SOMETIMES A FANTASY: Jason Mercier’s Extraordinary 2016

Lance Bradley

MIAMI 2017

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve and 2017 became real, Jason Mercier was at a Billy Joel concert in Miami, struggling to stay awake. While the Piano Man played all of his classic hits in front of a packed house, Mercier was closing the book on one of the most important and successful years of his life.

In 2016, Mercier won a PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker title, added WSOP bracelets #4 and #5 to his collection, got engaged, won a rumored seven figures in WSOP prop bets, celebrated a milestone birthday, and got married.

And then he fell asleep at a Billy Joel concert.

PRESSURE

“This year has definitely been pretty awesome,” says Mercier, describing 2016 the way a kid who got every toy he wanted might talk about Christmas.

When the 2016 poker calendar began, Mercier was where nearly every Team PokerStars Pro finds themselves in early January--The Bahamas. His first cash came in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event. It was a 20th-place finish in a field of 928 players and was worth $32,360. While most players would be ecstatic with a 500 percent return on investment, for Mercier, it was just a drop in the bucket for what was to come the rest of the year.

He also managed another, smaller cash while he was there. It was a dinner with other members of Team PokerStars Pro where Mercier’s year took its first dramatic turn though. After hearing that Vanessa Selbst had offered Polish sensation Dzmitry Urbanovich 180-1 odds on winning three WSOP bracelets in a single year, Mercier wanted in – but he didn’t want to bet on Urbanovich. He wanted to bet on himself.

Poker history buffs will tell you that one player winning three bracelets in a single year is a rare occurrence. It’s only been done six times, five if you don’t take into account George Danzer who won his third bracelet at WSOP Asia-Pacific in 2014. (The bet between Selbst and Urbanovich was only for events in Las Vegas.)

Mercier found Selbst was willing to gamble, and he bet $10,000 on himself doing it, meaning his potential payout was worth more than finishing sixth in the WSOP Main Event.

One. Point. Eight. Million. Dollars.

After making the bet, Mercier didn’t give it a second thought and unlike the bet between Selbst and Urbanovich, which became public knowledge pretty quickly, nobody really knew about it.

“I never really felt stressed. I always kind of viewed it as a freeroll. I pre-paid the bet, I counted it as money that was just gone, the $10,000 was gone,” says Mercier.

“When you are making bets where you are losing a small amount of money versus winning a very large amount of money, there is not really much stress involved. I viewed it as an opportunity to have a really big score with very little down side.”

EASY MONEY

The next five months flew by pretty quickly without much in the way of live tournament success for Mercier. In May he won the fifth PokerStars SCOOP title of his career, winning $22,572 for outlasting a field of 594 in a $215 Six Max Pot Limit Omaha Hi-Lo event.

Call it momentum, call it just another day at the office for Mercier, but he headed into the 2016 WSOP with a ton of confidence, and the three bracelet bet with Selbst wasn’t the only bet Mercier placed on himself. He placed bets against other high stakes pros on winning one bracelet, as well as winning two. A successful summer for Mercier was suddenly a lot more valuable than a successful summer for any other player.

The first two weeks of the Series left Mercier with nothing to show for his work. Finally, in Event #15, $1,500 Eight Game Mix, Mercier found the scoreboard, but rather than a win or even a final table, it was a 35th place finish for $3,404. It wasn’t much, but it was the start of a very special eight-day run.

Just after busting the Eight Game Mix event, Mercier registered for the $10,000 No Limit Deuce-to-Seven Championship. Three days later, he was at the final table, with the chip lead and the chance to put away one-third of his bet.

On Day 3 of the event Mercier bested a final table that included Stephen Chidwick, Benny Glaser, David Grey and Mike Watson to win $273,335. Even while basking in the glow of winning a bracelet, Mercier knew there was so much more at stake if he could keep a hot hand.

“If I can win another one really quick, it would be a sick sweat the rest of the Series,” Mercier said, in a case of unintentional foreshadowing.

Immediately after posing for the requisite winner’s photo, Mercier grabbed a hasty meal and late-regged the $10,000 Razz Championship event. Over the next 48 hours, he continued to hold a better-than-average stack on his way to making another final table. But, before the final table began, Mercier found himself dealing with a bit of controversy. Selbst offered a $100,000 buyout of the bracelet bet, only to have Mercier turn it down.

