Sunday afternoon Jason Mercier will stand in a room full of his peers for his second bracelet ceremony of the 2016 World Series of Poker. This one will be special for sure – winning two bracelets in a single year is a rare feat – but it’s likely going to be even more special for Jason given that the person handing that bracelet to him is his father, Rick.
On Father’s Day, Rick Mercier will be the one giving his son something, but it’s a moment that has been over eight years in the making.
Earlier in the week Jason won his first bracelet of the year, and fourth of his career, in the $10,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven event. The next day, in that bracelet ceremony, he dedicated the win to his father, citing the incredible support he’d given him throughout his career. Jason didn’t tell Rick about the gesture, who was back home in Florida, ahead of time or actually, at all.
“Actually Natasha (Barbour), his girlfriend, texted me the clip and yeah, it was really cool. I got real emotional because as a father you’re always looking to make an impact on your kids and I don’t think any dad really knows what kind of an impact they have,” said Rick, while he watched Jason, the youngest of his four kids, at the final table of the $10,000 HORSE event Friday night in Las Vegas. “So when your kid, your son, especially your adult children, takes a moment and says, ‘My dad has had a big impact,’ yeah it was very, very emotional for me. I got all choked up watching it.”
The emotions carried over the next day when Rick and Jason, who are as close as any father-son team can be, got a chance to talk by phone.
“We just talked briefly about it and I said, ‘Hey I got a copy of the video and that was really cool’ and he said, ‘I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true’,” said Rick. “We had a good chat about it and he’s a good kid, he’s a good son and he’s the baby of the family. He’s among the best in the world at what he does. For me, that’s the thing I’m probably most proud of.”
A few days later Rick, and his wife Dottie, found themselves in Las Vegas. The fact that Jason, who followed up the first bracelet win with a runner-up finish in the $10,000 Razz event, was in the middle of one of the most historic runs in WSOP history had nothing to do with it though.
Weeks ago, the producers of the Poker Central show Pokerography, who are featuring Jason in the second season, offered to bring Rick and Dottie out to Las Vegas so they could spend some time in front of the cameras, telling stories about Jason.
When it’s Rick’s turn to talk, he’s likely to talk about how he recognized Jason’s love of games and the strategy that goes into them at an early age. While Jason was busy playing baseball or basketball or soccer, Rick was coaching or umpiring games and got a better-than-front-row seat to see his son’s competitiveness on full display.
“I taught him to play chess when he was a young kid. By the time he was 12 or 14 I stopped playing him because he was killing me,” said Rick. “I played on the chess team in junior high so I wasn’t somebody that didn’t really know the game at all, he just took it to a whole other level.”
That combination of a competitive streak and love of strategy is what first turned Jason on to poker while in college.
Jason had been playing so much poker from his dorm room that he eventually dropped out of college to play full time. That decision wasn’t received all that well at home, and it was a turning point in the father-son dynamic that could have gone either way.
“It was not good. It was difficult because we had no reference at all for it. He grew up in a home where we don’t gamble, it’s very strict and I was brought up very blue collar, so you find something to do, you work on that, you earn a living,” said Rick. “There was not really a whole lot about dreams and things that you wanted to do.”
Jason’s parents made a tough decision. He couldn’t live at home if he wasn’t going to go to school or get a regular job – and he certainly wouldn’t be playing poker for a living under their roof. For the next few months Jason couch-surfed at various friends’ houses before father and son had a heart-to-heart.
“After about ten weeks I guess, he called me and said, ‘Dad I want to come home.’ Actually I think he talked to his mom first, and he agreed at that point that he would stop playing,” said Rick. “At this point he wasn’t playing live yet, this was only online and he agreed to go back to school. He agreed to go back to working a job that he had and so we agreed to, ‘Okay you can come back home’.”
While telling your child that they’re no longer welcome at home sounds harsh, neither Rick nor Dottie ostracized Jason. They were just looking to make sure Jason made smart choices and was thinking about the long term. Handling the situation wasn’t easy, and Rick actually reached out to a few close friends for advice on how to handle it.
