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John W. Tomac
John W. Tomac

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Tripling Down

One man’s quest to win three coveted bracelets at the World Series of Poker — and the $2 million side bet he made on himself

As Jason Mercier sprints down the halls of Las Vegas’s Rio Convention Center, poker players scuttle to the side and let him pass.

Dude, that’s Jason Mercier!

They give him safe passage as a sign of deference. Those who recognize Mercier know him as one of the top poker players in the world. But more than that, they know that Mercier is a man on a mission.

Do you know what he’s doing? Did you hear?

They would move out of his way on any night simply because he’s Jason Mercier. They would move out of his way this summer because they know he’s on a heater from hell and infected with some holy spirit of poker.

What do you think? Can he do it? Can anyone?

They move out of his way on this night because they know he’s playing in three World Series of Poker events at the same time, in two different rooms several hundred yards apart. They know that Mercier is trying to pull off something spectacular — maybe even impossible.

Jason Mercier (Getty)
Jason Mercier (Getty)

Jason Mercier is a 29-year-old professional poker player from Florida. He alternates between a beard and day-old scruff, between thick black glasses and a backward fitted and basketball jersey. He’s mild-mannered, and a little boyish. He seems at once distantly cool and intellectual. He wouldn’t be out of place in a lecture hall on an Ivy League campus, even though he’s several years removed from college. Forgive him if he seems trapped in that period. It was then that he discovered poker, about 10 years ago while a student at Florida Atlantic University, where some friends showed him how to play online. Like many of the top young poker players today, within a year Mercier had mastered playing 50 hours a week on 12 tables at a time. He has never looked back. Today he regularly plays in some of the biggest cash games around the world, and has become one of the top-ranked tournament professionals. He is a fixture at the World Series of Poker every year. This year, however, he is the star.

Mercier is sprinting away from the Brasilia Room, a banquet area that is the setting for the 2016 World Series of Poker’s Event 52, a $3,000 buy-in No Limit Hold ’Em event with more than 1,000 entrants. The tournament started at 11 a.m. on June 29. By 8:30 p.m., most of the participants had been playing for more than nine hours. That’s when Mercier, on dinner break from Event 51, a $10,000 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event, walked over to the Brasilia Room cashier cage and signed up to enter. He had an hour break from the Omaha event, but the $3,000 No-Limit Hold ’Em tournament was 40 minutes away from its own break.

Mercier did some quick arithmetic. He figured if he wanted to sit out and not play the last two hours of the NLHE tournament, he’d need about 40,000 chips to survive all the blinds and antes he’d forfeit. He was given 15,000 chips when he entered. If he could turn his 15,000 chips into 40,000, he could leave this tournament and go play the Pot-Limit Omaha and the Triple Omaha events in the Amazon Room simultaneously and know he had enough chips to play the second day of the NLHE. He had done this before, but only online, where it was possible for him to play in 10 tournaments at once. This wasn’t online. This was real life. To pull this off — three high-stakes tournaments at once — it would require more than just spinning up his stack and sprinting down the hall. It would require his brain to work on overdrive. He’d need discipline, focus, and a reliance on instincts he’d never tapped before. It didn’t really matter how hard or stupid it was. He had no choice. And he had 40 minutes — no, now 39 — to make it happen.

He looked down at the two cards in front of him on the felt. There had been a raise to 1,400 and a call in front of him. It was his turn to act. He squeezed the two cards tightly together and peeked at the long edges without looking at the corner pips. He saw three clubs on the edge of one card and three spades on the edge of the other. That was enough. He snapped the cards back to the felt without looking. The three-spots meant he either had a pair of sixes, a pair of sevens, a pair of eights, a 6–7, 7–8, or 6–8. Out of all of those combinations, the one he didn’t want was 6–8. In fact, if he knew he had 6–8, he’d probably fold. But he didn’t have time to fold. He barely had time for this ridiculous psychological game he was playing with himself. Rather than give himself any chance of talking himself into folding, he just peeked at the edge spots and then announced himself all in.

