Nine years on, Jason Mercier on the hand that launched his career
On the eve of the PokerStars Championship Monte Carlo, we look back on one of the most memorable hands in what was then EPT history, a hand between Jason Mercier and Eric Koskas, played out a short drive along the Riviera in Sanremo, and one that's remembered as one of the most thrilling in PokerStars history.
It's ironic really, but the man who played one of the most famous hands in PokerStars history, the hand that led to him winning an EPT Main Event, and which effectively launched his career, is pretty certain that if he could play it all again, well, he wouldn't.
Nine-five off-suit isn't typical raising material, but Jason Mercier, then a 21 year old kid from Florida on his first, albeit haphazard trip over the ocean, figured that with four left in the inaugural EPT Sanremo Main Event final, he'd better start playing some hands. And so, under the gun, he looked at his cards and made a bet.
"When I actually opened the nine-five off-suit and got called, I was almost regretting it," said Mercier, looking back on that day some nine years later. "Maybe I shouldn't have been opening this loosely!"
It was easy to see why.
He was up against Eric Koskas, a charismatic Frenchman who Mercier knew to be very loose, very aggressive, and prone to making huge bluffs. As Mercier put it, he was the type of player to put you to the test.
But while that might have been enough to persuade others to pick their battles, Mercier happened to be looking for such a test. He got one in the form of arguably the most memorable hand ever played on the EPT.
For Mercier this was the trip of a lifetime, albeit one that began riddled with stress.
"I was very new to live poker," said Mericer. "The only poker trip I'd ever been on was to the Bahamas three months before that for the PCA. I was basically a 21-year-old kid making a living playing online poker and you know was really hungry to start travelling and start winning in live poker as well."
Mercier was already on his way to the Grand Final, but figured Sanremo, being a short drive along the coast, was an obvious addition to his trip. So he jumped into a satellite on PokerStars and won his ticket.
"You know I was really just kind of excited and wanted to see how I could do."
Like a lot of new players, Mercier's first plan was to survive day one, which wasn't easy.
"Back then you started with ten thousand chips, [and] at one point I was down to about three [thousand]. So it was a very interesting experience and a pretty incredible sequence of events that led to me winning the tournament."
First there was the journey itself, which to the 21 year old was easier said than done.
"I had no clue what I was doing as far as travelling," admitted Mercier, who booked the worst possible route to the Rivieira. "I had a two-stop flight on two different airlines, and I ended up missing one of the flights because I had to go get my bags and recheck them in.
"I brought two bags with me, and only one of them made it to Nice. By the time I got to the hotel and got settled I was like, 'I'm not sure I'm cut out for this travelling thing!' It's so ironic that that trip was kind of what led to me basically travelling non-stop for the next decade."
Here's how the hand played out, with Mercier's comments included for context.
By the time of the hand the final table was four-handed and having looked down at 9♠5♥ Mercier opened for 80,000 under the gun. Anthony Lellouche folded the button, and Dario Minieri did the same with the small blind. That left Koskas in the big blind.
He had T♥3♠ and called before checking in the dark. The flop came 5♣J♥6♦.
"I flopped bottom pair, which is generally a spot where you can bet or you can check, either one is fine. But against him in particular I just wanted to check, maybe make two pair or trips, or possibly have a cheap showdown."
So Jason checked and the turn card came 8♣. Koskas announced "two-twenty," betting 220,000 (the pot was 187,000 at this point).
"So I checked back the flop and the turn was an eight, giving me a gutshot, and he bombed the turn. I wasn't really sure I had the best hand at that time, but I knew that there was a very good chance he was bluffing the turn, and obviously if I make my hand and he has something, a jack or whatever, and I hit a five or a seven, whatever, then maybe I'll get the rest of his chips.
"I didn't have any thoughts of folding on the turn, so when I called him, and the river was another eight, and he instantly moved all in, he really put me in a difficult decision."