“The thing about that is while that was tough and we did have to have hard relationship things, we never stopped being connected,” said Rick. “I still called him and still talked to him. His mom talked to him all the time and we just felt like we needed to be true to the rules that we had for him, but we didn’t want him to ever feel like we didn’t love him, he’s still our son at that point, even if we didn’t agree.”
As he looks back at that period of Jason’s life and their relationship, Rick recognizes it probably had a profound impact on just how close the pair are now, even while Jason travels the world playing poker.
“It set up a good parameter for the way we are today, because even though I’m his dad and I don’t know much about this world, other than what I’ve learned over the least eight years, he still listens, still asks questions,” said Rick. “You can still have some influence in his life and I think that, that definitely goes back to the fact that we kept that communication going. We stayed connected.”
After coming back home and going back to school and working a part-time job, Jason had another heart-to-heart with his parents. He told them he was still passionate about poker and really wanted to give it a try. Leaving the emotions out of the decision, Rick and Dottie knew they had to give Jason an opportunity to chase this dream he had of being a professional poker player – but there would be some rules this time.
“At that point I kind of got it a little bit, I could see, ‘Okay he could maybe do this,’ and I just felt like I needed to let him try, and he was doing the other things that we had asked him to do so at that point we agreed he could play a certain number of hours each week,” said Rick. “I don’t remember what it was, but it was not 60 hours a week like he was playing when he was in the dorm.”
The rest of the story is part of poker lore now. Jason finished school and eventually qualified on PokerStars for some European Poker Tour events, including one in San Remo, Italy. Mercier won that event, beating out 700 other players to win $1,372,893. Since then Jason has gone on to win a grand total of $17 million and is widely recognized as one of the best poker players on the planet. That’s something that Rick takes a great deal of pride in, even if it is a little bit strange to say.
“It is weird, but I’m a statistical kind of person. All the statistical analysis, when you look at his earnings, when you look at the consistency, when you go back and you look at his record in tournaments where he’s been heads-up for a title, he’s like 18-7 or something,” said Rick. “I’ve looked at the top 50 players in all-time earnings to see how many of those players have numbers like that. There aren’t any.”
Rick knows he sees Jason through the same tainted lens that any father sees their child through, but he’s also looking at the numbers – the things he just can’t have any influence on – and they tell him that Jason is an elite talent.
“I look for numbers and he’s been ranked number one in the GPI more than anybody else, any number of weeks. Those things to me tell me it’s not just me saying that as his dad, the game itself says that. It is weird,” said Rick. “I think it’s weirder when we’re here in this environment. At home it’s not, because the poker world, to an uneducated person, is a small market, small influence. So he can be home and he’s just Jason. When he’s here and when people are stopping him for things and yelling at him, ‘hey, it’s Jason Mercier’, then yeah, that’s a little weird. That just feels weird.”
Even with all the money he’s won and the level of fame he’s achieved in poker, to Rick, Jason is still a down-to-earth humble young man finding his way in the world. When the poker world stops for a minute and Jason gets home to Miami, Rick sees a side of his son that nobody else in the world ever gets to see.
“Jason loves his family. Whenever he’s home he wants to get the family together. He’s Uncle Jason to all the little babies. He loves that part of life,” said Rick. “I guess the best part of being his dad is he’s a big kid and I love to see him doing well and it does excite me. I’m excited to see where he’s going to end up, where his life is going to continue to take him.”
Early Saturday morning Jason finished off James Obst to win the $10,000 HORSE event for his second bracelet in a week and the first person he sought on the rail was his father.
“It means the world. It’s just so random that he’s even here to see me win a bracelet,” Jason said afterwards. “This is the first bracelet that he was able to see and he’s always sweating me, but this time he got to sweat me in person, which is cool.”
As WSOP officials asked Jason how he wanted to handle the second bracelet ceremony, he knew that doing it Saturday wasn’t possible since his parents would be filming Pokerography at the exact same time and he really wanted them to see the ceremony. After finding out their flight left early evening on Sunday, it all came in to place to have the ceremony on Sunday – Father’s Day – and have his dad be on stage with him.
“I’m glad we had kids when we were young, so I can still get around and I’m not pushing a walker around yet. So to see him compete like this and I hope to see him settle down and give us more grand-babies at some point,” said Rick. “This was fun. This was really fun.”