Last summer, Jonathan Hilton got about as close to a gold bracelet as a player can be. He was heads-up against Dominik Nitsche in one of the last $1,000 No Limit Hold’em events of the summer, but came up short of the win, settling for second place. There was no settling tonight at Harrah’s in New Orleans though.

Hilton took down the title in the third annual World Series of Poker National Championship presented by Southern Comfort 100 Proof by besting a tough final table line-up that included bracelet winners, a Main Event final tablist, and several tough tournament pros.

In addition to the bracelet and the title National Champion, Hilton also takes home $355,399, bringing his career WSOP earnings to over $800,000.

A glance at Hilton’s tournament results since that fateful day when he almost won the bracelet last summer show a dedicated Circuit grinder who cashed eight times, made five final tables, and won a ring over the course of this season. Those efforts were enough to earn him an at-large bid into this event, and his efforts today helped him to bring home the win for the Circuit grinders for the second consecutive year.

During heads-up play, it looked as though bracelet winner and WSOP POY qualifier Max Steinberg might win this title for the pros, but Hilton rallied from a chip deficit to claim the victory and the WSOP hardware that eluded him just one year ago.

This year marks the third running of the WSOP National Championship and the first time the event has been held outside of Las Vegas. This year also marked the first time that all 100 of the Circuit players who earned a free seat into this event, which boasts $1 million in added prize money, were in attendance. Joining this group were 27 players who were able to buy-in to the event for $10,000 because they were one of the top 100 WSOP Player of the Year point earners during the 2011 and 2012 WSOP.

With 127 total entries and a million dollars in added prize money, the total prize pool came in at $1,270,000 with the top 16 players receiving a payday. A min cash in the event was worth over $17,000, while a final table appearance guaranteed at least $38,500. Notables who made the money, but missed out on the final table included Ashly Butler (12th) and Rex Clinkscales (11th).

The final table was pretty evenly split between players who won their way into this event and players who bought their way into this event. The televised, eight-handed final table featured four POY qualifiers, three at-large Circuit qualifiers, and one Circuit Main Event Champ, Tim Bowman, who took down the first-ever Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event.

When play began, tow-time bracelet winner and 2012 October Jeremy Ausmus were at the top of the counts, but Ausmus made a surprising exit in eighth place early in the day. As the final table progressed other notables like Joe Tehan (6th) and Brock Parker (4th) hit the rail, setting up the heads-up battle between the bracelet winner and the Circuit grinder.

Here are the final table results from the 2013 WSOP National Championship presented by Southern Comfort 100 Proof:

1st: Jonathan Hilton (At-large) - $355,599
2nd: Max Steinberg (POY qualifier) - $219,799
3rd: Bob Panitch (At-lage) - $167,431
4th: Brock Parker (POY qualifier) - $114,008
5th: Tim Bowman (Cherokee Main Event) - $84,544
6th: Joe Tehan (POY qualifier) - $63,894
7th: Nicolas Vaca-Rondon (At-large) - $49,187
8th: Jeremy Ausmus (POY qualifier) - $38,570
9
th: Austin Apicella (At-large) - $30,785

 
TOURNAMENT OVERVIEW:

In its three years of existence, the WSOP National Championship has already developed some serious history, controversy, and even a rivalry.

At the end of May, the WSOP National Championship brings the very best WSOP performers together in a single invitation-only tournament.  Most of the qualifying field consists of WSOP Circuit players, who have played and earned the right to play in the event by virtue of accomplishments at one of the 20 tour stops around North America held this season.  The other portion of the field includes the top 100 performers from WSOP gold bracelet events, as determined by the Player of the Year points race over the past two years.

Frankly, the WSOP Circuit grinders have become a bit protective of this coveted title and have come to support each other through a strong social network of encouragement as well as camaraderie.  Meanwhile, some of the WSOP players tend to come in with the very wrong perception this is a softer field than might be experienced at higher buy-in gold bracelet events in Las Vegas and Europe.

Once again, a WSOP Circuit qualifier won the title – and with it a WSOP gold bracelet.  Following in the proud footsteps in previous years of Sam Barnhart (2011 champ) and Ryan Eriquezzo (2012 champ), Hilton had a similar path to victory.

Hilton is a 23-year-old poker pro who started playing seriously as a teenager.  This was the first season Hilton had played on the Circuit.  Remarkably, Hilton came into this tournament with a serious dilemma that transcends poker and money.  He almost decided to pass on playing due to his mother's illness.  He told his mother he would forgo with $10,000 seat in order to be at her side, but Hilton's mother insisted that he complete his mission, which was performed with precision in front of ESPN's television cameras in the final tournament before the start of the WSOP in Las Vegas.

