Martha’s Vineyard’s Jesse Sylvia plays for poker’s biggest prize

Jesse Sylvia (4th from right) and the eight opponents he'll face at the final table of the World Series of Poker on October 30. — Photo courtesy of World Series of Poker

There was a moment, seven days into the grueling World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas, when Jesse Sylvia, 26, of West Tisbury had pretty much written off his chances.

There were only 27 players left from a starting field of more than 6,000, and he had suffered some tough hands, losing nearly half his chips.

“It was a rough day,” Mr. Sylvia said. “I was a little discouraged.”

But things were looking up late in the day when he was dealt two aces, the strongest starting hand in No Limit Hold’em poker. One of his opponents made a risky all-in bet, and with such a strong hand, Mr. Sylvia pushed all his chips in, too.

As the rest of the cards were dealt, his opponent caught three miracle cards to make a flush, and Mr. Sylvia’s heart sank as he faced elimination. There were, at most, four cards left in the deck that could save the day.

But in that moment, he thought about a recurring vision that comes to him, about being in a big hand, and catching the right card to make the final table of the biggest and toughest poker tournament in the world.

“I don’t think it’s psychic or anything,” Mr. Sylvia said. “I just was always confident of making the final table.”

The dealer turned over the final card, a three of hearts, giving Mr. Sylvia a full house to beat his opponent’s flush. In the flash of a card, he went from almost certain elimination, to doubling his chip stack, and putting himself in strong contention for the title.

“It was a sign,” Mr. Sylvia said.

He emerged at the end of the day with a seat at the final table, and a stack of chips significantly larger than any of the eight opponents he will face.

On October 29 and 30 in Las Vegas, Mr. Sylvia will play out the final hands in a tournament that will end with the winner earning $8.5 million. ESPN will televise the culmination of the tournament live, on October 30, beginning at 9 pm.

Mr. Sylvia expects more than 200 members of his extended family and Island friends to make the trek to Las Vegas to cheer him on in the Penn & Teller Theater at The Rio Hotel and Casino, where the final table will be played.

Island kid

Jesse Sylvia is a Martha’s Vineyard kid through and through. He grew up in West Tisbury, attended West Tisbury School, Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

He was a strong math student, but admitted to an aversion for homework. “I was a bit of a slacker,” Mr. Sylvia said. “I think I could have got better grades. I’m much more motivated now. Sometimes you’ve just got to find a niche.”

He has great memories of growing up an Island kid, playing in the Oak Bluffs basketball leagues, jumping off Big Bridge, and finding the way to his favorite secret rope swing. Competitive games were a part of daily life.

“I used to like the Game Room, but what kid didn’t,” Mr. Sylvia said. “We used to go to the Oak Bluffs ferry and dive for coins the tourists would throw in the water. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it made sense. It was like, this is how you get money. Then we would take the coins and go to the Game Room.”

During summers and after school, he worked as a landscaper, and also at the Park Corner Bistro in Oak Bluffs. “I think I did just about every job, bar back, bused tables, waited tables, cooked. I was like the all-purpose kid.”

Mr. Sylvia is the oldest of three children. His sisters Randi and Nica remember a very competitive childhood.

“When I was born, he wouldn’t talk to me for the first two years of my life, because I took the attention away,” Randi Sylvia said. “That’s when it started.”

She said there was never a dull moment in her family, and playing gin rummy, hearts, and other card games, were part of growing up.

“Everything was a competition,” Randi Sylvia said. “Jesse has always been able to do a hundred things at once. He’s a brilliant, brilliant kid. When he gets into something, he can’t think about anything else. We always played cards. He always beat us, every time.”

She said she was a bit skeptical of her brother’s unusual career path at first, but she thinks his single-minded focus helps him be successful.

“It’s pretty awesome to see my brother’s dream come true at the age of 26,” she said.

Mr. Sylvia said his parents have supported his choice to turn professional. His mom, Marlene DiStefano, is a fashion designer and operates a floral business. His dad, Wayne Sylvia, is an engineer aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute research vessel Knorr.

Though Mr. Sylvia has lived in Las Vegas playing poker professionally since March of 2011, he still thinks of the Island as home. Tournament play paused in July, when the field was narrowed to nine, leaving a three-month gap until the World Series of Poker final table. Mr. Sylvia traveled to France for a major tournament there, hired a coach to advise him, and made sure to spend plenty of time on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I wanted to be home,” Mr. Sylvia said. “I went to the beach a lot and relaxed, and tried to enjoy the fact that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

No Limit Hold’em is the world’s most popular poker game

The popularity of poker, especially No Limit Hold’em, the variation played in the World Series of Poker, exploded in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker, an unassuming accountant and amateur player, won the event by beating the world’s top professionals. That was about the same time television coverage of poker events began to include small cameras under the tables that would reveal the players’ cards to viewers, making big hands, showdowns, and bluffs more dramatic.

The entry fee for the tournament is $10,000. This year’s World Series of Poker began with 6,685 players, on 420 tables. Prize money was awarded to the top 666 players, with the amount increasing according to overall finish position. The winner will take home $8.5 million, and enormous opportunities for endorsements and sponsorships.

Players begin with a stack of chips, which do not correspond to any real money value, and play until they lose all their chips.

The tournament is down to nine players on one table. The final day of play, October 30, will be televised live on ESPN, beginning at 9 pm.

In No Limit Hold’em, two cards (hole cards) are dealt face down to each player. Each player has an opportunity to bet based on only these two cards. Players can get out of the hand at any time (folding) but they will lose any chips they have already bet.

Next, three cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table (the flop). All players can use these cards to make a hand with their hole cards. After the flop, players bet again. Another card (the turn, or fourth street) is turned up in the middle of the table, and the players bet again. The final card (the river, or fifth street) is turned up, and there is a final round of betting. Then players turn up their hole cards, and the best five card poker hand wins all of the bets made in the hand.

There is no cap, or limit, on bets, so at any time, a player could push all his chips into the pot (all-in) and force the other players to make a tough decision. Calling an all-in bet when you have fewer chips than your opponent, means you will lose all of your chips and be eliminated from the tournament if you lose the hand.

While luck is an element in the game, professional poker players say it is a surprisingly small factor. With infinite variations of betting, bluffing, position on the table, reading your opponent, and guessing what cards they hold, skill is the largest factor. Sometimes, players with less than the best hand, or even no hand at all, win the pot by forcing the player with the best hand to fold.

The game is perhaps best described by professional poker player and television host Mike Sexton, who said No Limit Hold’em “takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.”