A series of supportive messages from Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps helped poker professional Greg Merson clinch an $8,531,853 payday and the title of world champion on Wednesday morning.
Merson survived a marathon session of nearly 12 hours before finally eliminating his last two competitors from a field of 6,598 in the main event of the World Series of Poker – the most prestigious prize in the game.
Phelps and Merson both hail from Maryland and are long-time friends, and the swimming superstar sent his pal several tweets and text messages before and during the closing session of the final table, before conveying his congratulations at the end of the dramatic event.
Merson invited Phelps to join him at the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio in Las Vegas, but the 18-time gold medalist was unable to make the trip as he was returning from a charity event in Brazil, where he was teaching swimming to under-privileged youngsters in a Rio de Janeiro slum.
"It is pretty cool to have someone as successful as he is supporting you," Merson told reporters. "He obviously has the mentality of a champion. That is the mentality I tried to keep through this whole thing."
Phelps retired after the Olympics in London this summer and has spent much of his time since traveling and golfing. He is also a keen poker player and has previously taken part in celebrity events.
Merson and Phelps bonded over their mutual love of Baltimore sports teams, with Merson wearing a different athletic jersey for every day of the main event, eventually winning while sporting a replica jersey of Orioles' center fielder Adam Jones.
While the 68 tournaments comprising the World Series of Poker are played over the middle of the summer, the main event went into a 103-day break once the final table was set. Such as move has been typical for the past four years to build interest ahead of the ultimate showdown, though this time it was brought forward from its typical November slot due to the Presidential election.
Merson's to-and-fro tussle with Jesse Sylvia and Jacob Balsiger made this year's version the longest final table in history, one that lasted 399 hands and was not completed until 5:44 a.m.
Sylvia's second place was worth just under $5.3 million, while 21-year-old Balsiger, who was in contention to become the youngest champion in event history, earned himself $3.8 million.
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