Greg Merson had a feeling one his five opponents would make a critical mistake.
On the 109th hand late Monday night of the World Series of Poker's Main Event at the Rio's Penn & Teller Theater, Andras Koroknai gave Merson an opening.
For much of the final table of the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship, Merson, 24, of Laurel, Md., had been changing the chip lead with Jesse Sylvia, 24, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Merson thought Koroknai was his target. Remembering that the 30-year-old Hungarian had made a strange move a few hands earlier, Merson eyed his target.
"I actually told Jesse five minutes before it happened that he (Koroknai) might try something," Merson said. "Five minutes later, he blasted out."
Merson scored a huge double-up on Koroknai, which surged the professional poker player into the chip lead that he will take into today's three-handed action that will determine poker's world champion.
The action begins around 6 p.m. at the Rio and will be shown on a 15-minute delay on ESPN and espn3.com.
Merson is the chip leader with 88.35 million. Sylvia is second with 62.75 million and 21-year-old Jake Balsiger of Tempe, Ariz., is third with 46.875 million.
The winner collects more than $8.53 million; second place earns $5.29 million; third place wins $3.799 million.
"My strategy doesn't really change," Merson said. "I know how to play with the chip lead. That what I did when I won my bracelet, so the pressure is off."
Merson won the $10,000 buy-in Six-Handed No Limit Hold'em event earlier this summer at the World Series of Poker, earning more than $1.13 million. If he holds on tonight, he also wins the World Series of Poker Player of the Year crown.
The final table of nine players, following a 103-day layoff, started off slowly. It took more than an hour before the first player was eliminated.
Koroknai's bust-out was somewhat of a shock. He came into the action second in the chip lead and slow-played much of the night. He was in a relatively safe spot on the leader board when he made a bold move.
On the critical hand, Merson raised the pot to one million in chips and Sylvia re-raised from the small blind to 2.6 million. In the big blind, Koroknai re-raised the action and made it 5.3 million. Merson re-raised to 9.2 million. Sylvia folded and Koroknai moved all in.
Merson quickly called, creating a massive pot.
Merson showed an ace-king and Koroknai had a king-queen. The community cards didn't change the hands and Koroknai was gone, leaving five players at the table.
"There was a lot of bluffing going on," Merson said.
Sylvia, who entered the play as the chip leader, only wavered slightly Monday night but he was never below third place on the board. Merson's big hand gave him a two-to-one chip lead, but Sylvia battled back.
He eliminated Jeremy Ausmus of Las Vegas on the 129th hand when Ausmus missed out on an open-ended straight. That cut the deficit between him and Merson.
Merson, who has become known for the different Major League Baseball jerseys he wears at the poker table, sported an orange Adam Jones Baltimore Orioles jersey Monday. He said he was planning on wearing a black Adam Jones Orioles jersey today.
Balsiger is a senior at Arizona State University and can become the youngest Main Event champion in history if he can move up from third spot.
All three players had large rooting sections in the 1,200-seat theater and Balsiger, who began the night if eighth place, said it took him some time to get used to the spotlight and audience.
"I played aggressively and it was great experience," said Balsiger, who is still attending school through online courses. "I'm going to talk to my coaches and friends and see what else I can do to move up."
Monday's action was carried on ESPN2 and espn3.com on a 15-minute delay. The 2012 Main Event began in July with a total of 6,598 entrants. The event's total prize pool was $62,031,385, with more than $27 million going to the final nine players. A total of 666 entrants cashed in the event.
When play resumes, players will return in Level 37 of the structure, with 1 hour, 7 minutes and 37 seconds left. Players will be forced to ante 75,000 chips each hand, with blinds at 300,000-600,000. For every three hands, players will put into the pot 1.125 million chips each at minimum.
Final table play began Monday afternoon with nine players. It concluded shortly after midnight, following 135 hands of play.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.