Selbst then took to Twitter to provide her side of how the bet went down and how disappointed she was that Mercier wasn’t willing to let her buy out of the bet.

Of course, Poker Twitter blew up with everybody taking a side. Mercier even tried his best to provide his side of the story, which was clearly different than Selbst’s. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Mercier as he was hours away from playing another final table.

“I don’t really want to comment necessarily publicly about what happened between me and Vanessa,” Mercier said at the time. “We have different views on prop betting I guess, and what exactly happens between friends or whatever. But I don’t really want to get into it too much more.”

When the final table started, Mercier had one-third of the chips in play, but found himself facing a tough group. Bart Hanson, John Racener, Brian Hastings and respected pro Ray Dehkharghani were among the final seven players standing between Mercier and another bracelet.

Mercier got heads-up with Dehkharghani, but had a 3-2 chip deficit. During the 2.5-hour heads-up action, the two players traded the chip lead. Eventually though, Dehkharghani got the better of Mercier to win the first bracelet of his career.

“I can't really be disappointed. I think that I played fine. Razz is one of those games that sometimes if you are just not getting the best hand, you can't really win,” Mercier says. “If you aren't getting the best starting hand, by the end of seventh street, I mean there is only so much you can do. I feel like I played fine.”

The tournament ended with just enough time for Mercier to hop in yet another $10,000 buy-in event. But after two deep runs, he was tired and thought about heading home.

“He was not stressed out, but he wasn’t sleeping much, so I was getting worried for him. I was like, ‘Listen after this tournament, after we bag, we need to go home, we need to sleep,’” says Natasha Barbour, his then-girlfriend. “He would wake up so early and be ready to go so early, and then try to play cash games before the tournaments. But that’s just him. So he didn’t change who he was, didn’t change anything and kept doing what he was doing.“

A quick dinner with Barbour gave Mercier time to think things through. He hurried back to the Rio and was the last player to register for the $10,000 HORSE Championship. Just 72 hours later, Mercier was posing for yet another winner’s photo while the poker world went nuts with all the “what if?” scenarios.

“I never really viewed it as like if I won the $10K Razz, I would have won the bet, because if I win the $10K Razz, the heads-up match probably goes longer, I may even miss the HORSE event, or have thrown it away in the HORSE event because I was like, ‘oh, I won two in a row, blah blah blah.’ So I don't really view it as I would have won three if I won that Razz event,” says Mercier.

With two bracelets in hand already, a third felt like simply a matter of time, but Mercier had a different piece of jewelry on his mind – and it wasn’t for him.

THIS IS THE TIME

“I wasn't sure exactly when I was going to propose to Natasha. I knew that it was going to happen relatively soon,” says Mercier. “Going into the summer, we had had such a busy year, for the first five months before the summer, at the point of going into the World Series, I was kind of like, ‘Let's get through this WSOP, then I'll figure out how to get a ring, or where to get a ring, and then figure out where I'm going to propose."

Things changed though. After winning the second bracelet, Mercier thought there was a good chance he had another deep run, possibly even another win, in him and he wanted to take advantage of that moment to make it a special one for Barbour, his girlfriend of two years.

“If I were to win a third bracelet, win the prop bet, and then she would be so excited and run up to me and then I would just drop on one knee and I had this sort of vision of that happening,” says Mercier.

There was a problem though. Mercier needed to find a way to get out to buy a ring. With Mercier and Barbour living together in a rented Las Vegas house and both playing a full WSOP schedule, getting time to himself was going to be a challenge. He concocted a story about heading to the Bellagio to play cash games and met with a family friend who was a jeweler to pick out the ring.

Now all Mercier needed was the right opportunity. The heater slowly faded and it started to look like he wasn’t going to make another final table, let alone win another bracelet. After six more cashes, Barbour unknowingly took matters into her own hands.

“Towards the very end of the summer, she played a tournament that she wasn't even going to play, which was the $5K, which got an absurd turnout,” says Mercier. Barbour went deep and made Day 4 with 12 players left and Mercier recognized he had a chance to do something special.

