LAS VEGAS — Nine players will return soon to the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for a shot at poker glory as the final table in the World Series of Poker $10,000 Main Event gets under way.
A victory garners the winner a gold bracelet, the biggest prize in poker, and $8.5 million. With 6,800 players, making the final is a huge feat, and eight Americans will be battling for the title, broadcast live Sunday through Oct. 30 on ESPN and ESPN2. Here's a look at the players:
(Martha's Vineyard, Mass., now Las Vegas; 43.875 million chips)
Poker pro Sylvia, 26, is the chip leader and has cashed in a few events since 2008 but nothing this huge.
The spotlight will be on him and his ability to take advantage of his huge stack. Sylvia is a friend and former roommate of fellow final table player Russell Thomas and plans to get involved in the movie industry.
(Debrecen, Hungary; 29.375 million chips)
The last non-American, Koroknai has plenty of chips to make a move. The 30-year-old professional has been traveling the globe in recent years playing major tournaments. While he may not be well known, Koroknai is no slouch at the table with more than $1.8 million in lifetime winnings. He credits poker with getting him through a bout of depression following serious injuries suffered in a moped accident in Greece.
(Laurel, Md.; 28.725 million chips)
Another professional, 24-year-old Merson cashed three times at the WSOP including winning the $10,000 No Limit Holdem Six-Handed championship for his first gold and $1.13 million. Merson says he was living the “poker lifestyle” a few years ago and saw his bankroll sink. He battled back successfully, and says he is living more frugally and staying positive.
(Hartford, Conn., grew up in Philadelphia; 24.8 million)
An actuary, Thomas' studies in probability have helped him, but playing poker is the best way to improve, he says. He cashed in the Main Event in 2011 for $40,654 after a fifth-place finish in a $1,500 event at the WSOP in 2010 for $84,256. Thomas considered turning pro after graduating from Temple University, but had a good job lined up and enjoys a normal routine.
(Sacramento, Calif., born in China, 16.86 million chips)
The oldest player remaining, Gee, 57, has been playing poker for 45 years. Now a professional, he formerly worked as a software projects manager for the California Public Employees Retirement System. Gee is no stranger to WSOP success with several cashes and won a $1,000 No Limit Holdem event in 2010 for $472,479. That experience could help overcome his chip disadvantage.
(Seaford, Long Island, N.Y., 16.26 million chips)
As a triathlete, Esposito, 45, knows the grind of a long race: the focus, determination and tenacity to keep going. He hopes his daily athletic regimen pays off at the poker felt too. Growing up on Long Island, Esposito grew up playing all kinds of games. A Wall Street commodities trader, he plays a couple of tournaments each year. While he may not be a professional, he has garnered considerable success — cashing in several tournaments including some nice five-digit scores.
(San Antoni0; 15.155 million chips)
Salaburu, 27, has been a pro for seven years, and knows the ups and downs of the job. He's “gone broke” a few times, but always scraped his bankroll back together and kept going. Now he has a chance for the biggest score in poker — and the unique opportunity to add his name to a long list of champions from the Lone Star State. While he prefers cash games, Salaburu also has several tournament cashes and wins.
(Tempe, Ariz.; 13.115 million chips)
Balsiger, 21, is the youngest at the final table and living a card player's dream. With only a few years of poker experience, Balsiger makes up for this in dedication and card smarts. He hopes to build a successful poker career but is now a senior at Arizona State University. When not in class or hanging out with friends, Balsiger often can be found at the $3-5 No Limit Holdem tables at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
(Lamar, Colo., now Las Vegas; 9.805 million chips)
This 32-year-old pro is a graduate of Colorado State University and married with a 1-year-old daughter and another child on the way. With his wife pregnant and due in early November, the couple's doctor said the baby might come early. What will he do if their bundle of joy arrives during the final table? Keep grinding at the final table and hope for two great reasons to celebrate.
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Rockwall, Texas, and poker writer for the Oklahoman. His new book, “Raising The Stakes: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces,” is available as an eBook and in paperback at www.RaisingtheStakesbook.com, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is also editor of www.PokerTraditions.com, all about poker history, lore, and people. If you have a gambling or poker story idea, email email@example.com.