Jesse Sylvia finishes second in World Series of Poker marathon

Jesse Sylvia accepts congratulations from (left to right) his girlfriend Ashley Bleeth, his mom Marlene DiStefano, and his sister Randi Sylvia, moments after finishing second in the World Series of Poker Main Event. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Jesse Sylvia of West Tisbury finished second in the ESPN World Series of Poker, following a marathon session that began at 9 pm, Tuesday (EST) and ended some 12 hours later.

When play began in Las Vegas, Mr. Sylvia was one of three players still seated at the final table.

Jake Balsiger was the first to fold. That left the Martha’s Vineyard native and Greg Merson, a 24 year old card pro from Maryland.

Mr. Merson took home $8,531,853. Second place money was $5,295,249.

The final hand came after more than 20 pressure filled hours of high stakes poker over two days, that left some in the large contingent of Martha’s Vineyard supporters without voices and others scrambling to change flight reservations. The three finalists played until dawn in a grueling test of stamina and poker skill.

Mr. Sylvia was not utterly disappointed by his second place finish. “I’m just happy,” Mr. Sylvia said, moments after the tournament ended. “If you told me at the beginning of the tournament I was taking second, I would have said ‘deal.'”

The tournament saw wild swings, with each of the three finalists building, then losing large chip leads. Throughout it all, a boisterous crowd of supporters kept Mr. Sylvia’s spirits up.

“I can’t believe how wonderful he played,” said Marlene DiStefano, Mr. Sylvia’s mom. “He was so aggressive. He kept us on the edge of our seats, we never got tired, and it was a long day and a long night.”

“It’s one of the proudest days of my life,” said Wayne Sylvia, his dad.

Hometown support helped

Mr. Sylvia faced some tough situations through the night. Once again, deep into play, he pulled off another version of a poker miracle.

It was about three hours into play. He faced near certain elimination with one card to come. Only a four or an ace could win him the hand, and keep him in the tournament.

Mr. Sylvia left the table and stood with his family to wait for the last card to be dealt. A four came out, and the crowd went wild. Instead of elimination and a third place finish, Mr. Sylvia was the chip leader once again.

Mr. Sylvia said the enthusiastic support of all the people who traveled from Martha’s Vineyard to Las Vegas for the last table provided a boost during the long stretches of play.

“I’m looking at the cards, and I look up, and see 200 Islanders on the rail,” Mr. Sylvia said. “It doesn’t distract me at all, it’s just positivity that I’m feeling, knowing that they will support me no matter what happens.”

The Island supporters arrived early and loudly at the Penn & Teller Theater in the Rio Hotel and Casino. Two hours before play began, they filled nearly the entire front section of the theater, surrounded by empty seats, while ESPN technicians readied the stage and broadcast equipment.

During play, they continued their creative cheering, including a raucous “Martha’s Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard,” chant which brought a broad smile to Mr. Sylvia’s face. He clearly understood the advantage his supporters gave him. At one point, he motioned to the crowd to find a trumpeter who made the trip, and the entire theater was soon wiggling to a chicken dance.

The night before, the group offered, though a bit prematurely, a plan to spend some of Mr. Sylvia’s winnings on a local Island landmark, when they chanted “Let’s buy the Ritz, let’s buy the Ritz.”

Best of the best

The tournament began July 7 in Las Vegas. The entry fee was $10,000. Mr Sylvia, 26, a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduate from West Tisbury, emerged from 6,598 of the world’s best players as one of nine finalists after six days of play.

Over six long, grueling days, players build their chip stacks by playing against eight other players at individual tables. As players lose all their chips and are forced out of the tournament, the tables are consolidated until only one table remains.

The tournament featured players from 82 different countries, with the youngest player 21, and the oldest 92. Some players qualified for the main event by winning satellite tournaments earlier in the year. Most of the world’s top professional poker players gear their careers around the World Series of Poker.

Mr. Sylvia used some of the time between the end of the first seven days of play in July, and the final table in October, to relax at home on Martha’s Vineyard. He also hired a coach, Vanessa Selbst, who is considered one of the best tournament players in the world. Another part of his preparation was playing in tournaments in Las Vegas and in France.

“Playing poker is always the best way to get better,” Mr. Sylvia said early Wednesday morning as he savored his tournament finish. “I spent a lot of time talking to friends, but two of my best friends in the poker world, who I think are two of the better players in the poker world, are also at the final table, so…,” Mr. Sylvia said.

As the reality set in for his many Island supporters, there was little sadness over the second place finish. They broke into a spontaneous chant of “Greg, Greg, Greg,” in congratulations to winner Greg Merson, a classy show of sportsmanship after a long, long, wild ride.