The World Series of Poker final nine: Player profiles

1. Jesse Sylvia

Age 24

Las Vegas

43.875 million in chips

Sylvia was down his last 4 million chips on Day 7 when he rallied back into contention. By the time the field was cut from 27 to the final nine, Sylvia, who is originally from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., jumped into the chip lead. Sylvia will be seated five seats away at the final table from his closest friend and one-time roommate Russell Thomas. The pair sharpened each other’s poker skills. A victory might propel Sylvia in another career; he aspires to move to Los Angeles and get involved in movie making.

Quote: "I always want to be involved in the game. But I am not sure I want to be grinding it out every day 10 years from now. I told myself I will play in the World Series of Poker every year that I can, because it’s so different."

2. Andras Koroknai

Age 30

Debrecen, Hungary

29.375 million in chips

Koroknai is the non-American at the final table, and hopes to be the first Hungarian to win the Main Event. He has nearly $2 million in career poker earnings, including a World Poker Tour title in 2010. Koroknai’s road to the final table almost ended early in the tournament when he mistakenly mucked his hand. A ruling from the floor cost him 60,000 in chips but he was able to continue. Koroknai eliminated both the 10th and 11th place finishers, who also happened to be the tournament’s last women.

Quote: "When I sit down at the table, I don’t care if it’s a male or female player. Everybody is equal and everybody wants to win."

3. Greg Merson

Age 24

Laurel, Md.

28.275 million in chips

Merson will be playing for more than just the Main Event’s gold bracelet and $8.5 million payday. A victory will also ensure Merson of the 2012 World Series of Poker Player of the Year crown. Merson cashed in four events at this year’s tournament, earning his first gold bracelet when he won the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em/Six Handed event. He collected $1.1 million for the win and affirmed that his life was back on track. Merson said he struggled with addiction over the past few years but is now clean and sober.

Quote: "I thought I had my s**t together. I let the poker lifestyle get the best of me. I worked really hard to get all the way back to the highest games again. I definitely have a way more positive mindset about everything."

4. Russell Thomas

Age 24

Hartford, Conn.

24.8 million in chips

Thomas began playing poker while attending Temple University. After earning a degree in actuary science, he went to work as an actuary at Aetna Insurance, a job he is now on leave from until the Main Event concludes. Poker may soon become his full time profession. Prior to the Main Event, Thomas had earned $126,796 at the World Series of Poker, finishing as high as fifth in a six-handed no-limit hold’em event in 2010.

Quote: "To be an actuary, you have to pass a bunch of exams. One of them was called probability. I have studied probability pretty intensively. The math helps, but it doesn’t correlate as much as people think. Playing poker makes you better at poker."

5. Steven Gee

Age 57

Sacramento, Calif.

16.86 million in chips

Gee is the only member of the final table who won an individual event championship bracelet before this year. In 2010, Gee won a $1,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em event to earn $472,479, topping a field of more than 3,000 players. Before the 2012 Main Event, Gee had cashed in three other World Series of Poker events, finishing no higher than 201st. Gee left his job as a manager of software projects for the California Public Employees Retirement System a few years ago to play poker full time.

Quote: "Every single day (during the Main Event), I never thought I’d make it to the next day. This summer, I don’t think I played as well as I did in the past. But I just got more lucky breaks."

6. Michael Esposito

Age 44

Seaford, N.Y.

16.26 million in chips

Esposito calls himself "a true amateur," someone who only plays poker a few times a year. He’s cashed twice at the World Series of Poker, in 2006 and 2009, earning $24,934. His best finish was 540th place at the Main Event in 2006. A New York-based commodity broker, Esposito competes in triathlons. He said discipline is a character trait that helps him compete in both triathlons and poker.

Quote: "The money is more important than the bracelet. I’m hoping this (winning the Main Event) can get me in the Ironman World Championship (triathlon)."

7. Robert Salaburu

Age 27

San Antonio

15.155 million in chips

Salaburu has playing professionally since graduating high school, although the 2012 Main Event will be his first cash at the World Series of Poker. Salaburu found early success in online poker and cash game on the Southern poker circuit. Before this year, Salaburu would attend the World Series of Poker, but limited events, favoring the cash game tables. Salaburu sought advice from British poker player Stephen Chidwick, who was on hand to rail Salaburu during the late stages of the Main Event.

Quote: "I have never been good at reporting to people and taking orders from people, so I had to figure out something in a hurry. I guess I just kind of stuck with what I knew."

8. Jacob Balsiger

Age 21

Tempe, Ariz.

13.115 million in chips

A victory by Balsiger means he would eclipse 2009 champion Joe Cada as the youngest Main Event champion in World Series of Poker history. Balsiger is a senior majoring in political science at Arizona State University and used to play online poker to supplement his income. He cashed in a $1,500 buy-in no limit hold’em event early at the World Series, finishing 100th and earning $3,531.

Quote: "To be honest, I entered the Main Event expecting to hopefully get some kind of cash. I end up at the final table. Unbelievable."

9. Jeremy Ausmus

Age 33

Las Vegas

9.805 million in chips

One issue that Ausmus had lingering before the final table was resolved earlier this month was exactly when his wife would give birth to their second child. Now, Ausmus, who has 13 World Series of Poker career cashes can concentrate in winning his first gold bracelet. Eight of his career cashes came the summer. Ausmus has eight years of experience at the poker tables and holds a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University.

Quote: "I’m pretty much a full-time player. I’ll probably go to the Bellagio four times a week and play cash games. I have a good balance. My wife gives me a life away from poker and my daughter, too. It’s good to have that break."

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