Jesse Sylvia and Russell Thomas became close friends through Internet poker and cash games once they no longer could play online.
They talked often two summers ago about what it would take to reach the final table of the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship. The pair shared living space in Las Vegas during the 2011 tournament, going to dinner every night to discuss poker, chip counts, game strategy and the Main Event.
"We would just get each other pumped up," Sylvia said.
Neither had what could be termed a great showing at the World Series of Poker last year.
Sylvia cashed once, finishing 175th in a $1,500 buy-in no limit hold'em six-handed event, earning $2,954. Thomas placed 248th in the Main Event, collecting $40,654.
Little could they imagine a year later they would both be within striking distance of an $8.5 million payday.
The pair rose above the starting field of 6,598 to land opposite one another at the 2012 Main Event final table early Tuesday at the Rio.
Sylvia, 26, and Thomas, 24, will join seven other players Oct. 28-30 on stage at the Rio's Penn & Teller Theater to determine poker's world championship. Seven will earn more than $1 million, while ninth place is a guaranteed payment of $754,798.
The field - eight Americans and a Hungarian professional poker player - range in age from 21 to 57.
Two players - Greg Merson, 25, of Laurel, Md., and Steven Gee, 57, of Sacramento, Calif., - have previously earned World Series of Poker individual event gold bracelets. Merson has more than $1.2 million in career tournament earnings, due in large part to winning his bracelet two weeks earlier.
Most players, like Sylvia and Thomas, learned on the Internet and mainly play cash games.
"He's probably one of my best poker friends," Thomas said of Sylvia. "We both got really good learning from each other."
Thomas, an actuary from Hartford, Conn., is fourth among the chip leaders with 24.8 million. Sylvia, who is originally from Malden, Mass., but now lives in Las Vegas, leads the field with 43.875 million in chips.
"I actually feel like I'm dreaming because everyone I know is in it," Sylvia said. "This is really weird. I know Greggy (Merson) pretty well also. Russell visited me last summer. We're really good friends."
With $8.5 million and poker immortality on the line, the friendship will end for a few days in October.
"I'm just going to poison him," Sylvia joked. "He's coming to visit and I'm just going to take him out then."
Both players said they would spend the next few months improving tournament skills before returning to the Rio.
Gee, the oldest player at the final table, said his experience in winning a $1,000 buy-in no limit hold'em event in 2010 and earning $472,479, helped carry him through nearly 11 hours of play Monday and Tuesday.
"I'm probably the most overlooked bracelet winner in the tournament," said Gee, who sits in fifth place with 16.86 million chips. "I'm not really a tournament player. I'm a cash game player. Having been through a final table in 2010 did help. I didn't think I could win that event. It was something like a 3,000-player field and when you walk into a football-sized room with poker tables, it can be kind of intimidating."
Roughly 34 million chips separate Sylvia from ninth-seeded Jeremy Ausmus, 32, a professional poker player who lives in Las Vegas.
Ausmus, who has 9.805 million chips, knows Sylvia and Gee from cash games at Bellagio. He said making up ground could come quickly. Sylvia was close to being eliminated Monday afternoon when the action began with 27 players. He started in 13th position.
"Look at Jesse. He was all-in, caught a couple of hands and jumped up there quickly," Ausmus said. "A couple of double-ups and I'm right there, so I'm not too worried about my position at all."
History may happen at the final table.
Jake Balsiger of Tempe, Ariz., who sits in eighth place with 13.115 million chips, could become the youngest-ever World Series of Poker Main Event champion in October. Balsiger, 21, a senior at Arizona State University, would eclipse 2009 world champion Joe Cada, who was just shy of his 22nd birthday when he captured the crown.
With eight Americans, the final table's makeup differs vastly from 2011, when the final table represented seven different countries, with Americans in only three chairs. Pius Heinz of Germany defeated Martin Staszko of the Czech Republic for the title.
The only international player at the 2012 final table had a role in eliminating the last two non-American players, both women. Andras Koroknai, 30, from Debrecen, Hungary, is second in chips with 29.375 million.
First, he eliminated Elisabeth Hille of Norway in the 11th spot, which moved the field to a single table of 10 players shortly before midnight. About a half-hour later, Koroknai knocked out Gaelle Baumann of France, in 10th place to set the final table.
Hille and Baumann earned $590,442 and marked the first time in tournament history that women finished in both 10th and 11th place at the Main Event. Baumann's 10th place finish equaled Annie Duke's 10th place in 2000.
A woman hasn't reached the final table of the Main Event since 1995 when Barbara Enright placed fifth.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.