Four eliminations at the World Series of Poker on Monday night moved five card players within sight of an $8.53 million top prize and poker glory, as a 24-year-old Maryland poker professional vaulted to a dominant chip lead thanks to an opponent's startling error.
Greg Merson eliminated Hungarian poker professional Andras Koroknai in sixth place, calling Koroknai's all-in bet with an ace-king and finding Koroknai with king-queen — a marginal hand for the situation.
Koroknai won $1.64 million for sixth place while Merson won 84 million in chips, nearly double that of his closest competitor.
The surprising error came more than six hours into a game with plenty of mental maneuvering as players jockey to make the right million-dollar decisions.
Poker professional Robert Salaburu was ousted from the no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event in eighth place after a river queen gave chip leader Jesse Sylvia a higher pair. Minutes later, Michael Esposito went out in seventh, his ace-jack failing to pull ahead of Merson's ace-king.
"I never had cards the whole day," Esposito said. "At the end of the day, I'm going home a rich person."
Esposito won $1.26 million, while higher finishers will win at least $1.64 million each.
Salaburu called an all-in test from Sylvia with pocket sevens, which looked good initially against Sylvia's queen-five. Salaburu, 27, of San Antonio, Texas, won $971,360 for eighth.
He declined comment to reporters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino after being eliminated, leaving the casino through a back parking lot and refusing to return.
Steve Gee, a 57-year-old poker professional from Sacramento, Calif., was eliminated in ninth place less than two hours into play after testing Russell Thomas with a tough wager for the last of his 11.4 million in chips.
Thomas called and showed a pair of queens, better than Gee's pocket eights.
Gee's ouster meant he made no additional money after a break of more than three months. All nine finalists were paid nearly $755,000, the ninth-place prize, after making the final table in July.
Thomas moved to roughly 40 million in chips after the hand, second at the table.
"If I knew he had pocket queens, I would have checked," Gee said after being eliminated. "I'm disappointed. I told myself I wasn't going to play scared."
The six professionals and three amateurs that started the final table tested each other from the start, re-raising chips back and forth in moves that will ultimately result in everyone — besides the winner, perhaps — gambling their stacks against one another.
On the first hand of play, Gee bluffed Thomas on a pot worth several million chips, though Thomas held just nine high and wouldn't have been able to consider playing the hand to the end.
Esposito, 44, a commodities broker from Seaford, N.Y., was uncertain about the status of his waterfront home as Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.
His son, James Esposito, said neighbors have said the streets are flooded, but the family is focused on the card game in the Nevada desert.
"Odds are likely that it's flooded," he said. "I know I saw a picture of the house three doors down — the streets are totally flooded."
Michael Esposito was one of three remaining amateurs at the start of the final table. Jake Balsiger, 21, an Arizona State senior looking to become the youngest main event champion ever, and Thomas, a 24-year-old insurance actuary who's helping Aetna adjust to new regulations passed under President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul, were still alive.
The chip leader heading into the final table was Sylvia, a 24-year-old poker professional who began the final stretch with 43.9 million in chips, just over 22 percent of the chips in play. The other remaining finalist is 33-year-old poker professional Jeremy Ausmus of Las Vegas.
Chips have no real monetary value in tournament poker. Each player at the final table must lose all his chips to lose the tournament, and win all the chips at the table to be crowned champion.
The tournament began in July with 6,598 players and was chopped down to nine through seven sessions spread over 11 days. Play stopped after nearly 67 hours logged at the tables for each player, with minimum bets going up every two hours.
The finalists will play Monday night until only three players remain, then the three top finishers will settle the title on Tuesday.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia