Editor's note: Live coverage of the final night of the WSOP main event final table will begin on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
On Monday, the "October Nine" reassembled in Las Vegas at the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino to compete for the most coveted title in poker.
Back in July, only 15 hands were needed to burst the final table bubble with the elimination of Gaelle Baumann in 10th place. This quick ending resulted in a very deep final table as even the short stack, Jeremy Ausmus, had more than 30 big blinds. Thus, many pundits expected a very long night and very slow play early on. However, almost the opposite occurred.
Last year, three players began the final table with fewer than 33 big blinds and 178 hands were needed to get down to three-handed play. This year, with only Ausmus having fewer than 33 big blinds, it surprisingly took only 135 hands to finish the night with three players remaining.
The final three Americans all have the opportunity of a lifetime: To become the WSOP main event champion.
Greg Merson, the chip leader (88.3 million), has recently overcome drug addiction to possibly become the 2012 WSOP main event champion and overtake Phil Hellmuth to win the WSOP POY in the process. Jesse Sylvia (62.75 million), transforming his live game after Black Friday, began the night as the chip leader and could utilize the coaching of two-time WSOP bracelet winner Vanessa Selbst to bring the WSOP bracelet back home to Massachusetts. Jake Balsiger (46.875 million), after a horrific bike accident less than a year ago, could become the youngest WSOP main event champion ever (75 days younger than 2009 WSOP champion Joe Cada) and make Mike McDonald the most sought-after coach in the world of poker ("Timex" helped Pius Heinz to the 2011 WSOP title).
In the seven and half hours of play, we saw some incredible hands, some of which may have been affected by the 15-minute delayed ESPN coverage, allowing for players to see their opponents' previous hole cards.
Since the action ran close to 3:30 a.m. ET, some of you may have missed some of the biggest action from Day 1 of the 2012 WSOP final table. Here's my top 10 hands (in chronological order):
Gee triple-barrels right out of the gate (Hand 1)
The very first hand of the night seemed to foreshadow the action for the entire evening: the players were not going to just sit back, making this possibly a quicker night than expected. With blinds at 150,000/300,000, antes 40,000, the elder statesman of the October Nine, Steven Gee, began the festivities by raising from mid-position to 700,000. After everyone folded, Russell Thomas, sitting in the big blind, decided to see a flop. After a 10h-7h-4c board, Thomas check-called Gee's continuation bet of 850,000. The Ac on the turn brought another check-call by Thomas, this time a 2 million bet by Gee. On the river, the dealer flipped over the 7d. After Thomas checked once again, Gee fired out 4.55 million, finally prompting Thomas to fold. Later, the ESPN2 broadcast showed that Gee triple-barreled with only Ks-Qh. Although it ended up being the best hand versus Thomas' 9c-6c, Gee showed the gumption to seemingly bluff on the very first hand of the final table. However, this hand not only set the tone for the night, it also may have impacted Gee's elimination about an hour and a half later.
Thomas tanks, calls with Queens and eliminates Gee (Hand 30)
After an abbreviated first level, the fireworks truly finally began two hands into Level 35 (blinds 200,000/400,000 with a 50,000 ante). Sitting under the gun, Gee opened for 900,000. Greg Merson, who was next to act, and Russell Thomas, who was on the button, both called, creating a rare three-handed flop. After the dealer revealed 7c-5d-4h, Gee fired out 1.6 million. Merson folded, Thomas called. The turn brought the Jc and another big bet (3.25 million) from Gee, which was called by Thomas once again. The 3s on the river prompted Gee to push all-in for his tournament life. Now, Thomas went deep into the think tank. Thomas must have known about Gee's early bluff on Hand 1. After more than five minutes, Thomas eventually made the call, flipping over Qd-Qc, which was better than Gee's 8d-8c. Gee would be the first elimination of the night, taking home $754,798 for ninth place, while this huge hand catapulted Thomas to among the chip leaders.
Cooler sends Salaburu chip stack downward (Hand 53)
No major all-ins preflop had occurred until this cooler. With blinds still at 200,000/400,000 with a 50,000 ante, Jeremy Ausmus raised to 800,000 from under the gun. After Jesse Sylvia called, the speedy Robert Salaburu quickly three-bet to 2.8 million from the cutoff seat. The next few players folded to Jake Balsiger, who was sitting in the big blind. After a moment, the 21-year-old surprisingly pushed all-in for a little more than 10 million. After Ausmus and Sylvia got out of the way, Salaburu snap called, revealing his Qs-Qh. Unfortunately, he was disappointed to see Balsiger's pocket kings (Kd-Kc). The board ran clean (Ac-9c-7d-10h-2s) and Balsiger and his friends exploded in celebration as he more than doubled up to near 23 million. Salaburu took a big hit as his stack dropped to about 10 million.
Sylvia's river sends Salaburu packing (Hand 65)
In one of the last hands of Level 35 (blinds at 200,000/400,000 with a 50,000 ante), all the players folded to Sylvia in the small blind. The chip leader moved all-in, putting maximum pressure on Salaburu. The Texan quickly called with 7h-7d in his hand and although he was ahead of Sylvia's Qc-5c, Salaburu looked nervous as his tournament life was at stake. The flop (As-Ad-4c) and turn (2d) favored Salaburu and all he had to do was avoid a three or queen to double up and get back into the final table. It was not meant to be, as the dealer flipped over the Qh on the river, allowing Sylvia and his buddies to celebrate, while Salaburu was sent packing with a check worth $971,360.
