Phil Hellmuth, Peter Eastgate and Joe Cada are three names that are forever ingrained into the minds of poker fans around the world. Each of them battled through the game's best players in the biggest event of all, the main event, to become the world champion. Each of them, at the time of his victory, also became the youngest player in poker history to win main event gold. Each etched his name in the record books thinking that it would be difficult for someone to come along and take that honor away from him. Hellmuth's reign lasted 19 years before the poker boom led to a newer generation of young stars and a Danish champion who quietly navigated to the title. Eastgate's tenure lasted only one year before "The Kid" Cada made all Michiganders proud with his monstrous win. Cada still holds the title of youngest champ, but his time may be up, too. On Oct. 29, Jake Balsiger will take his seat at the main event final table. At 21 years and 9 months, Balsiger will enter the final table eighth in chips and has his eyes set on the $8.5 million top prize.
"If you take a look at who has won the table over the past few years, it's the youngest person at the table a lot of the time, and I hope to keep that tradition going. [It's] something that I want a whole lot," Balsiger said of becoming the youngest champ. "Since I just turned 21 in January, it would be pretty hard to beat that record. Having a record like that, that you could keep for well over a decade, would be amazing.
"That's some good company," Balsiger said of Hellmuth, Cada and Eastgate. "It would mean a lot to me to join them."
Balsiger isn't like the other three names that have held the title before him. Balsiger found his way into poker after watching the WSOP on ESPN when he was 13. Leading up to the 2012 WSOP, Balsiger's poker experience didn't include the massive time at the live felt like Hellmuth's, or the high-stakes cash games like Eastgate's and Cada's. Balsiger was a casual low-stakes grinder, earning rent money during his time at Arizona State University playing .10/.25 cash games and $10 tournaments online. He earned spending money month-to-month, but that was it. There was no big house purchase in the plans like Cada, worldwide recognition like Hellmuth or "oh yeah, I've played with him in some big games online" like Eastgate. Balsiger's opponents probably saw him for the first time during the main event, and that is something he'll use to his advantage in Las Vegas. He also has a few more tricks up his sleeve.
Just like Russell Thomas, Balsiger has been working with one of the brightest minds in the game to help improve his chances at the final table. Mike "Timex" McDonald has been helping Balsiger out through simulations and training over the past few weeks. In 2011, McDonald's efforts just happened to pay off with a certain Pius Heinz, so when Balsiger was looking for a coach, he had someone already in mind. Plus, the two played together on Day 4 of the main event, so McDonald had a good feeling of where to start with his student.
There's one major difference between the training efforts of Thomas and Balsiger. While Thomas immersed himself in the game since Aug. 1, Balsiger still had something else weighing on his mind. While preparation might be of the utmost importance, Balsiger needed to take care of his classes at ASU. Although he freely admitted that his head hasn't always been on his education over the past three months, the senior knows that finishing up school is a priority.
"I'm going to finish school, even if I win," Balsiger said. "I'm looking forward to graduating this year. It's important."
By taking some classes online, Balsiger also managed to head to WSOP Europe, an experience he won't forget despite not cashing. He was signed by 888 Poker to an endorsement deal, and that allowed him to gain a greater respect for the circuit in general.
"Being in Europe I learned how good other poker tournaments are," he said. "It was just pros upon pros upon pros. I really missed the $300 [buy-ins] back home."
Balsiger headed to Las Vegas with no intention of playing in the main event. After a deep run in Event 2 and a small side event cash, Balsiger went home, only to be convinced by his roommates to return and play the main. With a number of people putting together the steep buy-in, Balsiger's run to the final table relied on some good timing and some even better luck. Regardless of how he got there, he left Vegas in July with $754,798 and a new outlook on life. Some 21-year-olds would take a good amount of that money and enjoy life for all it's worth. They'd party and buy cars or every Apple product imaginable. Not Balsiger. After giving some money to his mom, he made one purchase: a bed frame.
"I don't do a whole lot of spending money, to be honest. I had a mattress on the floor. It was not the highest class thing to have. [So I bought a mattress.] That's basically how we can describe my experience from this tournament," Balsiger joked. "After November, I can see what I can do for everybody."
The one thing Balsiger definitely did not consider buying was new attire for the big night.
When he sits down at the table, Balsiger will wear the same shirt he wore each day during the first seven days of the tournament in Las Vegas.
"It's not really superstition," Balsiger said. "The shirt fit in with the Amazon Room with the lighting. I look super young, so I thought maybe this shirt makes me look slightly more in place, and slightly more intimidating probably not."
His fashion encouraged his friends to buy duplicates of the shirt, and when the tournament resumes, the rail behind Balsiger will be filled with blue plaid shirts. Yes, the shirt has been washed since July.
As much a high as making the main event final table has been, Balsiger was also at an incredible low over the past 14 months after being hit by a truck while riding his bike around campus. That accident in September 2011 left him in the hospital emotionally and physically devastated.
"I blacked out," he said. "I have no memory of it really happening. I have like five minutes of memory from the next week. I cracked my skull, shattered my right arm."
Balsiger had to drop out of school for the semester. He was in hospitalized for nine days, and he estimated that for most of that time, he was sleeping for nearly 20 hours a day as his body tried to recover.
"At the start, there was nothing but despair," he said. "I couldn't do anything with my right arm. I couldn't bend it for two months. I thought that life was pretty much over. I'd wake up, stay in bed all day. There wasn't much else I could do. I had a month of that, then it eased up, got a little bit better. It took nine months for me really to turn back into the person that I was before. It's like getting your personality back, which is a really weird experience."
During his recovery time he found his way to play live poker, and he credits that live experience with what helped him to make it to the final table.
It's the tough times that put everything into perspective. Balsiger has learned to embrace all that life has to offer, and it's that wisdom beyond his age that puts him on such even keel heading into the biggest moment of his poker life. The cameras and atmosphere will add immeasurable pressure to each of the nine, but Balsiger knows that with every hand and elimination that passes, he's one step closer to making history. His youth may be the focal point of his efforts leading up to the final table, but if he's able to pocket the brightest piece of WSOP jewelry on Oct. 30, that youth might be what defines him for decades to come. He'd be perfectly happy with that.