-stacked, just to get to short-handed."
Merson brings in a solid chip lead to the final three and his best strategy might be the simplest of all: don't change a thing. He played deliberately all day and capitalized greatly on the misstep of Andras Koroknai, who deposited 40 million chips into Merson's stack with an ill-timed shove. Once he had those chips, he played table bully and continued to grind his opponents down.
"Switch gears when I need to," said Merson of what he needs to do Tuesday night. "And don't rush anything. May the chips fall where they need to."
If Merson wins, it will be a true comeback story. Forget the fact that he was down to only two big blinds during Day 5 and take the comeback in a much greater meaning. Merson has been outspoken about his personal battle with drugs. He claims poker has helped keep him on the right path and, win or lose, everyone is hoping that he stays there. His rise to poker dominance seemed expected from his close group of friends and now, only two players stand in his way from cementing a true legacy.
Jesse Sylvia: 62.7 million in chips: When Vanessa Selbst is agreeing with your every move, chances are things are going well. That seemed to be the case with Sylvia on Monday. The Martha's Vineyard native brought a massive chip lead and equally large cheering section to Vegas and he did not disappoint anyone who made the trip. For most of the final table, Sylvia was in control and picked his spots incredibly well. He was conservative, maybe more than people expected, and it allowed him to press during some key hands and earn valuable chips. His reads were solid, he made virtually no mistakes and yet, he's still in second place.
Sylvia's key to the final three: patience.
"I was very in the zone, it felt really good," Sylvia said of his final table performance thus far. "I'm going to prepare myself to buckle up and go the distance. We could be here for a while."
Selbst, who coached Sylvia throughout the final table break, said that among their preparations were strategies crafted specifically to face off against Merson and Balsiger heads-up for the bracelet. There's no debate that Sylvia is ready and if he can execute in the same fashion that he did Monday, he's likely to become the next world champion.
One potential wild card regarding Sylvia's chances is Russell Thomas. Although Thomas was eliminated in fourth place, he said he'd be back at the final table Tuesday supporting this former roommate. Thomas' efforts in preparing for this final table exceeded all others and there's no doubt he has some strategies of his own that might provide some assistance to Sylvia. That's pure speculation, but it's hard to believe that the two won't talk specifics over the next 12 hours.
Jake Balsiger: 46.8 million in chips There is nobody happier in Vegas than Jake Balsiger. Period. The 21-year-old Arizona State University senior has been through it all over the past 15 months and is now, probably unexpectedly to most poker observers, one of the final three.
Balsiger was hospitalized and mentally devastated after he was hit while riding his bike. He recovered slowly and played poker at his local casino as he restored a sense of normalcy to his life. He wasn't even planning on playing the main event, but he was convinced by friends to enter. Now, he's on the precipice of becoming the youngest main event champion in history.
"Getting $3.8 million when a year ago life was just over is unbelievable," he said. "I've already won so much money that it's no longer a factor. Now the record and the bracelet I really want."
Many considered Balsiger one of the favorites to go out first given his lack of experience and some questionable decisions witnessed on the WSOP broadcasts. Regardless of what we've seen in the past, his composure Monday was clear. He found a good spot to bluff Sylvia off a pot, pressured Russell at the right time to knock him out and above all else, enjoyed the moment. Balsiger has been all smiles since he made the October Nine and that's truly the way all players should approach this opportunity.
Balsiger has two major considerations that could factor into play Tuesday night. First, he worked with Mike "Timex" McDonald, who has a pretty good track record. You might remember that he worked with Pius Heinz a year ago and well, you know what happened. Second, the "amateur" factor. Jake knows he's not the most fundamentally sound player of the final three. He has never been heads-up in a major tournament and for all we know, heads-up play isn't something he has really ever focused on. The best way to counter that is to make the guys who don't want to play huge pots three-handed make a decision for a lot of chips. Balsiger can definitely open up his game early and with one double up, he'd be close to the chip leader.
Three more dreams. One more night. The world will be watching and one of these three talented players is less than a day away from holding the bracelet high. Coverage resumes on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET and now that you know their stories, let's see who writes the best ending.