He got one caller. The other guy turned over Ace-Queen. This was a perfect situation. If Mercier had a pair, he’d be a 53 percent favorite to double his stack. If he had got one of the other hands, he’d still be around 40 percent. He turned over his hand.

Two black 7s.

The board ran out Jack, 4, 5, 5, 6. From 15,000 chips in his stack to 30,000 in one hand.

"Almost there," Mercier thought. Tighten up the laces. We are fixing to run.

This story really starts back in January, when Mercier was at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The word around the tables was that Vanessa Selbst, an incredibly smart and experienced poker professional with a law degree from Yale, had made a bet with Dzmitry Urbanovich that he couldn’t win three events at this year’s World Series of Poker. Urbanovich is a skilled pro in his own right; at the age of 21 he already has more than $4 million in tournament winnings in his native Europe. But Urbanovich was about to make his first appearance at the WSOP.

Vanessa Selbst (Getty)
Vanessa Selbst (Getty)

"The true odds have to be 10,000-to-1 or higher," Selbst told Card Player magazine. He took her up on the bet anyway — his $10,000 against her $2 million. People started talking. Even though Selbst was a huge favorite to win the bet, her willingness to risk such a huge sum of money to win what amounted to a single tournament buy-in for her was impressive. Or maybe it was completely nuts. The Wynn casino offers bets on who will win the World Series of Poker Main Event each year. Despite being one of the wealthiest properties on the Las Vegas Strip, the maximum for this bet is $10,000. Selbst is a high roller, but she’s no billionaire. Losing a bet like this, however unlikely, could potentially clean Selbst out.

When Mercier heard about the bet, he tracked down Selbst at a PokerStars pros dinner at Atlantis and asked her if she’d give him a similar price. At first, she wouldn’t. Mercier was a better player than Urbanovich. Selbst and Mercier negotiated. Eventually they shook hands on 180-to-1 odds. Mercier handed over the $10,000 that very night.

If you ever watch ESPN late at night, you know about the World Series of Poker. What began in 1970 as a gathering of gamblers who held a gentlemen’s vote to decide a world champion has ballooned into a weeks-long convention of many thousands of gamblers from all over the world, from the start of June through mid-July. They compete in a series of 69 tournaments, with almost every variety of the game represented, at buy-ins from $565 to $111,111. The first open event this year, the Colossus II, had more than 21,000 entries and lasted for six long days. The last major event, the $10,000 Main Event, largely considered to be the world championship, will pay the winner more than $8 million.

The winner of each of these 69 events is awarded a pile of money for first place, but also receives the traditional trophy — a diamond-studded gold bracelet. In the 46-year history of the WSOP, nobody has won more than three bracelets in a single year. The first to win three was the colorful Walter "Puggy" Pearson in 1973, who took home $130,000 for his win in the Main Event that year. Since then, only five other people have won three bracelets in a year. In the hundreds of WSOP events he entered between 2008 and 2015, Jason Mercier had won only three bracelets.

For most mortals, winning a World Series of Poker event is life-changing. The first-place prize in most events is in the low-to-mid-six-figures range. For seven of the events, the prize tops a million dollars. The winner of the Colossus II, an Uber driver named Ben Keeline, borrowed the $565 to play from his dad and ended up winning a million dollars.

But there among the Uber drivers and college students and assorted working stiffs in the Rio Convention Center walk men and women who are gambling titans, for whom the riches that a first-place finish in the World Series of Poker brings are meaningless compared to the otherworldly sums they play for on a regular basis.

"In a tournament, you’re going to play for three days, and only if you win, if you get first, you’ll get $200,000, maybe $250,000," says Daniel Negreanu, two-time WSOP Player of the Year. "It’s just a bad business decision for some people who can make, for example, $8,000 an hour in a cash game. In a tournament your equity is, like, $500 an hour. Not many people choose to do that just for the glory."

Daniel Negreanu (right) in 2015 (Getty)
Daniel Negreanu (right) in 2015 (Getty)

Negreanu is one of the people who plays for the glory. Not that he doesn’t also play for the money; he’s won more than $15 million in WSOP events over the course of his career. He’s also won six WSOP bracelets and is the only player to have won WSOP Player of the Year honors twice. "That’s really important to me every year to try to win that," he says.

