By Christopher Cosenza
The blood poured down his face from his left temple, but Jason Mercier didn’t care. It was his senior year playing basketball for Hollywood’s Sheriden Hills Christian and his team needed him. A player from the other team had undercut him on the first play of the game and Jason had landed hard on his head. His father, Richard Mercier, picks up the story from there.
“I went over to see if he was OK,” Richard said, “and he was bleeding heavily from a gash on his left temple. I knew he needed stitches and told him he needed to go to the hospital. He kept refusing, telling me he was fine, and he just needed to get back in the game. He would not listen to me, and he was slurring his speech. I could see in his eyes and hear in his speech that he was not all there!”
But calmer heads prevailed, and Jason went to the hospital to receive stitches, and the news that he had suffered a concussion. Four years later the concussion is gone, but that competitive fire burns even hotter for Jason Mercier. The 22-year-old poker pro from Davie points to those days as a three-sport star as the catalyst to his success on the felt.
“When I used to play basketball I wouldn’t stop trying to win until the buzzer went off,” he said. “So it’s kind of the same thing in poker. I never give up on a tournament. If I have three big blinds I’m still trying to make the right decision and play as optimally as possible. It’s that competitive nature that kind of relates from playing sports so much.”
Mericer (pronounced MER-see-yer) didn’t just play sports in high school. His earliest memory of playing poker was of the five-card draw variety, struggling for nickels and dimes on the weekends against his 10th-grade buddies. But it wasn’t until he embraced online poker while attending Florida Atlantic University that Mercier realized there was serious money to be won.
“Near the end of 2006 I (deposited) $1,000 on PokerStars and built it up to like $8K in a couple months just playing some cash games. … I thought about not going to school for the first semester of 2007, but I was still living with my parents. Their rules were you had to go to school if you were living in their house. So I decided to handle both, go to school and try to play 40 hours a week for the first semester.”
Making money playing poker was the easy part; the hard part was telling his parents he wanted to give up his full scholarship at FAU to pursue poker full time.
“It was pretty difficult,” he said. “I knew they were going to be opposed to it. The money didn’t really matter at that point because there was no way I was going to make enough to tell them that I could do it. They weren’t convinced so I knew I would have to prove it to them before they could get on board and be happy with what I was doing.”
Mercier’s father agrees.
“(It was) one of the most difficult conversations we ever had,” the elder Mercier said. “Making a living playing cards? Are you kidding me? … Plus (Jason) was the baby of our family, the youngest of the four, and he was striking out on his own at by far the youngest age.”
So, with his parents grudgingly giving their blessing, Jason left home to give it a go. They talked virtually every day about his progress, in poker and in life, but his plans didn’t work out as well as he had hoped. After about two months, living arrangements fell through and he asked to come home. That’s when Jason and his parents came to an agreement.
“He asked if we could meet and talk about what he was trying to do with the poker playing,” Richard said. “When we met we discussed what would and would not be acceptable, and we agreed he could play 15 hours a week, as long as he worked a job and went back to school at Broward Community College.”
‘Please let me win this’
And so Jason went on the grind, playing millions of hands at $2-$4 and $3-$6 no-limit hold’em online in his parents’ house. And that’s when destiny stepped in. He occasionally gave satellites a try and eventually won a seat at the European Poker Tour’s San Remo event in April. His friends, who were planning to go with him to Italy, changed their minds and wanted to visit Amsterdam instead. Mercier easily could’ve just cashed in his seat and hung out with them in the Netherlands, but remember the blood on the face? A first-team all-Broward County basketball player doesn’t just cash in to visit the Red Light District. Mercier had something to prove, to his family and to himself. He now feels fate led him to the Old Continent and he didn’t want to interfere.
“I fully believe in that,” Mericer said. “I think it was definitely supposed to happen. God definitely had a part of it. I prayed at one point during the tournament, ‘Please let me win this.’ ”
It was a lot of pressure for the then-21-year-old who had made a stand with his parents and had given up on a teaching career, so it’s understandable that he’d look to a higher power to guide him. And if he wasn’t a believer in divine intervention before that tournament, he certainly was after his hand with English pro Roland de Wolfe. It was Day 2 of the tournament and the field still hadn’t reached the money bubble.
“I had pocket jacks and I got all-in vs. Roland de Wolfe’s pocket queens on a 10-3-6 flop. The turn came a five and the river was a jack. I would’ve had about 6,000 chips left with the blinds at 1,000-2,000. So I would’ve pretty much been out if I had lost that hand.”
After that pot Mercier was in control and took down the event and the $1.3 million payday. He had a less than 5 percent chance of winning that hand on the river. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?
“It’s hard to grasp,” he said. “If that jack doesn’t come on the river, the last six months don’t happen. They are completely different.”
The win not only solidified his place as one of poker’s up-and-coming stars, it of course made his parents very happy.
“They were excited and got to watch the whole thing on EPT live,” Mercier said.
Richard knew it was coming, sort of. “When he was 9 or 10 I said to my wife Dottie, ‘You know, Jason will probably be a millionaire by the time he’s 21!’ Now I wish I had said that about all four of our kids! I knew early on that he rarely failed at something when he put his mind to accomplishing it.”
