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The Youthful Face of Today’s Up-and-Coming Poker Sharks

Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012

Updated: Monday, September 10, 2012 18:09

Poker

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Jake Balsiger is 21 years old. His shaggy hair, skinny build, V-neck T-shirts and Facebook profile, with pictures of him and friends in maroon and gold face paint, corroborate this description of the Arizona State University senior. The political science major is part of the October Nine – the final main event table of the 2012 World Series of Poker. And as I call him over a lazy Labor Day weekend, he’s cool, calm – almost reserved – despite being weeks away from potentially becoming the youngest player to ever win the tournament.

He’s only been legally allowed to play in a casino since January, but Balsiger is an experienced player.

“I started playing in middle school with my friends,” he said. “We started $5 weekly tournaments. […] The day that I turned 18, or the day after I turned 18, I started an online account. My friend who also played for a living started teaching me how to play and I just got better from there.”

Balsinger will enter the final table in eighth place with a $13, 115, 000 chip count, according to the tournament’s website. He won his seat at the table in a field of over 6,500 competitors.

Moments after securing his slot as one of nine vying for $8.5 million prize, he breaks down in an interview just when he knew he had a shot at the big grab, “On day three, I had king-jack in the big blind against pocket three’s in the button […] I hit running jacks on the turn and river and get a huge double up. That was the turning point for me.”

Balsiger may be the youngest player occupying a seat at the main event table, but he’s certainly in like company. Four of the other players are also in their early 20’s and chip leader Jesse Sylvia, who currently stands with 43.9 million in chips, is 26 years old.

Tiffany Michelle – a successful poker player, actress and television personality – hosted the final table of the Arizona State Poker Championships in August. She shed some light on this new generation of poker players.

“We’ve definitely seen in the last few years a younger generation of poker players because of online poker,” Michelle said. “Realistically, by the time a lot of these guys are even old enough to step into a casino they’ve already had more experience than some of the greats might have started with.”

Michelle relates the traveling and high-stakes tournaments in destinations like Monte Carlo and Las Vegas to a sort of “jet-set” lifestyle.

“With how much coverage poker has received on TV, it’s kind of become a little ‘rock star,’” she said, adding, “Poker can be a brutal lover. The highs are high and lows are low. Sometimes your best possible game just won’t take you to the end.”

But Balsiger is cool as a cucumber.

“It totally adds more pressure to the situation, but it also makes it more fun,” he said. “It’s not just the money. I’m playing for a title that is really unique.”

When he’s not playing poker, Balsiger enjoys reading and “probably spending too much time on the internet.”

After being knocked out of the Arizona State Poker Championship at Talking Stick Resort in August, Balsiger went to Spain for EPT Barcelona. He posted on Facebook before leaving, “I don’t know what to do about my impending ‘Breaking Bad’ withdrawals.”

Jake Balsiger may not be in the empire business, but if he wins the big pot and earns his coveted title at the main event table in October, he’ll certainly have the spending power of Walter White.

The main event final table play begins October 28 in Las Vegas.

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