The absolute pinnacle of achievement for a poker player is winning the World Series of Poker Main Event. Making the November Nine is not only an inevitable part of that journey, but a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself.
Each of the seven players who have been fortunate enough to win the Main Event in the November Nine era, from Peter Eastgate through Martin Jacobson, has gone about things in their own way during their three-month break. This select fraternity of champions had to do something right in that time, but few people will ever know much about their paths to victory outside of what happens at the table and what’s picked up when ESPN’s cameras are rolling.
Even though some of the details might get fuzzy over time, the lead-up to the 2012 Main Event and everything that happened inside the Penn & Teller Theater was a fascinating journey for 2012 WSOP Main Event champion Greg Merson.
After eliminating Marc-Andre Ladouceur in 13th place, Merson had over 30 million and the chip lead in the Main Event - more than enough to comfortably cruise into the November Nine. He did his best to accumulate more and bring the group closer to its final table of nine. But, in an effort to eliminate players, Merson dropped a few chips and slipped to third by the time Gaelle Baumann went out in 10th place.
The Three Month Hiatus
Merson still had plenty of chips for the situation and went into the three-month hiatus with every expectation of making a run towards the title. There have been plenty of different approaches for players going into this truly unique situation, with many November Niners looking to scout their eight opponents by scouring every second of ESPN’s Main Event coverage for clues.
While Merson spent a lot of time watching that footage, his focus was aimed at improving his own approach and demeanour.
“My plan for the final table was to study live tells on myself from the footage,” said Merson. “And focus on playing my best for the three months leading up to it so that I wouldn’t be in a slump heading into the final table.”
While the Main Event was his one true focus, by virtue of his other results that summer Merson also had a chance to be the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year. With a bracelet win in the $10,000 Six Handed Championship just before the start of the Main Event and a fifth-place finish in the $2,500 Four Handed event, he appeared to be well-positioned to win. That's until Phil Hellmuth won the WSOP Europe Main Event and really put on the pressure.
With that, Merson would have to win the Main Event outright to take POY. If he succeeded, he’d be the first player to win both in the same year.
Merson kept sharp by playing almost every day and putting in high volume sessions. His endurance and focus were both tremendous tools in his arsenal. Merson didn’t allow himself to become complacent or fall victim to the feeling of just being happy to be there.
He was tremendously happy with how well he kept his mind focused on this opportunity, but in looking back there were still a few things Merson would have done differently regarding his training.
“In retrospect, I wish I got into better physical shape leading up to the final table,” said Merson. “The long hours demanded a lot physically, and that's something I would have taken more seriously.”
The festivities took place a week earlier than had been the tradition. Because the 2012 US Presidential election would be taking over the airwaves in the WSOP Main Event’s normal timeslot. It wouldn’t do much to affect the November Nine players. And, in fact, it was likely a welcome development for most of them who were itching to get back at things.
After spending the majority of his time off on the East Coast, Merson decided to get into Las Vegas a few days early to acclimate himself before the big day.
“I was living in Maryland at the time, and flew out to Vegas three days prior to the final table,” said Merson. “We stayed at the Rio in the suite they provide for the players.”
The instinct for most would be to cram in as much poker prep work as possible, as if it was a crucial final for a difficult school course. However, Merson trusted enough in the work he’d done in the previous three months that he wanted to keep his mind calm in the face of such a tremendous challenge.
“I went to the pool everyday and had some meals with friends and family,” said Merson. “I mostly wanted to keep myself as distracted and relaxed as possible so that I wouldn't become overwhelmed with the circumstances.”
Keeping his mind off of the task at hand wasn’t easy, though. He had to do interviews with publications from around the world, along with some comprehensive work with the ESPN crew, and it took a lot to stay focused.
The Final Table Arrives
“When I arrived in Vegas there was a lot of press stuff that needed to be done, as well as ESPN shoots for the show,” said Merson. “I found a lot of this tough to deal with while trying to prepare for the biggest moment of my career.”