Winning it isn’t easy. The number of WSOP events has grown, and the field sizes have grown along with them. Negreanu, like many other top-caliber poker professionals, has needed extra incentive to play in 30 to 50 large-field poker tournaments every summer. This year he drafted himself in the $25,000 buy-in WSOP fantasy league he runs. Plus he has a number of side bets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In past years he’s had some high-profile bracelet bets. For many years he had a standing bet with Phil Ivey, one of the most popular poker players in the world and holder of 10 WSOP bracelets, that whenever one of them won a bracelet they’d pay the other $200,000. Eventually they ditched that bet and the two of them teamed up against the world. Two years ago they announced on Twitter that they would take any even-money action that one of them would win a bracelet that summer. While Negreanu had a lot of deep runs and a couple of second-place finishes to his name, Ivey wasn’t doing as well.

"He wasn’t doing anything," Negreanu says. "He was just bombing out."

That is, until the end of the series, when Ivey won the $1,500 8-Game Mix event for $166,986. The amount he won for himself and Negreanu — thanks to their side wager — was bigger. Exponentially bigger.

Phil Ivey is perhaps the person most responsible for the popularity of these "bracelet bets." At the height of poker’s popularity, in 2007, Ivey made what was possibly the first big bracelet bet after a debate with a number of other top poker pros about whether or not the "poker boom" had made it too difficult to win WSOP events. Ivey asked Eli Elezra, a well-known high-stakes poker player and Las Vegas club owner, to give him 5-to-1 odds against winning a bracelet that summer. Elezra put up $500,000 against Ivey’s $100,000. Ivey whiffed that year and lost the bet, despite making two final tables. More importantly, the bet inspired many of his peers. Most of the regular players in the highest-limit cash game at the Bellagio made similar bets with Elezra and each other and ended up playing many of the events that summer. Suddenly, players who entered modest $1,500 buy-in events were finding themselves sitting next to legends like Doyle Brunson and Gus Hansen, larger-than-life poker TV stars who spent $1,500 on breakfast. And fans sweating these bracelet bets had a way to follow the strange and complicated season of poker tournaments with a rooting interest.

A few years later, Ivey again made waves when he bet poker player Howard Lederer $5 million that he could win two bracelets over two years. Ivey lost that bet, probably the largest bracelet bet ever made. But despite the size, it was still an even-money proposition — both men put up $5 million. Negreanu says he’s never seen anything like the bet between Mercier and Selbst. "No one’s ever laid 180-to-1 on some sort of bracelet bet," Negreanu says. "That was ill-advised."

Ten days after the start of the 2016 World Series of Poker, Jason Mercier won his first bracelet: Event 16, the $10,000 2–7 Draw Lowball Championship. Immediately after winning the event and taking photos for the media, Mercier ran over to the cage and registered for Event 20, the $10,000 Seven Card Razz Championship, which was about to close registration for the night. He finished second. For Selbst, this was a worrying development. Mercier was running like God and had come within a hair’s breadth of getting two-thirds of the way to cleaning her out. Selbst scrambled. To hedge her bet, she offered 25-to-1 to anyone who wanted to bet her that Mercier wouldn’t win two more bracelets.

For Mercier, coming so close to a second bracelet so quickly and missing was a crushing blow. There are only roughly 50 chances to win a bracelet this summer and he’d need to make the most of every shot he had. How likely was he to come this close again? He was rattled by the second-place finish. Immediately after finishing that event, he went to grab some dinner and collect himself.

"If I had won that tournament, I felt I’d be a small dog to win three bracelets," he said. "I definitely felt like I missed a big opportunity. But I had no choice but to keep my head down and keep plugging away."

At dinner, Mercier was consoled by some friends and his girlfriend, the poker player Natasha Barbour. "I really don’t want to play any more events right now," he said. "I’m tired, I’m disappointed. I blew it."

As he spoke, Event 24, the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. Championship, was in progress and about to close registration. He knew this event was one of his better opportunities. A big buy-in for a tournament with mixed games that not many people play well meant he had a much bigger edge than he would in a huge No-Limit Hold ’Em field. Barbour was supportive. "I know you’re tired," she told him. "Do what you want to do."

