Jesse Sylvia finishes second in World Series of Poker marathon

Jesse Sylvia finishes second in World Series of Poker marathon

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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.


  1. Proud of you Jesse. Your represented the island well! Great to keep the Island’s name out there, you are now one of the largest brand names out there representing this island!! Congrats!! We are sure you will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come!!

  2. Nice job, Steve! Now go get some sleep …Congratulations, Jesse. A credit to your folks and the Island.

  3. You would be wise to take the money after taxes and invest it carefully withthe help of an advisor and mentor and never gamble again lest you lose it all. Now would be a time to be absolutely prudent, get an education and invest in solid equities in order to set yourself for life NOW. You have been given a windfall and a once in alifetime chance. Dont blow it.

    1. I would have to disagree with you semmelt for several reasons;
      It would be inaccurate to portray Jesse as merely ‘a gambler’. He trains hard, studies constantly and refines his craft and his skills to a much greater degree than most professionals. I would liken him to a pro athlete before casting him as a gambler with all the negative connotations that description implies.
      As far as what to do with his winnings- Wall Street? Really? I thought we all finally figured out that game is rigged and manipulated by the banksters and the power brokers. The individual investor gets looted with reckless abandon. Jesse has an edge at the poker table. Although there is always an element of risk and luck a person like Jesse has created an edge that will give him an advantage over the less talented not to mention all the fools lined up at the slot machines!
      I’d say his chances for success are better sitting at a poker table than buying blue chip bonds like General Motors which became worthless overnight.
      Congrats Jesse! Well done.

      1. I am not questioning his prowess at poker. I am suggesting that a young man who has gotten a windfall may stumble with pride in his own accomplishments and choose to continue gambling rather than put money aside for a different day. Take the 3mm after tax and put 2.5mm away and gamble only the other 500k and see where it goes. That is all. As for Wall Street, no matter the lost decade, equities in blue chips continue to be a good investment and certainly better than savings accounts. No the game is not rigged and it is not manipulated. If anything what was rigged was affirmative action for housing mortgages created by Dodd/Frank and the Community Reinvestment Act which forced banks to lend to everyone whether they could pay or not. As for GM, the bonds became worthless because Obama changed the game and didn’t allow the bondholders who normally get paid first, to indeed get paid at all and the money went to the Unions. Look it up. Poker and other gambling is about bluffing and drawing players into making bets that are not good. It is still a fools errand and it causes more destruction to families than most things. Most people who gamble cannot afford to and that game is rigged. If Jesse has a gift of discernment let him use it for other things but not go back to the table.


        1. Well we can agree on one thing Semmelt, it would be prudent to put a good bit of the money in a safe place. As far as the Wall St. ‘game’ not being rigged I would start by saying, Huh?? Scandals of insider trading, front running and market manipulation are revealed every week (even in the docile mainstream media). The system is totally rife with practices that turn the less savvy into sheep for the slaughter. Did you miss the news that the LIBOR rate was being manipulated? What about the CDS market (since we are talking about gambling anyway)? Dodd/Frank didn’t create the housing bubble nor did it create the humongous CDS market. I think greed and little in the way of bank regulation turned the marketplace into a huge casino which gets worse every year.
          Jesse is obviously highly disciplined and works hard at creating an edge over the the other players by understanding and exploiting a statistical advantage. Bluffing is not only used at the poker table. Business strategy and negotiating deals often involves similar skills. If Jesse continues to play poker for a living so be it. He has nothing to be ashamed of and is probably more self-reliant than most of us. Whatever he decides to do down the road I am certain that many of the skills he has clearly acquired will serve him well and give him a competitve edge. You may not like the notion that bluffing draws the opponent into making bad decisions but in the stock market they merely call it counterparty risk and no one bats an eye.
          Again, I will ask you not to lump Jesse in with habitual and /or compulsive gamblers who nearly always lose in more ways than one.

  4. Good job jesse. You have many more tournaments to go. Good luck.

  5. Congratulations Jesse. We all here watched until our eyelids slammed shut. Your preparation and poise are obvious in the way you play. To heck with the announcer with all of the comments about the lesser stature of Martha’s Vineyard compared with Maryland. You have shown the world that great things can and do come from our special if small place . Great job for you and your family.

  6. I do not know Jesse so i am not sure why i watched all 12 hours of the final game. Thanks for letting me live through you and be a part of the action. Do what you want with your hard earned winnings you earned it.

  7. So cool…Solid article…Solid player…and what a trip! For the people that had followed him from day one it must be one of the greatest rides any of us have been on…Poker is a great game and the island has some pretty darn good players on it! Jesse being the top cat! Lastly: His mum is one fantastic person, so thank you so much Marlene for raising a true role model he is a class act for all of us to follow! Get home safe!

  8. I congratulate Jesse Sylvia for his winning strategy in the World Series of Poker! I do not know Jesse, and I do not know how to play poker, but he sounds smart and disciplined enough to know how to spend his prize money wisely. It is unfortunate that some of the above commenters have tried to turn this forum into a father-knows-best critique of Wall Street and gaming. Best wishes, Jesse!