It all led up to one of the craziest and hectic 24-hour spans of Merson’s life. The action was set to kick off on the afternoon of Monday, October 29, but as you might expect the anticipation and anxiety of the situation were a lot to handle that Sunday night.
“Man, the first day seems like a blur,” said Merson. “I couldn't sleep, and I woke up and had breakfast with close family members and Julie. I really don't remember much after that other than getting a stretch from my chiropractor.”
The first day of the final table was crazy and hectic, to say the least. The ESPN crew and all of the players involved were swept up with all the preparations that had to be made for the live broadcast to go off without a hitch.
In that moment, nine people, in particular, were doing their best to not get overwhelmed by the scale of the spectacle they were thrust into because of their performance in a poker tournament. Despite the fact that they were adversaries, the situation bonded them.
““I think the WSOP final table is more of a celebration for all players that made it,” said Merson. “The rest is just gravy in a way. I befriended most of the guys and was already friends with Jeremy [Ausmus] and Jesse [Sylvia]. I had known Russ [Thomas] for a while but hadn't really hung out with him. We were still friendly leading up to the shuffle up and deal.”
Despite a lack of sleep, once the cameras were rolling and the cards were in the air Merson settled into a comfortable groove. Merson put on a tremendous display in the play down to three players as he took over the chip lead by the end of the night. He credits his ability to adapt to the information presented on the television broadcast as playing a big role in his success in that spot.
“The live TV format was great for myself and any other online player who had a background in knowing showdown hole cards and adjusting to that information in-game,” said Merson. “In live poker you so often get to muck your cards if you call and are wrong, or you bluff and get called.”
With just two players standing between him and the most coveted title in all of poker, Merson would have every right to be nervous and sleepless again that night - but he wasn’t.
“I slept amazing after the first night,” said Merson. “I knew that I had locked up top three, and that's all I could ask for heading into the final table. I always thought I could win, but I was prepared for other finishes, and a top-three was not going to be a failure for me.”
The Final Showdown
Merson, Sylvia and Balsiger cruised through a relatively short first day, but their three-handed battle for the title would carry on far longer. Each of them had a turn as the chip leader, but Merson kept pushing all of the right buttons at the right time, so to speak. After he finally finished off Balsiger in third, Merson had the lead once again - but he was staring down the potential of another long showdown heads up with Sylvia.
It would last just 17 hands.
After Merson’s king-high had held to seal the victory, the moment overwhelmed him. He fought back tears as he talked to Kara Scott, and Merson let everything fly once he hoisted the bracelet and a bundle of money skyward.
It was an emotionally fulfilling moment, but it was also the culmination of an unbelievably tense and stressful period of time.
“After I won I was thrilled to take a much-needed vacation,” said Merson. “I had spent the last 100 days or so staying in the zone as much as possible and to get away for a bit was mandatory. It's always great to get away from anything you spend a lot of time on.”
The vacation was immediate and had to be short-lived, though. Merson had commitments to fulfil, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“After I won I was scheduled to be in Jacksonville for a cash game five or six days later, so I flew to Miami to vacation with Julie and my friends,” said Merson. “I was back in action less than a week after winning - I like to keep busy by grinding.”
It's All About the Passion
Merson has a sharp mind for the game and an impressive memory to boot. But his abilities in poker were forged thanks in large part to his undying passion for the game and ability to play marathon sessions.
“I have always found enjoyment in the competition of poker, and I tend to not take very long breaks from the game,” said Merson. “Even when I made about $10K a year playing in college 50-60 hours a week I just couldn't get enough of the game. I still feel that way today - the only difference being that I can't play super long hours at a high level like I used to.”
These days Merson’s discipline has him reducing those hours because he simply refuses to play anything other than his A-plus game.
“I refuse to grind when I am not playing at a high level. I tend to play about 30 hours a week online these days and really enjoy the life balance that brings me. Some would argue this is a lot of hours online, but I did seven-plus years at 40 to 60 hours a week. I'm getting old.”