Poker Life – Aaron Mermelstein ; Time to Grow Up
A Poker Life: Aaron Mermelstein
Mermelstein Survives Roller Coaster Year On The Tournament Circuit
by Julio Rodriguez
In the past year, Aaron Mermelstein has experienced some ups and downs that most poker pros take decades to encounter. In fact, in the span of just 11 months, the 28-year-old Philadelphia native went from needing a stake to grind low-stakes online tournaments, to flush with cash
after a big win, to broke again after a robbery, to two-time World Poker Tour winner.
Though Mermelstein had a number of interests growing up, he found the game of poker early on, while still in high school after Robert Varkonyi won the 2002 World Series of Poker main event.
“I played a lot of sports growing up,” he stated. “I played basketball and wrestled for a little bit. I had a pretty normal childhood other than the poker. I think I was 15 years old when I got really hooked. I hopped online right away and played through high school and college.”
Mermelstein wasn’t just dabbling in the game, he was already a pretty decent player by the age of 18.
“The game changer was this absurd freeroll that I won on PartyPoker, very early on in the poker boom, where you had to beat like 6,000 players to get a seat into another tournament where nine players won a $10,000 WSOP main event seat and the winner got a $50,000 seat into the H.O.R.S.E. championship, which is now the Poker Players Championship.”
Mermelstein won the entire tournament, beating out roughly 16,000 total players to win the $50,000 seat. Of course, being under 21 years old was a big problem with the online site.
“I was so happy, because I had already worked out a deal to sell the seat to someone for like $40,000 at the table,” he recalled. “Of course, PartyPoker comes back and basically says, ‘sorry, you don’t get anything.’ I asked support for the cash, they said no. I asked foronline tournament entries, they said no. I asked for points, they said no. I asked for a t-shirt, they said no. Basically, I was screwed
and there was nothing I could do about it.”
With the $50,000 disaster behind him, Mermelstein turned his attention to college. Poker was fun, and occasionally profitable, but Mermelstein had no aspirations at the time of becoming a pro card player. Instead, he had a very specific plan.
“I ended up graduating from Penn State University, where I studied business management. My plan was to open up an adult daycare alongside my dad’s nursing home. This would essentially be a fun facility with programs to keep the elderly nursing home patients occupied during the day. I figured my dad would throw me some business, I would throw him some business, and that would make the most logistical sense.”
Opening an ancillary business that would benefit the family made a lot of sense, but it just didn’t work out that way.
“The first thing I did after college was take a job with my dad’s facility and try and get the proper licenses to open the adult daycare,” he said. “I quickly realized two things. Getting a license was going to be very, very difficult, and working with my dad wasn’t always easy. Then, about three weeks into that job, I got fourth in the PokerStars Sunday Million for about $90,000. That made it really tough to
sit there and work for something like $12 an hour when all I wanted to do was play poker.”
The Up-And-Down World of Professional Poker
With an instant bankroll, Mermelstein moved into a small place and began grinding online. He played everything he could, putting in volume not only in tournaments, but heads-up sit-n-gos and cash games as well. But it wasn’t long before he found himself back working a regular 9-to-5 job again.
“I was enjoying playing poker, but I didn’t really have any friends who played poker,” he admitted. “I was basically doing it on my own while everyone around me had a normal job. I ended up blowing through my bankroll and taking a job as an executive recruiter, finding jobs for other people basically. It was a very good job and I was becoming one of the top guys there. I asked to negotiate a new, better
contract, but my boss said no. I then got a similar job in New York, which I hated, but it exposed me to a bunch of live underground games. I got back online and then all of a sudden, I was a full-time player again.”
Mermelstein continued to play when he could, finding a stake and staying afloat, but life got much easier in November of 2014 when he took down a preliminary event at the Borgata Fall Poker Open for $39,663. At least, it was supposed to get easier.
“I was backed in that tournament, so I really only got $20,000. After makeup, I was left with $17,000,” he confided. “After the tournament, I put the money in my backpack, went to a friend’s house party and put the backpack in a closet. When I came back to it, the bag was gone.
Long story short: it was stolen, and I was broke again.”
The Life-Changing Score
With no other options, Mermelstein had to be staked to play online again. He ended up winning a $160 buy-in tournament online for about $35,000, which he was forced to split once again. But in January, he took his portion of the winnings back to Borgata for the $3,500 buy-in WPT Winter Poker Open main event.
Despite the hefty buy-in, and the huge field of 989 entries, Mermelstein came out on top for the title and the massive $712,305 payday. The final table included notables such as Justin Liberto, Esther Taylor-Brady, Shawn Cunix, Randy Pfeifer, and Eugene Todd, but it was the relatively unknown kid from Philly who won it all.
“It was an incredible feeling. I did it in front of my friends and family, which was amazing. At that moment, I told myself that I wasn’t going to mess this up again.”
Mermelstein spent his early poker years grinding in obscurity, with little support from others in the industry, but after his win, he found himself in an exclusive club of insiders.
“I felt like a complete unknown until this year, so winning that tournament was great for validation of my skill in this game. I also don’t feel like an outsider, because before, I was kind of by myself in poker. Now I have met all of these great people in the game that I can talk to with unique backgrounds.”
