At 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Marlene DiStefano thought she might have to change her flight home. Her son, Jesse Sylvia, was nine hours into the 2012 World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas, and the competition was still going strong.
“We were like, this is never going to end,” said Ms. DiStefano in a phone interview. “I thought ‘My plane doesn’t leave until Thursday, do you think it will be over by then?’”
Three hours later it did end, with Mr. Sylvia earning a second-place finish after a marathon all-night session. The 26-year-old West Tisbury native won $5.29 million in prize money.
“It was the most surreal experience of my life,” said Mr. Sylvia in a phone interview on Thursday. “I actually had moments where I felt like I was dreaming because it was just so ridiculous.”
Throughout the contest Mr. Sylvia stayed within striking distance of the eventual winner and new world champion, Greg Merson.
“Seeing him holding the bracelet and crying... I was just really happy for him and he deserved it,” said Mr. Sylvia. “I played my heart out and wanted to win, too. But if I was going to lose to someone, I’m glad it was Greg.”
A large group of friends and fans traveled to Las Vegas to watch the match, including Ms. DiStefano, who lost her voice after the nearly 12-hour event.
“I did lip cheers tonight because no voice would come out,” she said. “I’m so proud. My son did so well. It was his dream and it was such an accomplishment.”
Ms. DiStefano sat in the front row of the Vineyard crowd along with the rest of Mr. Sylvia’s family, including his father Wayne Sylvia and sisters Randi and Nica Sylvia.
Adrian Aristide, Islander and long-time friend of Mr. Sylvia’s, traveled to Las Vegas from Amsterdam, Netherlands.
“I came here for this,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “It’s been ridiculous. No water, no sleep, no food, just Jesse.”
The world series tournament began in early July, initially narrowing the field of 6,598 players down to nine, with Mr. Sylvia in the lead when the tournament took a two-month hiatus. Mr. Sylvia came home to the Vineyard for a couple of weeks in the summer, and traveled to Atlantic city, France and Australia for poker events.
Mr. Sylvia attributes his success to his competitive spirit, something he always had, whether with his sisters in a game of gin rummy or playing soccer as a kid.
“I hate losing,” he said. “I refuse to lose. So I’m always playing my hardest and trying to learn as much as possible.”
The final three competitors began playing the last round on Tuesday at 9 p.m. (EST). Mr. Merson, Mr. Sylvia and Jake Balsiger played a roller coaster competition throughout the night, swapping chips back and forth and each taking turns as chip leader. After 11 hours of play, Mr. Balsiger ended his run and it was head-to-head play between Mr. Merson and Mr. Sylvia.
Within an hour of Mr. Balsiger’s exit, Mr. Merson claimed the championship.
But even in defeat, Mr. Sylvia’s cheering section did not stop.
Ben Hughes, Islander and friend, could be heard blasting his trumpet in the stands, and many others wore matching black shirts with Jesse James (his middle name) written on them. The crowd started numerous chants, from simply “Jesse” to more creative endeavors like “Buy the Ritz!” a local bar in Oak Bluffs.
Nate Thayer, also an Islander and longtime friend, said the group of 180 Vineyarders wanted to make it known that Mr. Sylvia had the best cheering crowd. Commentators repeatedly spoke of Mr. Sylvia’s enthusiastic group and even dubbed him Martha’s Vineyard’s Hero.
“It’s like the most competitive sport money-wise,” said Mr. Thayer. “Yet there wasn’t animosity in any of the plays. It’s a community, everyone was cheering for each other.”
Ms. DiStefano said she thought the support from his friends and family helped fuel her son forward to second place.
“That carried him a lot,” said Ms. DiStefano of the crowd. “To have that much love. It was something we’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Sylvia said he plans to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend where he wants to enroll in film school. But first, it’s a trip back to the Island.
“I obviously really wanted to win first place,” he said. “But I feel like I won because I made enough money to put myself in a good position for life. I’m excited to come home and take my mom house shopping.”