A young man who grew up in an idyllic seaside town on Martha's Vineyard enters the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event finale as the chip leader. His name is Jesse Sylvia.
Aside from Sylvia’s obvious passion for poker and his dedication to an arduous process of learning and self-improvement, he’s a profoundly thoughtful person who reveals far more depth of character and experience than one might expect from a 26-year-old professional poker player.
Any doubt that Sylvia is an extraordinary young man facing some extraordinary once in a lifetime circumstances is quickly erased in a five-minute conversation. Indeed, it's not just what Sylvia says when speaking. It's how he says it -- putting careful thought and obvious passion into each and every word and answer.
Consider this. Following the question, Sylvia routinely stops, takes a moment, and pauses – as if to collect his thoughts. Then, he proceeds to not only answer the question, but also continues to take the interview a step further and beyond into things that interest him. He often goes off on tangents and brings up topics he thinks are important, revealing opinions he thinks should be heard. In short, somehow Sylvia manages to wrangle control of the interview and dictate of the pace of the discussion.
Just like at the poker table.
Sylvia sat down recently with the WSOP’s Nolan Dalla. An interview expected to last perhaps a few minutes stretched into a full hour, with Sylvia as the clear table captain in the exchange. He shared a number of personal thoughts about what his life has been like since the life-changing events of July, back in Las Vegas when a player who had largely been unknown to the public became the hottest poker newcomer on the planet. Sylvia also talked about what he's expecting at the end of October, when he sits down in the biggest poker game of his life, as the chip leader in the Main Event Championship.
On what his life's been like since making the Main Event final table, in July:
The first week after it was all over, all I did was relax, because the time I spent out in Las Vegas had been so intense. I tried to watch some poker videos to keep sharp when I got back, at sites like CardRunners and DeucesCracked. But the first few weeks back home for me was a time to try and unwind and enjoy the moment.
On the layoff and if it could be detrimental to his game and momentum:
You can be off for a month or two and you don't realize how much you slip. You might get back into it, and then you botch up some situation that you would never have done if you were on your game. It's weird to say you can be rusty at something that's not physical. Instead, it's a mental thing. Like, you know what to do and you should be able to do it. But sometimes you blank out.
On of his poker game is more game theory-based or instinctual:
I've tried the last year to be more of an instinctual player. I used to be more of a theory-based player, because if you have the theory correct, then you can never be very wrong about what you are doing. You might be a little off. But you can't be too wrong. But I also think the theory stuff only takes you so far, that if you reach a certain stage you have to then be able to play. I think instinct allows you to exploit the little things and gain the little edges that are so important in the game.
On things that inspired him, aside from poker tools:
If you read the book "Blink," or "Outliers" (by Malcom Gladwell), he talks a lot about the ten-thousand hour rule, which means that if you put at least ten-thousand hours into something you become really in tune with what you are doing. I thought that was amazing. Like I have a friend that plays the piano. When we were both ten years old, I played the piano, too. And, I was a little better than him. But he put in the time and a few years later he was so much better than me, it wasn't even funny. He put in the requisite hours. I think I agree with him that there's really no such thing as a prodigy. You still have to put in the work. You might be good at something and perhaps you gravitate towards it. But like Gladwell said in the books, even Mozart -- it turned out -- put in a lot more hours than people realized and maybe that's how he became so great.
On what surprised him most about the experience of being one of the Main Event finalists:
I guess it's that even if you're away from poker, or try to get away from it like I did, when you are in the spot I'm in, you are never really quite away from it. Know what I mean? Because wherever you go, that's all you get asked -- 'how do you feel about being the final table,' things like that. It's just always with you. I mean, the island was a sort of sanctuary for me, not just geographically but also s a place that's isolated, which I think is good. But in some ways, always being connected to poker regardless of what I do makes me continue to think about the game all the time. I need to stay as sharp as possible so I guess that's a good thing.