When the river came 8♥ Koskas announced "all-in" almost impulsively before standing up and leaving Mercier to it. At this point Mercier had around 2.2 million. It was 700,000 to call.
"At the time I was basically just evaluating my options. I had two - call or fold. If I fold it's very defined what the chip stacks are going to be and essentially what my chances would be of winning the tournament. But if I call and I'm right, I just thought that was such a good chance to win or put myself in a great position to win the tournament.
"So for me if I fold there's a decent chance I get fourth or third, or whatever, and that amount of money, well, it would have been significant - it wouldn't have been life changing money for me. Whereas first place was such a big amount of money for me to win, at that time, a 21-year-old kid, I was really trying to play for the win.
"So all these thoughts are rattling around my brain while I'm trying to figure out if he has it, or if he's bluffing. He kind of gave a few things away. I was reflecting back on some of the hands he played before, how he had acted when he was bluffing against how he acted when he had it. And it just really felt like it was very similar to how he was before when he was bluffing, and ultimately I just decided to go with my instincts and make the call and hope that he was bluffing."
"I call", said Mercier.
Koskas, who had been standing away from the table, stepped forward knowing he was turning over the losing hand, and not only that but he was on his way out of the tournament too.
Mercier? Well, he whooped his way to a first prize of €869,000.
As a commentator for PokerStars, James Hartigan had a ringside seat to the final table, and for much of Mercier's career since. Looking back he believes that, while there were clues, it was hard to predict what the future had in store for Mercier.
"It never occurred to me that this guy was on the cusp of becoming one of the greatest MTT players in the world."
Hartigan first met Jason a week after his Sanremo win, when the affable, but slightly nervous Mercier was invited onto EPT Live as a guest commentator.
"To be honest, I don't think anyone realised that he was that 'special' until a few months later, when he came close to winning his second Main Event title in Barcelona and took down the inaugural High Roller in London."
If we didn't know it already London provided a major clue as to Mercier's talents. In the nine years since he has amassed live tournament winnings in excess of $18 million. He has five WSOP bracelets, and 22 titles from around the world, the most recent coming this month, the High Roller at Seminole, worth $794,000.
The significance of that day back in Sanremo is not lost on Mercier, who seemed to understand its relevance even while playing it.
"You know in no-limit hold'em there's so many times when it's just like on the river: is the guy bluffing, does he have it? Or does he have me beat?" said Mercier. "Those are the crucial decisions that can basically help you to win a tournament or separate the good player from a great player."
Mercier was already a good player. His call against Koskas was arguably his first act as a great one.
The win opened doors for Mercier. Like a lot of players his age he had designs on playing more live poker, for higher stakes, with the aim of becoming one of the best players in the world. The money won in Sanremo allowed him to do that, freeing him up to play more, for higher stakes, and against better players.
But Mercier also has a pragmatic side.
"Of course, really the thought of going broke, or having to get a real job again, that was a real thing," he said. "I had been out of school for nine months and was trying to make a living with online poker, so to have this score where I basically had ten-X of my money or whatever, it was just such a relief for me that I was basically like 'okay you know what, I don't think I'll ever have to work again'.
"I always have been very smart with my money, not been a big spender, and I knew I was going to try to be responsible in poker. But also make good investments and set myself up for the future so that I would never have to actually get a real job, ha, and hopefully retire at a young age.
"It really just gave me a lot of options for what I wanted to play, what I was able to sort of practice at and just really take as much time as I needed to become as good of a player as I could. I just had a lot of wiggle room I guess. It's a good word for it."
Mercier made the most of those options, his tournament record showing a player continually improving, with success after success.
Still, nine-five off-suit?
"I don't think I would open with nine-five-off under the gun!" said Mercier, laughing. "I've learned that's just not a very good hand, especially against an opponent who will play any two cards!
"But beside the open I think I would have played it exactly the same."
Jason Mercier's career started by winning a seat to a PokerStars event. You can too with a PokerStars account. Simply click here to get started.