“Natasha was kind of middle of the pack, and barely played a hand while three people got knocked out, then she had like 15 big blinds, busted in third for her biggest score of all time, and it just seemed like the absolute perfect spot for me to propose. I hopped over the rail, gave her a hug, and dropped to one knee.”

“I thought he was just coming to give me a hug. He came up to me and was like ‘Hey, I need to ask you something’ and I said ‘Can we just go over there?’ I don’t want to be in the cameras anymore or photos, I wanted them to be able to play heads up,” recalls Barbour. “I was like ‘Let’s just over there’. And he goes ‘No no no, I can’t go over there right now’ and then he went down on one knee and I couldn’t believe it.”

The moment happened to be caught on the WSOP live stream and the clip made its way to YouTube, social media and, eventually, ESPN.com. It was the first of what would end up being a good run of mainstream media exposure for Mercier.

THE ENTERTAINER

In the weeks after the WSOP, Mercier saw an email in his inbox from the producers of ESPN radio’s Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. They wanted Mercier as a guest to talk about his prop bets and his WSOP run. Being a South Florida kid, Mercier jumped at the opportunity to be on one of the most popular sports talk shows in Miami.

That’s where things went off the rails. Just minutes after his segment began, co-host Jon "Stugotz" Weiner asked Mercier “Do you have a gambling problem?” after talking about Mercier multi-tabling his way through a good portion of the WSOP.

The question clearly caught Mercier off guard, but he handled it like a pro and the segment ended. Mercier doesn’t blame Le Batard or Weiner for taking the angle they did, he actually puts the onus on himself for letting it get that far.

“I was actually just a little upset at myself, to be honest, that I didn't' request for them to prep me for the questions or even have a pre-interview,” says Mercier. I felt like they were very unprepared, they didn't know what questions to really ask and they were just kind of spouting out whatever was off the top of their head.”

Even after being blindsided by the direction of what he thought would be a fairly friendly interview, Mercier was still thrilled he got the opportunity to be on the show.

“I mean it was definitely awesome. I was super pumped just that they reached out to me and wanted me on the show in the first place. Dan LeBatard has been one of the biggest sports figures, as far as South Florida sports, for 10, 20, 25 years, so to just have that request sent to my email, you know, we want you on the show, was pretty awesome,” said Mercier.

ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG

In November, Mercier turned 30 and, just four months after the proposal, married Barbour in front of friends and family in Miami. Hitting that milestone birthday and getting married are part of a different direction for Mercier than the one he had when he first burst on the poker scene after winning EPT San Remo many years ago.

“I think five years ago, I was really only concerned with how am I going to make money. How am I going to make money? How am I going to eventually not have to play poker, or whatever it is?” says Mercier. “Now, I'm kind of to the point where I really want a family. I want to have that stability. I am seeing that in my future, very shortly. I think I have a better perspective on life and on what's important.”

Adding a young child, or two, to the life of two professional poker players might seem like a real game-changer, but Mercier thinks they will still have a window to continue to travel the world playing the game they both love.

“We don't think that much is going to change right away, even if we have a kid, or two kids, as they are young we might bring them around, travel with them to the poker tournaments and whatnot,” says Mercier. “But life is probably going to change a lot for me when I have kids that are going to have to start going to school. It's probably going to be another 4-5 years traveling the circuit, playing as much as I can, trying to make as much money as I can and then likely settling down, and not traveling as much in four or five years.”

IT’S STILL ROCK AND ROLL TO ME

Looking back through a year that saw him win just over $1.5 million in tournaments, Mercier can’t help but talk about just how much he loves playing poker. Some radio shock jock might take a shot at calling it a gambling problem, but Mercier genuinely loves playing the game and it certainly helps that he’s one of the world’s best.

“Have you ever gone through a span of just playing a video game, maybe when you were a kid, where you just play it all day and it's awesome and you just love it and you can't get enough of it? But then eventually the game sort of ends, like you can't play it any more, right?,” says Mercier. “Poker is that game, but it just never ends. I love playing it so much that I don't really get tired of it. I am just always looking forward to the next session or the next tournament.”