He went back to the Rio after dinner and entered the event right as registration was closing. Three days later, after 34 hours of five different types of poker games against the best players in the world, Mercier finished in first place, winning $422,874 and his second bracelet of the summer.

At that point, Mercier was up nearly $2 million in prize money and bracelet bets combined, and one bracelet away from another $2.5 million in bracelet bets, including Selbst’s $1.8 million. Prior to this, the most money he had ever made in a summer at the WSOP was about $700,000. And he had been in Las Vegas for only two weeks. There was still a whole month to go.

What was happening to Mercier at this point, even by the standards of professional gambling, is a little unbelievable. Sure, there have been players who have run this good. In 2013, Negreanu won Player of the Year after winning two bracelets and making four final tables. But Mercier is doing this while everyone in Las Vegas, and around the world, is sweating him, watching his every move, tracking every hand — many because they have some action on what happens.

In the wake of the publicity around his bet with Selbst, an unprecedented amount of attention was focused on Mercier’s run in the WSOP. So much so that many people found themselves making bracelet bets with him, with Selbst on or against him, or with any number of other players on whether or not Mercier would win another bracelet. And he kept making bets on himself after each bracelet — for Mercier, the extra action propelled him.

"In some of these tournaments, first place is like $150,000 and second is [$80,000]," Mercier says. "Well, for me, as I’m approaching the third bracelet, first place is like $2.5 million and second is still only [$80,000]. So I’m applying a much different style. I’m going for all of it. I have to win the tournament. But also I have to be focused that if this tournament doesn’t work out, I have to be ready to go ahead and enter the next one right away."

Late that night on Friday, June 17, right after winning the H.O.R.S.E. bracelet, Mercier left the Rio all by himself. He drove to a jeweler to pick out a diamond ring. He was so confident he’d win his third bracelet that he decided he’d propose to Barbour immediately after he won it.

The very next event that Mercier entered was the $10,000 Omaha Hi-Lo Split 8 or Better. He made the final table, but finished eighth. The 2016 World Series of Poker was only halfway over. There were still more than 30 events left to go.

On June 29, his stack now standing comfortably at 40,000 chips, Mercier hauls ass from the Brasilia Room to the Amazon Room, poker players parting for him like the Red Sea being divided by Moses. By the time he arrives at his table for the $1,500 Triple Omaha event, there’s only about 10 minutes until the tournament is set to break for the night. He catches his breath in his chair, looks down at a few hands, then on break strolls across the Amazon Room a few yards to his seat in the $10,000 Pot-Limit Omaha Championship. He plays Pot-Limit Omaha until the end of the break in the Triple Omaha event. At this point, the Pot-Limit Omaha tournament is down to 61 players; only the top 60 players collect prize money. This is what’s known as being "on the bubble." To keep players from stalling, or waiting a long time to act on their hands in hopes that someone will be eliminated on one of the other tables, the tournament plays "hand for hand" — it doesn’t deal a new hand until every hand on every table is finished.

Jason Mercier in 2011 (Getty)
Jason Mercier in 2011 (Getty)

"Perfect," Mercier thinks to himself. This should give him enough time to try to play both events simultaneously. As long as the Pot-Limit Omaha event is hand for hand, every hand will take an eternity to complete. He folds his hands quickly then sprints over to the other side of the room to play his hands in the other tournament. Back and forth he runs, all night long, until he is finally eliminated from the Pot-Limit Omaha event at 1 a.m. He finishes in 36th place, good for nearly $19,000. A half hour later he busts out of the Triple Omaha event. Meanwhile, in the Brasilia Room, his stack of 40,000 has been sitting all alone on his table, his chair empty all night. Every few hands the dealer at his table takes his blinds and antes from his stack. By the time play ends for the night, he has 22,000 chips left. There are 286 players remaining out of the 1,125 who entered the event. Jason Mercier, who played a total of 39 minutes, is among them. Still alive.

