WSOP Event #9: Team PokerStars' Isabelle Mercier takes fifth

Why is it? Why is it that when I look down a hallway and see Isabelle Mercier's face, I see near-fury in her eyes? Why is it the air around her is anxious, like a wrong word will snap a giant rubber band that could decapitate the thickest of heads? Why is it that winning $136,000 feels so bad?

Over the years, I've watched Isabelle from a distance. I've watched her go card dead and recover. I've watched her take horrible, soul-crushing beats. I've watched her go deep in many an event. Every time, I see the pain in her face when she leaves. Once, in London, she stood sipping from a glass of wine. She looked bored. I asked her why she didn't go play for a while. "I don't play cash," she said, as if it explained everything.

At the time, I didn't pry. For many people, the cash games are the only place to go after busting out of an event. For Isabelle, there is no place to go.

She doesn't play cash.

Over the next several months, I thought about it and wondered how she does it. While I would never suggest anyone tilt off a bankroll in the cash games, there is a certain confidence building that comes in booking a cash win. Even if you're running bad in tournaments, you can still feel like you're winning in the side games. What's more, the cash games never have a "winner," per se. You can win, and when you leave, you don't have to feel like you have lost.

And that is what explains the pain and anger I see in Isabelle's face tonight. The nature of tournaments, for good and for bad, allows there to be only one winner. While dozens of people may walk away with more money than they had before, everybody is a loser except first place...or at least they feel like it.

***

Isabelle expected to be a winner today. The only way a poker player can win is to expect she will. I don't know if bookies put odds on the game today, but it was clear Isabelle was playing with a few of the best players in the world. Nonetheless, she came into the game fourth in chips and expected to take every clay check off the table before it was said and done. She drank her morning mocha with whip cream and settled into her seat with eight other opponents.

1. Vinnie Vinh 784,000
2. Phil Hellmuth 461,000
3. Marcel Luske 458,000
4. Isabelle Mercier 301,000
5. Jeff Cabanillas 275,000
6. Douglas Carli 273,000
7. Eugene Todd 240,000
8. Thomas Schreiber 200,000
9. Dan Smith 117,000




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She exuded a sense of relaxation. She kicked off her shoes. She smiled her familiar smile. She had a gameplan and was intent on sticking to it. Still, she felt herself wanting to rush. She looked at her chips on the first hand and thought about getting involved. Instead, she pulled back and waited. "I'm in no rush," she said.




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The exact details of the afternoon were easy to follow. See these final table updates if you'd like to see how the afternoon progressed. In the end, they story revolved around Isabelle exploiting the respect she was given and staying ahead of the ever-escalating blinds. She came over the top of a couple of Hellmuth raises. She attacked Marcel Luske's blinds.

Her attempts to stay ahead of the blinds finally got her in a hand with Phil Hellmuth. The Poker Brat was on his A-game all day long and made tremendous read on Isabelle late in the game. He called her 100,000 river bet and forced Isabelle to muck her hand. While Isabelle has told others privately what she held, I'll leave it to her to make it public.


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King high?

That hand left her with barely enough to stay alive. She finally open-pushed with K3. The big blind found pocket eights, made the call, and eliminated Isabelle in fifth place.

After speaking with Isabelle at length over the past several days, I've not badgered her tonight. There is still an anger in her eyes that suggests she doesn't want to be bothered with trivial blogging matters. Sometimes, people just need to be left alone.

I understand now, this tournament paradigm that allows for only one winner is not just something you see on a scoreboard. It's something that has burrowed deep in Isabelle's soul. Even if the rest of us are in awe of her ability to final table one of the most prestigious tournaments of the WSOP, she sees today as a loss.

The testament to Isabelle's ability is not just in her results, but her ability to handle months and months of tournaments. Taking first place is a rarity for anyone. When that is all you're searching for, the tournament circuit can grind on your psyche.

I've seen Isabelle rebound many times before. I suspect by tomorrow, I will see the face smiling again. Perhaps by then she will know how proud of her we all are.