Esposito's third three-bet in a row is his last (Hand 70)
Michael Esposito had been relatively quiet at this final table. However, after becoming one of the short stacks, he had to eventually make his move. Starting Level 36 (blinds at 250,000/500,000, antes 50,000), he three-bet shoved all-in on back-to-back hands with no callers. However, on the next hand, he may have pushed his luck too far. After Merson raised to 1 million from under the gun, Esposito pushed all-in again from the cutoff seat for almost 11 million. This time, Merson called, revealing Ac-Ks and Esposito was behind with his As-Jh. Initially, the flop (9s-7d-4s) did not look promising, but the turn 6s provided more outs for Esposito with the possible spade flush draw. Esposito's run came to an end as the 8c on the river was no help. He earned $1,258,040. As for Merson, he had just become the new chip leader.
Sylvia's five-bet quiets Koroknai (Hand 85)
Although the players were being eliminated relatively quickly, there had not been much four- and five-betting preflop. However, the following hand showed why Sylvia has developed such an aggressive image. After Merson initially raised to 1 million (blinds were at 250,000/500,000, antes 50,000), Sylvia three-bet to 2.6 million from the small blind. Surprisingly, Andras Koroknai four-bet to 4.85 million. After Merson released his hand, Sylvia went into the tank. Going through all the options and even asking Koroknai for his chip count, he emerged by five-betting his opponent. Before a specific amount could be announced, Koroknai quickly folded. Later, the ESPN2 coverage revealed that Vanessa Selbst's protégé five-bet with Qh-Jc versus Koroknai's Ah-4h.
Koroknai stands his ground against Merson (Hand 90)
Just a few hands later, Koroknai made a stand, potentially frustrated about the bullying by Sylvia that had just taken place. Under the gun, the Hungarian raised to 1.1 million. Action folded to Merson who three-bet from the small blind to 3.4 million. Sylvia folded from the big blind and Koroknai went into deep thought once again. After thinking for several moments, he four-bet Merson, which resulted in an insta-muck by the Maryland native. The ESPN2 coverage showed that Merson had indeed re-raised with a Norman Chad "squadoosh" 6c-2c, while Koroknai legitimately held Ad-Kh.
Koroknai blows up under Merson's constant pressure (Hand 109):
In the two previous hands, Koroknai underwent extreme preflop pressure by inferior hands. In the end, the possible information he received about these hands may have led to his undoing. Once again, Merson decided to raise from the button, this time to 1 million. Sylvia decided to three-bet from the small blind to 2.6 million. Now, Koroknai fired out a four-bet from the big blind to 5.3 million. Undeterred, Merson five-bet to 9.2 million. Sylvia mucked and Koroknai brought everyone to their feet with a surprise all-in. After checking his cards, Merson made the call, flipping over As-Ks. Koroknai seemed sick as he revealed Kh-Qd. The board provided no assistance for the lone international representative at the 2012 WSOP final table and he was ousted in sixth place, taking $1,640,902. This mammoth hand, the largest of the night, sent Merson skyrocketing into the chip lead, by almost 35 million more chips than his nearest competitor, Jesse Sylvia.
Ausmus plays 30 BB stack masterfully, but cannot outdraw Sylvia on the river (Hand 130)
Not surprisingly, Ausmus had played his 30 big blind stack to perfection all night long. He had risen from his short stack status and was still standing with five players remaining, rather comfortably given the situation. With blinds at 300,000/600,000, antes 75,000, Ausmus min-raised from the button. Merson folded his small blind, but Sylvia called from the big blind. Both players decided to check the 9c-8s-3s flop. After the dealer turned the 3d, Ausmus decided to fire out 1.5 million and was check-raised to 3.6 million by Sylvia. After a few moments, Ausmus decided that he would risk his tournament life and announced that he was all-in. After checking back at his cards, Sylvia called. Ausmus did not seem happy as he revealed 10s-7d compared to Sylvia's Ac-9h. Needing to complete his straight or hit a 10, the 5s on the river did not save Ausmus. The new father finished in fifth place, earning $2,155,313 for his efforts.
Balsiger aggression takes out a steaming Thomas (Hand 135)
Balsiger had played a very deliberate style at the final table. However, from the beginning of Level 37 (blinds at 300,000/600,000, antes 75,000), Balsiger turned up the aggression as they played shorthanded. On this particular hand, the action folded to Thomas who was the short stack in the small blind. After Thomas raised to 1.5 million, Balsiger announced that he was all-in, putting the pressure back on Thomas. After several tense moments, Thomas seemed frustrated and begrudgingly made the call. However, he was disgusted when Balsiger turned over As-Kc versus his Ah-9d. As the board (Qh-8c-5h-5d-7h) provided no help to Thomas, the seven and half hours of play concluded for the night, sending the reaming three players into a frenzy along with their rails. For his fourth-place finish, the Jason Somerville student earned $2,851,537.
This trio will return to action on Oct. 30 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN. With all three players guaranteed to earn almost $3.8 million, now they will return to fight for more than $4.7 million more to the champion and the coveted gold WSOP bracelet.
With Balsiger, the short stack, having more than 78 big blinds and the average stack about 110 big blinds, one would expect Day 2 to be a long day. However, if Day 1 is any comparison, it could end up being a quicker final table than anyone expects. Good luck to all three and congratulations.