A Maryland poker professional won the World Series of Poker main event, outlasting his final opponents in a marathon card session of nearly 12 hours for the $8.53 million title on Wednesday.
Greg Merson emerged with the title before dawn in Las Vegas after a session that proved a showcase for his skills amid the unpredictability of tournament no-limit Texas Hold `em.
On the last hand, Merson put Las Vegas card pro Jesse Sylvia all-in with a king high. Sylvia thought hard, then called with a suited queen-jack.
"This whole stage is nothing you could ever prepare for," Merson said.
Merson's hand held through the community cards - two sixes, a three, a nine and a seven - to put his name alongside former champions including Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan.
After an exhausting session, he's ready to join them.
"I feel pretty good - got all the tears out so, now I feel relaxed," Merson said.
The 24-year-old Merson pushed past Hellmuth for the series' Player of the Year honors, proving himself the top performer throughout this year's series of card tournaments in Las Vegas and Europe. Merson also won a tournament bracelet this summer in Las Vegas for a no-limit Texas Hold `em 6-handed tournament.
The 26-year-old Sylvia won $5.3 million for second place.
"That was nuts, man," he said.
Merson's victory came after the pair outlasted the last amateur at the table, 21-year-old Jake Balsiger. The Arizona State senior hoping to become the youngest World Series of Poker champion was eliminated in third place, more than 11 hours into the marathon.
Balsiger gambled his last chips with a queen-10 and was dominated by Merson's king-queen. Merson's hand held through five community cards, forcing Balsiger to exit no richer than when he started the finale on Tuesday.
The political science major, who has vowed to graduate, won $3.8 million.
"I have some homework due tomorrow, my Supreme Court class," Balsiger said. "I didn't do it last week because I was in a final table simulation, so my professor's probably not the happiest with me."
Before Balsiger was eliminated, the players set a series record by pushing beyond 364 hands at the final table. Balsiger lost on hand 382, while Sylvia lost on hand 399.
All three players traded chips, big bluffs and wild hands during their marathon run.
"It was kind of swinging, emotionally," Sylvia said.
They started play Tuesday night having already outlasted six others at a final table that began on Monday. They refused to give in with roughly $4.8 million on the line - the difference between first and third place.
"This is exciting," Balsiger told his tablemates.
Merson took a commanding chip lead early with a gutsy move - sensing weakness in Balsiger and re-raising a 10 million chip bet all-in with just queen high. Balsiger couldn't call, and Merson moved up to more than 100 million in chips.
Sylvia went all-in against Merson, his ace-king against Merson's pocket kings. An ace through five vaulted Sylvia to the chip lead, temporarily sending his supporters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino into a frenzy.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament and win all the chips to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was whittled to nine through seven sessions in 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists played Monday night until only three remained for the title.