Event 59 was a $5,000 No-Limit Hold ’Em event with 863 entries. Mercier had recently cashed in the Pot-Limit Omaha Championship, but he was running out of runway and growing discouraged. This event, too, would be a bust. Mercier was eliminated early on day one. Three days later, on the final day of the event, Mercier found himself at the final table. This time he wasn’t there to play. He was on the rail watching his girlfriend, Barbour, as she played for the $800,000 first prize and a bracelet all her own. When she was eliminated in third place, a score good enough for more than $300,000 and the biggest victory of Barbour’s career, Mercier hopped the rail to give her a hug and comfort her.

"I have something to ask you," he whispered in her ear. He stepped back and went down on one knee. He pulled the diamond ring out of a pocket.

Yes.

There was little doubt. Like a river card you’re sure is going to fill your flush. Jason Mercier was just running that good.

The final event of the 2016 World Series of Poker, the Little One for One Drop, which began on July 13, was a charity event. Of the $1,111 entry fee, $111 was given to the One Drop foundation, which helps develop infrastructure for safe access to water all over the world. Players were allowed to enter as many times as they wanted during the first day of the event. Mercier reentered seven times before finally building up a stack big enough to get him through to day two. He was prepared to enter many more if he had to. Out of 4,360 entries, Mercier battled his way to 470th place. It was his 11th cash of the summer, but a loss nevertheless. Gone was the chance at a third bracelet. Vanessa Selbst had already hedged and sold enough of her bet to no longer be at risk of taking too big a loss, but she had to be relieved that her initial assumption was still sound — it’s damn near impossible to win three bracelets in one year.

Nevertheless, Mercier clinched Player of the Year for 2016 on July 17. After 46 days, four final-table appearances, 11 tournament cashes worth $960,424 in prize money, and one engagement, he could head back to Florida now and finally get some sleep.

Five years ago it seemed like poker was everywhere you turned. Everyone who had ever watched Phil Ivey play poker on TV or James Bond play in the movies had a home game and a dream of one day playing in the World Series of Poker. Online poker sites were basically printing money and brick-and-mortar casinos saw an exponential increase in players in their poker rooms. Then on April 15, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice shut it all down. On "Black Friday," the DOJ shuttered the top internet poker sites for violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The government seized hundreds of millions of dollars. Without online sites to sponsor them, poker shows vanished from TV. Hundreds of professional poker players fled the United States to live in places where it was legal to play, like Costa Rica or Vancouver. Many thousands more gave up the game. It seemed like the poker bubble had finally burst. "Obviously once Black Friday hit, there’s less poker on TV," Daniel Negreanu says, "[so] there’s less interest overall in America for poker."

For players like Mercier and Negreanu, Black Friday didn’t close the door as it did on most of poker’s working class. They have the means and the skills to compete in the biggest tournaments and cash games around the world.

"It’s definitely important to me to be considered one of the best players in the world," Mercier says. "I’ve been one of the best players in the world [for] the last six or seven years. But in this industry you never know what to expect. In 2012 at one point I was down $1.6 million. It’s a very volatile profession. You don’t know what the next day or week or year will bring."

Today poker is experiencing a small-but-steady rebound in America. This year’s WSOP Main Event attracted a few hundred more entries than the year before. Most of the players who had their funds seized on Black Friday have finally all been repaid. Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey have legalized online poker, and more states are contemplating following in their footsteps. Does Negreanu think it’s possible to make a living playing poker tournaments today? "That depends on what you describe as ‘a living,’" he says.

It’s still nothing like 2007, the year after Jamie Gold beat almost 9,000 people in the Main Event and won $12 million. That was the context for Eli Elezra’s proposition to Phil Ivey that year — that so many new players in the tournament pools made it harder for the best to overcome the odds. In fact, the opposite was true. The loss of so many recreational players has left the sharks with nothing in the sea to eat but each other.

Mercier tried to overcome those odds. He came close, but he fell short.

"When you have a summer like this … obviously it could have been better …" he trails off, reliving the craziest stretch of his poker career in his head.

The close calls. The deep runs. The disappointment. The money. The exhaustion. The two bracelets. The ring. The question. The yes.

The yes.

"But it is — by far — the best summer I’ve ever had."

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