On the events leading up to the 2012 WSOP last summer:
I started the series out and I was in a pretty big hole. I played in some really big PLO games and ran really bad. And if you run bad in Omaha, you get really crushed. So, I started out in a pretty deep hole in terms of like trying to get back to even. Meanwhile, while I was trying to dig myself out in cash games, I was playing everything I could at the series. I was putting in like 60 hours a week at the series and didn't know it. My girlfriend was the one who woke me up to the fact I was playing so much. But I am used to grinding long hours, so it didn't affect me in a negative way.
On what else helped him become a successful poker pro:
Aside from the practice of just doing it, surrounding yourself with other people you respect and can learn from is critical. I think the term is called 'collective of knowledge,' or something like that. If people around you are learning and getting better at something and you are in the middle of it, how can you not get better, as well? It's not like the cutting edge of mathematics where you almost have to have something special. Poker is something where you can get a lot better just by having the right friends and support. The best players in the world are just really good at balancing hand ranges and know how to exploit leaks in the other players' games. And so being around people who are at the forefront of the game and soaking that all in, you eventually develop that same thought process.
On making poker goals and sticking to them:
Before 2012 started, I had a set amount of money I wanted to make in the next year, and I decided I would put in the time whatever it took to acheive that. I had certain goals, like I wanted to be able to take shots, like playing in Bobby's Room (at the Aria) by the next WSOP. I remember them all well. I remember them vividly. I wrote them all down on a plane. I was flying back and I had no Internet. So, I decided -- I'm finally going to write down all my goals. Then, this happened (making the final nine) and I realized, like I had just met half of my goals in just this one tournament in just a week. I mean, that was really cool that it happened.
On how his family and freinds reacted to becoming one of the October Nine:
It's been amazing. Back in July, my entire family was up all night. It was East Coast time. They were sweating all the knockouts reading the updates that were online. They were so excited. One of my favorite stories was the next day my mother and sister were driving in to work -- my mom is a florist -- and as they were driving this guy behind them was driving crazy and honking, and my mom was really getting scared. But then, they both realized that it was my best friend who saw them driving and he was so excited. So, they all pulled over and everyone got out of the car and got out and they were jumping up and down and screaming in the middle of the road on Martha's Vineyard.
On negatives that have come from being semi-famous:
They are so small, they hardly seem to matter. Where we live, there are a lot of celebrities. I certainly don't think of myself as a celebrity. People on Martha's Vineyard are used to seeing some pretty famous people. The community knows how to act towards them. Plus, I am a very social person so I enjoy hanging out with everyone I know and even all the new people I have met.
On his preparation leading up to the big night:
The final month leading up to it, I expect I will really go over the final table -- going over each player and thinking about how I was to respond to each player and their game and how I might be able to exploit them. I expect to look at video and see if there are any tells or things like that....but it's hard to get a grip on too much because they don't always show the hand from start to finish and you really have to see how it plays out, especially with how things went leading up to it, know what I mean? In Greg's (Merson) case, he's got a pretty extensive record to look at because he's played online a ton. But it's not as easy to get stuff on the other players from what I can see.
On what he expects to experience when he walks onto the stage and takes his seat as chip leader:
Once we start playing, I don't think it all matter that much. The first time I got assigned to the feature table (in July), the lights and cameras were a little crazy to me, but after three hands, I kind of tuned it out and thought, 'oh, we're just playing poker.' So I was able to focus on that. But in answer to your question, the feeling I am expecting to feel is just -- happiness. This is what I have always dreamed of. Let's have a good time with it.
Two months ago, you were asked if -- hypothetically -- you would accept second place right now. You would lock up nearly $5.3 million right now, but would not be the world champion. Would you take that deal?
I remember that question. I think I was on the fence about it back then. But now, I would just go ahead and play for it and take my chances. After what I've experienced these last few months, I don't think it's about money. Other things are far more important to me. And being the World Champion....most of the time you are only going to have one shot at it. And for me, this is it.
If you would like to read more from this lengthy interview with Sylvia, check out this secondary piece with more thoughts from Sylvia on game theory, how to become an expert, and the final table.