Hilton had others cheering for him, as well.  His girlfriend and young baby were outside the casino, waiting on news of what was happening.  As soon as Hilton won the final hand, he ran through the Harrah's New Orleans showroom and into the arms of his family.  It was a moment to remember.


MEET THE LATEST WSOP CHAMPION – JONATHAN “JONO” HILTON

Name: Johnathan “Jono” Hilton
Birthplace: Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA)
Age: 23
Childhood:  Chattanooga, Tennessee (USA)
Current Residence:  Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
Marital Status: Girlfriend
Children:  One infant
Education:  Attended college, did not graduate
Profession:  Professional Poker Player (live and online)
Number of WSOP Cashes:  2
Number of WSOP final table appearances: 2
Number of WSOP gold bracelet victories (with this tournament): 1
Best Previous WSOP finish:  2nd (2012)
Total WSOP Earnings: $760,756
Personal Facts:  Moved to Canada to play online poker full-time, very spiritual, close to family, follower of motivational speaker Eric Thomas (who Hilton credits for the inspiration)


WINNER QUOTES (POST-TOURNAMENT INTERVIEW)

WSOP:  There's a rivalry developing between the Circuit players and those from the WSOP.  Do you sense that and take some added pride in winning for all the grinders who have played in events around the country these past ten months?

Hilton:  Yeah, this was my first year to really play the Circuit and all the players I see out there are really cool dudes.  While I was playing this event, I started getting a lot of love on Twitter from people who really wanted a (Circuit) grinder to win it.  We don't get a lot of credit, like it's second level poker, like we're grinding and putting in more time.  I don't think many of the players get credit for how good they are.  It's really an honor to represent the grinders.

WSOP:  What does winning the WSOP gold bracelet mean to you?

Hilton:  This means a lot more to me now because I got second in a bracelet event last year.  It was right there in front of me and I really thought I was going to win, but didn't.  I think now it feels better than had I won it th first time, because I've been thinking about this all year.  It's really hard to get heads-up for a bracelet again, so it's pretty amazing I have the second place finish at one of the last tourneys last season and a win here as the first one this year.  Pretty amazing.

WSOP:  Can you discuss what inspires you and the things that gave you the skill and drive to come here and win?

Hilton: I played sports all my life and have always been very competitive....I was in college ad then made a lot of money my first year, but since then it's been really streaky.  I'm very blessed.  Ever since I started working on myself from the inside out and didn't worry about money so much....my life has been entirely different.  Even if I did not win this tournament I would still be the most blessed man out there.  There's a great motivator named Eric Thomas who I really got into the last year or so.  He really helped me to see things.  I found him on YouTube and this guy changed my life – about how you have to get up and work every day and how you can't make excuses.  I saw him in an airport a few weeks ago.  He was like the most important person who helped me turn things around....I'm really close to my parents and especially my dad, but Eric Thomas is a major inspiration for me.

WSOP:  We heard you almost didn't play the last day or two.  Can you tell use why you almost skipped this event?

Hilton:  My mom is really sick.  She is a survivor of cancer.  Today is my parents 25th wedding anniversary.  It was a really hard decision.  A lot of people don't understand that money isn't that important.  My mom is way more important.  I was about to skip this event, but they wouldn't let me.  I am really blessed.  I wake up every morning and am thankful for everything I have.


TOURNAMENT ODDS AND ODDS

The WSOP National Championship takes place at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 WSOP Circuit season.  The season began in August 2012 and ended in May 2013.

This is the third WSOP National Championship.  Previous winners were Sam Barnhart (2011) and Ryan Eriquezzo (2012).

This was the first WSOP gold bracelet ever awarded in North America outside of Las Vegas.  Worldwide, gold bracelets have now been awarded in Las Vegas, London (U.K.), Cannes (France), Melbourne (Australia), and New Orleans.

This year boasted the most internationally diverse group of players yet.  Seven Canadians, two Bulgarians, and a Colombian joined 90 American Circuit qualifiers.  The Canadians were Mike Leah, John Crncic, Sandra Wong, Idris Gencoglu, David Pecaski, Paul Sokoloff, and Alex Bylicki. The Bulgarians were Nick Jivkov and Pavlin Karakikov.  The Colombian, Nicolas Vaca-Rondon made the final table.

Only three players qualified for a WSOP National Championship seat all three years – Charles “Woody” Moore, Kyle Cartwright, and Kurt Jewell.  A total of 29 players have qualified for two years.

This year's WSOP National Championship was proudly presented by Southern Comfort 100 Proof, which was a welcome presence at all the WSOP Circuit stops this past season.