The World in His Hands
As laidback as he is fearsome at the table, PokerStars Team Pro Jason Mercier is widely regarded as the best tournament player in the world. Rick Dacey found out what makes him tick.
At 4 years of age Jason Mercier started playing baseball, at 8 he picked up football (the American kind) and basketball and by the time he was playing all three for high school teams he had discovered poker. It took the Floridian until he was just 24 to conquer the poker world, topping the inaugural Global Poker Index, winning EPT San Remo, two WSOP bracelets, $7,667,831 in live tournament cashes and claiming the EPT Champion of Champions title along the way. That’s a lot of #mashing.
Now, aged just 25, Mercier is in the Bahamas at his sponsor’s flagship festival: the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure at the Atlantis Hotel and Resort. It’s the morning after his third-place finish in the $5,000 8-max (which was won by his teammate, the resurgent former WSOP champ, Jonathan Duhamel) and Mercier is stood in the PCA press room wearing one of his standard outfits – basketball shorts, t-shirt, plastic sandals and a typically melancholy frown. Just yards away Randy “Nanonoko” Lew is giving his post multi-tabling world record triumph Q&A.
Mercier isn’t an unhappy guy, in fact he seems to love to laugh and when he does it lights up his face like a Disney character, but you’d forgiven for thinking otherwise. Mercier belies his winning prowess with his languid demeanour, his relaxed saunter the polar opposite of the turbo-trot of his GPI rival, Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier. Having spoken to a few people that know him well, it’s a classic misread: Mercier is just really, really relaxed. Watch him at the table; he often looks moments away from sleep, cap on backwards, head resting on one hand and frequently low-slung in his chair. Nothing seems to rattle him. But then when you’re usually sat in front of a mountain of chips, it’s no surprise.
‘I am pretty laid back,’ says Mercier, making an early contender for understatement of the year, ‘I get a little excited when I go deep in events but I don’t really show it. I like to keep my emotions in check and make sure that I’m staying calm and focussing on playing good.’
SHOW ME A GOOD LOSER…
There must be something – other than the industrial standoff that halted the season of his beloved NBA – that annoys Mercier. No-one is that relaxed.
“What pisses me off? Hmm. I’d say losing. Losing in anything – basketball, sports betting, poker, Achtung [a four-player game for the iPad, a hyped version of Nokia classic ‘Snake’]. I’d say that I really don’t like to lose; I’m very competitive,” says Mercier.
And there it is, the one quality shared by top-class athletes and sportsmen the world over, the overriding animosity to losing. The problem is in poker is that you just don’t get to win that often. In classic sports match-ups you’re playing in a field of two, in Formula 1 there’s 24 but in poker it could be as many as 809, which is incidentally the size of the field that Mercier beat to win his first WSOP bracelet (the $1,500 PLO in June, 2009).
In a game where it’s difficult to be the winner, Mercier excels. Of his 63 live cashes, 36 have seen him finish in the top ten and a staggering 13 have seen him win the event outright. That’s a 20% cash-to-win conversion rate. That is truly phenomenal and across that sample size is pretty much unheard of. Elky is uncannily close with 36 top ten finishes from 63 cashes but the Frenchman has ‘only’ managed to convert ten of those to the highest podium finish.
These guys really are at the top of their game, bringing the near-impossible within touching distance, but that’s what you have to achieve if you hate losing. In that case, does a third-place finish in a $5,000 tournament feel like a swing and a miss?
“I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a missed opportunity because I don’t think there was much I could do to avoid getting third, explains Mercier. “I got lucky in a few spots and could have easily got sixth or seventh. I was definitely happy with the result. $80,000 is not going to change my life but it’s a nice way to start the year, especially after bricking the 100k.”
Mercier is in that big boy league that can afford to play – or at the very least get staked to play – in High Roller events that carry a $100,000 price tag. Despite making it through to Day 2 seventh in chips Mercier bust in 14th, albeit after getting it in with Ah Kh against David ‘Doc’ Sands’ Ad Qh and failing to hold up. You can’t feel too sorry for him, though; he won his last $100,000 buy-in in December beating Sands heads-up at the Bellagio to claim a $709,767 payday.
This story could have been very different had Mercier decided not to play EPT San Remo in 2008, something that came very close to happening. Having qualified online Mercier almost sold his seat to go with some friends to Amsterdam instead. Three years later that decision has paid off big.
