Islander Jesse Sylvia has secured a seat at the final table in the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event, making him one of nine players competing for the $8.5 million jackpot in late October.
His stack holds 14.5 million more chips than his nearest rival.
“Going in, I’m going to be the favorite in the tournament,” said Mr. Sylvia. “It puts a little more pressure on me which is scary. But hopefully I’ll have that bracelet on my wrist when I come out of there.”
In addition to the $8.5 million, the winner earns a championship bracelet, a prize of prestige and respect in the poker world.
The 26-year-old West Tisbury native graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2004. He started playing online poker professionally right out of college. A year and a half ago he moved to Las Vegas where he is now a full-time live cash game player.
The world series tournament began on July 7 with a buy-in of $10,000. Over the following week, 6,598 of the world’s best players were narrowed down to nine, with Mr. Sylvia at the top.
“You wake up in the morning and there’s only 100 left, then there’s only 27 left, and your heart is already pumping. Everything is on full blast,” said Mr. Sylvia. “But as soon as I’d sit down at the table, I’d look at my chips and they’d throw the cards out and I was like, Oh yeah, we’re just playing cards now. This is what I do for a living and I’m good at it.”
His mother Marlene DiStefano was one of many Islanders keeping up with Mr. Sylvia’s progress throughout the tournament.
“My daughter and I were checking the Internet all night long,” she said. “I took a catnap and when I woke up I didn’t see his name around 12 where he had been. Then I saw him at number one and I started screaming!”
Ms. DiStefano said she is clearing her schedule for the week of the tournament and heading out to Las Vegas.
“You know when you’re a kid you have these dreams of being a star, and as a parent you always want to support your kids,” she said. “Well, he really achieved his dream.”
Mr. Sylvia is coming back to the Island in a couple of weeks, and said there is no doubt about it, his family and close friends will be in Las Vegas cheering him on at the final table in October.
“I’m going to make sure they come. I honestly don’t think the poker world is ready for the Island. They’re going to be a rowdy bunch of people. I’m already known as the guy in the tournament with the craziest set of fans.”
The final round prize money amounts to just over $8.5 million, with the rest of the top seven finalists also winning at least $1 million. If he wins the money, Mr. Sylvia said he would like to continue playing poker and traveling.
“There’s an island in Panama I’ve had my eye on for a long time,” he said. “I’d buy my mom a house for sure, because I’ve always wanted to do that for her. Then I’d probably put the rest away and invest and be boring. I don’t really need to own anything, I just like being me and doing what I do already.”
On Monday Mr. Sylvia walked away with a check for $754,798. His father, Wayne Sylvia of West Tisbury, flew out to Las Vegas for the beginning of the competition; when he left after the tournament’s first day his son had only 80,000 chips.
“There were 6,500 players. And now all the big names, they’re all gone!” the senior Mr. Sylvia said. “Who would have thought a hometown boy from West Tisbury would have gone this deep.”
The world series poker final table play begins on Oct. 28; the winner will be decided on Oct. 30 in a live broadcast from ESPN.