The victory opened up so many more doors for Mercier.
“I probably would’ve played maybe four events at the World Series instead of the 22 that I did,” he said. “And you know, even though I didn’t have a good World Series I know that, 100 percent, the experience I got from playing with a lot of the top pros helped me in my game even more and was probably one of the reasons I was able to play against such tough fields at the Million Pound Showdown and do so well.”
But let’s not jump ahead to that just yet. After his three nominal cashes at the WSOP in Las Vegas, Mercier headed back over The Pond to play in the EPT Barcelona event. That same week he was up for the EPT’s Newcomer of the Year award, which he lost. So how does he take the news? By making the final table and pocketing another $325K for his sixth-place finish. And he was far from being done. He made the final table of the WSOP Europe’s pot-limit Omaha event in London and finished eighth for nearly $50K.
“I can play almost every game,” he said. “I just learned how to play Badugi last night. (laughs) I think I can play every game, but maybe not profitably, necessarily. But PLO is definitely my favorite game, 100 percent. It’s what I like to play if I’m going to play cash games. But in tournaments I probably have a better edge in no-limit hold’em.”
So, brimming with about as much confidence as a poker player can have, Mercier hung around London and entered the EPT’s High Roller event, a.k.a. the Million Pound Showdown, and the buy-in was roughly $30K. And that final table, Mercier’s third in four events, was stacked: Peter Jetten, Michael Watson, Isaac Haxton, Isabelle Mercier, David Benyamine, Scotty Nguyen, Masaaki Kagawa and WSOPE Main Event winner John Juanda.
“It was pretty sick. When we got down to five-handed I realized that four of us had a first-place finish in the last six months and Peter Jetten was the only one who didn’t, but he got second in a $10K PLO tournament. So all five of us had had a sick, huge score in the past six months. It was a pretty sick final table, probably one of the sickest I had ever heard of.”
So he had to be intimidated, right?
“Not really,” he said, sans cockiness. “I don’t think I was intimidated at all, to be honest. The stack sizes we were working with, the average stack was 25 big blinds, which is a standard online tournament. I was more worried about the online guys like Isaac Haxton and Michael and Peter than the guys I might be star-struck by like David Benyamine and John Juanda and Scotty Nguyen. (The online guys) have more experience with those stack sizes, just like I think I have an advantage over the live pros with those types of stack sizes.”
When it was all over, Mercier had edged Juanda for his second EPT victory in six months and another million-dollar payday. So what is it about Europe that Mercier loves so much?
“I think it’s just coincidence,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of events this year in the States and there are a lot of big pots where I could have gone really deep had I won them. A lot of tournament poker is you’re one hand away from a big score. I’ve won the hands in Europe and I’ve lost the hands in the States.”
All told Mercier has won nearly $2.7 million in Europe. He’s come a long way since playing for nickels and dimes, but did he ever imagine he’d be this successful?
“I did when I was really young, like 12-13, when I thought I was going to go to the NBA. (laughs) But it kinda started to sink in when I was grinding at an $8-an-hour job when I was 16-17 that I wasn’t necessarily going to be a millionaire by the time I was 21 like I had dreamed about. So I knew I was going to have to figure something out, so luckily I found poker and here I am today.”
Mercier’s guidelines to becoming a better poker player
Even the best poker players need a little reminder from time to time to help keep them focused. For Jason Mercier, that reminder comes in the form of guidelines on a piece of paper taped to the wall above his computer desk. He explains them here:
I came up with those with my best friend, Darko. We were talking about how you always need to stay positive. That’s the first rule. When you start getting a negative attitude and negative energy you just can’t win. I’m a firm believer in positive energy and positive thinking in poker and in life. So that’s the first rule, always stay positive.
The second rule is pretty much only for online poker, but it’s “Don’t Chat,” meaning don’t talk to people at the tables online. A lot of times when you see a guy take a bad beat or a guy makes a pretty bad call and wins, someone will start berating them, typing in “What the hell is the matter with you? Don’t you know how to play?”
There are two reasons why you shouldn’t do that. First, it gets you off of your game and what you should be thinking about. The second is you don’t want to teach the bad players how to play better. I remember a specific instance where I did that. A guy knocked me out, made a really bad call in a tournament and I started berating him, typing “You’re an idiot.” This was like three years ago when I was still a dumb young kid. (laughs)
Maybe like two or three weeks later I did a Google search for my online name to see if anyone had been talking about the way I was playing on the online forums. I found a forum post where this guy posted the hand and didn’t understand why I was berating him.
And he was wondering if he played the hand bad. He had all these responses of guys telling him that was a really, really bad play. Saying (I) can only have this type of hand there and you’re definitely beat.
He didn’t respond after that, but I’m sure he read the post and figured out how to play the hand better. He went out looking to figure out why he was wrong. So don’t chat.
The last rule is to be confident. It’s kind of the same concept as “Stay Positive” but being confident refers more to knowing you’re one of the best players always at the table.
And just being confident that your hands are going to win when you have the best of it. Or even when you have coin-flips, to be confident that you’re going to win and to just let it happen.