Two poker professionals and a college student have topped nearly 6,600 competitors at the World Series of Poker and are one card session away from poker's richest prize - an $8.53 million crown.
Arizona State senior Jake Balsiger eliminated Russell Thomas in fourth place early Tuesday in Las Vegas with an ace-king, treading past five meaningless community cards to bump his guaranteed payday up nearly $1 million and setting up the Tuesday night showdown.
His opponents in the no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament: 24-year-old poker pros Greg Merson of Laurel, Md., and Jesse Sylvia of Las Vegas.
"I can't wait to get back up here and play. I wish we could play it out right now," said Sylvia, who started the session of more than 7 hours with the chip lead but was overtaken by Merson.
"We have a long battle tomorrow," he said.
Thomas won $2.85 million for fourth place, then said after being eliminated that he planned to quit his job as an insurance actuary for Aetna to follow his dream of playing cards.
"Made my company a little mad because I quit my job in a newspaper article, and now I'm doing it in a press conference," he said.
Balsiger, Merson and Sylvia have their sights set on higher scores - guaranteed at least $3.8 million each as the top three finishers.
Merson vaulted to a dominant chip lead thanks to an opponent's startling error, then finished the session with 88.4 million in chips, compared with 62.8 million for Sylvia and 46.9 million for Balsiger.
Merson eliminated Hungarian poker professional Andras Koroknai in sixth place, calling Koroknai's all-in bet with an ace-king and finding Koroknai with king-queen - a marginal hand for the situation.
Koroknai won $1.64 million for sixth place, while Merson won 84 million in chips, nearly double that of his closest competitor.
The surprising error came more than six hours into a game with plenty of mental maneuvering as players jockeyed to make the right million-dollar decisions.
Merson said he expected it to happen, and told Sylvia during one of the breaks that he expected Koroknai to bluff away all his chips.
"When short-handed play starts, I think that's my game because a lot of players either play too tight, or they over-adjust," he said.
Poker professional Robert Salaburu was ousted in eighth after a river queen gave Sylvia a higher pair. Minutes later, Michael Esposito went out in seventh, his ace-jack failing to pull ahead of Merson's ace-king.
Jeremy Ausmus, 33, of Las Vegas, placed fifth.
"I never had cards the whole day," Esposito said. "At the end of the day, I'm going home a rich person."
Steve Gee, a 57-year-old poker professional from Sacramento, Calif., was eliminated in ninth place less than two hours into play after testing Thomas with a tough wager for the last of his 11.4 million in chips.
Thomas called and showed a pair of queens, better than Gee's pocket eights.
Gee's ouster meant he made no additional money after a break of more than three months. All nine finalists were paid nearly $755,000, the ninth-place prize, after making the final table in July.
"If I knew he had pocket queens, I would have checked," Gee said after being eliminated. "I'm disappointed. I told myself I wasn't going to play scared."
The six professionals and three amateurs that started the final table tested each other from the start, re-raising chips back and forth in moves that would ultimately result in everyone - besides the winner, perhaps - gambling their stacks against one another.
On the first hand of play, Gee bluffed Thomas on a pot worth several million chips, though Thomas held just nine high and wouldn't have been able to consider playing the hand to the end.
Esposito, 44, a commodities broker from Seaford, N.Y., was uncertain about the status of his waterfront home as Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.
His son, James Esposito, said neighbors told him the streets are flooded, but the family was focused on the card game in the Nevada desert.
"Odds are likely that it's flooded," he said. "I know I saw a picture of the house three doors down - the streets are totally flooded."
The chip leader heading into the final table was Sylvia, who began the final stretch with 43.9 million in chips, just over 22 percent of the chips in play.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament, and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists played Monday night until only three players remained, leaving the top three to settle the title Tuesday night.