“I think that was my greatest moment playing poker [when I burst onto the scene in San Remo],” says Mercier. It’s still my biggest cash and I haven’t had a seven-figure score besides that one. It was my breakout moment. I don’t think I’ve had anything to top that.”
After the San Remo victory, Mercier’s bulging bankroll allowed him to begin a jet setting spree around the world tearing up the poker circuit. Although those whirlwind days aren’t completely behind him, things have at least slowed down a little. Mercier has got engaged, and his fiancée Erica, whom he met through a friend a year-and-a-half ago, works online, allowing her a certain freedom in travelling which, if nothing else, should afford Mercier greater relaxation on his various travels.
A CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Success, in life more than anything, has taken a while for Mercier, and like so many of his peers, poker riches came following years of what can conservatively be described as “bumming around.”
“I started playing poker with my friends at High School when I was 15 and when I went away to college pretty much everyone played there in the dorms,” explains Mercier. “Once I turned 18 my friend said, ‘you know, you’re pretty good, you should play online.’ I did and it took off from there.
“I went to Florida Atlantic University for one year but didn’t really complete anything, then went to community college for two years to study Maths Education but I didn’t even really get into the course,” he admits.
Mercier spent some time at his old high school teaching as a maths substitute and also coached basketball before his poker took off. Both at school and since turning to poker, sport has been his passion and he frequently wears his homeland Miami strips at the table: Marlins (baseball), Dolphins (American football) and Heat (basketball).
“I really like to participate, watch and bet on sports. I’m really big into basketball. It’s pretty entertaining when you’ve got some action on a game, especially if you just bet with a friend and don’t pay juice,” says Mercier.
“I played basketball, baseball and soccer and had aspirations to play college basketball but I ended up not pursuing it. I had some opportunities to play in some smaller schools but I was offered an academic scholarship at a place where my girlfriend of the time was going. I don’t know if that was the best decision but it has led me to here so I don’t really have any regrets.”
Mercier gives one of his trademark shrugs and you wonder if poker was just one big happy accident. He does play poker in the same way, relaxed and without regret. And if he does make mistakes, it’s hard for anyone but the very top pros to judge; for the rest of us it’s like an amateur chess player trying to blindly pick apart a move made by Garry Kasparov. Unsurprisingly he isn’t keen on divulging many secrets, and just isn’t the kind of sponsored pro to play the, ‘What do you do with pocket jacks in middle position?’ game, but Mercier does reveal the biggest leak he sees at the table.
“I’d say that people let their emotions get involved too much [at the table]. They take things personally and get upset if they lose a big pot. Then they’re not focussed on the next hand, only on what just happened,” he says.
When I press him for other key mistakes players make at the table Mercier screws up his face, tilts his head to one side and says, “I think that everyone just plays terrible. I could just go on and on for four or five hours. Generally I think that people just don’t have a good grasp of tournament strategy.”
As our photographer instructs his dancing monkey to jump ‘a little higher’, our basketball player duly obliges.
“I feel like an idiot,” says Mercier as another stroll of tourists wander by staring as if they’ve never seen someone jump before.
Well, Jason, remember that feeling. It’s how you make everyone else feel at the table. If ever one player could be used to illustrate skill in the game then Mercier would be a good shout. Just so long as it doesn’t involve a magazine photoshoot.
When the Global Poker Index was introduced Mercier was its inaugural number one. The GPI was created as a new measure by which to rate players, balancing results over the last three years to provide, as much as possible, a leaderboard of who the best player right now is. Mercier has held that top spot for more than a third of the 30 weeks it has been running, the rest of the time split between ElkY and American poker legend Erik Seidel, who also sits atop the all-time money list with $16,885,167. While that figure is more than twice that of Mercier’s haul it isn’t something that Mercier appears to be very concerned about.
‘I’m 30th so it’s pretty impressive but it is twenty-nine spots away from number one. If I was to get close by winning something big or keep getting big results then I might start chasing it, if I got in the top ten,’ says Mercier, the interview getting briefly shutdown for another section of the photo shoot, which itself is halted when a herd of glassy-eyed tourists stumble into shot.
‘After I won my bracelet I was 22-years-old so I was like “I’ve got to win a WPT and I’ll be the third person, and the youngest,” so I’ve been after a WPT title for pretty much three years now. I haven’t got that close besides an 11th and a 23rd [at the 2010 and 2009 World Poker Finals, Mashantucket]. I am aware of it and will try to play one or two more WPTs than perhaps I normally would,’ says Mercier.