With his newfound confidence, Mermelstein hit the circuit. One WPT title is more than most poker players will ever get in their career, but Mermelstein cemented his place in the tour’s history in September when he took down the $3,500 buy-in stop at Maryland Live! Casino, defeating the likes of Greg Merson and Andjelko Andrejevic at the final table for the $250,222 first-place prize.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Mermelstein admitted. “To go from needing $10 online tournament stakes to being a two-time WPT winner is insane. The second WPT win was especially sweet, because it proved that I wasn’t a fluke. Obviously I don’t think I’ll win a major tournament every
year, but I think it’s enough evidence that I can do this for a while and that I belong.”
Editorial: Time for The Poker World to Grow Up
By Earl Burton
When grown men – and women as well – are playing games as a profession, there is some argument that they have never grown up. Those that are paid extremely well in professional basketball, football, baseball and other sports often seem as if they haven’t gotten beyond puberty
sometimes in their actions outside of their playing fields but, for the most part, they do seem to be at least functioning members of society. Sometimes the same can’t be said for those that are in the poker community and it is time that they actually think about growing up.
At the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure over the weekend, much was made of the ejection of popular poker professional Antonio Esfandiari from the European Poker Tour Main Event, despite the factor that he held a fairly decent stack on Day Two of the event. There are few transgressions that are egregious enough to warrant the ejection of a player from a poker tournament especially one of those that is
considered among the “major” tournaments in the world – so it must have been an outrageous violation of the rules for Esfandiari to be shown the door. As it was, it was a childish, dick-waving (no pun intended) occurrence that had no place at a poker table or in everyday life.
Esfandiari, known for making outlandish prop bets (normally with his partner in crime Phil Laak), found a willing betting partner in billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Perkins for something the duo apparently thought would be fun to do in public. For a reported bet of $50,000 (there have been rumors that the original bet and the resulting side action were well above that), Esfandiari had to “lunge” – basically let his knee touch the floor on each step he took while his other leg makes a 90-degree angle before standing straight up and taking the next step – everywhere he went for a 48-hour period. For anyone who has done this exercise in the gym, it isn’t to be trifled with, a point that became apparent to Esfandiari as he worked through the first day.
Sitting at the tables during the second day of the PCA EPT Main Event, Esfandiari suddenly found that it was virtually impossible for him to move, even though he needed to relieve himself quickly. Instead of losing the bet – either through walking normally to the facilities or having someone carry him to the bathroom (both violations of the prop bet) – Esfandiari instead decided to take matters in his own hands
and relieve himself in the middle of the poker room. With a group surrounding him to block any potential Peeping Toms (or Tinas) and a towel “over the top,” Esfandiari took care of business in a bottle or bucket (this is unclear, from most accounts). Once the cards were back in the air, however, he was removed from the tournament by the floor and informed he was being disqualified for his “breach of
Now we can at least give Esfandiari a little pat on the back for attempting to be as discreet as possible regarding this situation. The problem is that the “squares” – in this case, the floor staff and management of Atlantis, the Paradise Island casino hosting the PCA – aren’t used to people dropping trou and relieving themselves in the middle of their property. As such, they had to act quickly to quash
such behavior, lest this become something that people – not only during this event but in the future – took as an acceptable practice in the Bahamas. To be honest, the DQ is probably something that would’ve been done in any casino around the world, at the minimum, if not an outright banishment (as you’re on an island, you haven’t got many other options, so perhaps the Paradise Island folks gave Esfandiari a
The disqualification also came at a tough time for Esfandiari. With a nice stack at that point in Day 2 but still quite some distance to making the money in the tournament, Esfandiari had to at least be considered a contender to cash in the event. For his $5000 buy-in, the minimum cash in the PCA EPT Main Event was slightly more than $8000 and the first place prize worth more than $800,000. By ejecting
Esfandiari from the tournament, he lost his chance to compete for that big prize and lost his initial stake, something that the prop bet might soothe (for the record, Esfandiari did complete the bet) but giving one pause as to what might have been.
Now it’s time to take on something seriously, however. Prop bets have been around since the dawn of time – you don’t think cavemen didn’t wager on who could toss a rock the furthest, then switch out the rock for a heavier piece of stone on their unsuspecting fellow caveman? – and will continue to be around whenever there are people gambling and having fun. When it starts to infringe on the purpose that everyone has come together for – in this case, the PCA EPT Main Event and other poker events in the Bahamas – AND starts to paint a picture to those outside of the “inner circle,” it tends to become a detriment to the game. As such, it may be time that the poker world “grows up” a bit, at least to the point of taking a look at situations such as Esfandiari’s and making them less a part of our lifestyles.
I’ve seen several prop bets going on at and away from the tables in my time in the industry and, for the most part, they have been harmless (OK, harmless except when you consider that someone is sometimes wagering a nice house on which direction a bird will fly off). It’s even fun to get in on the action (been a part of many a “credit card roulette” game for a dinner bill). It is another thing altogether, however,
when the prop bets border on potentially being dangerous or, in the case of Esfandiari, might require someone to violate simple rules of public courtesy to be able to achieve the end goal.
For his part, Esfandiari has apologized profusely for the situation – hey, it is extremely possible that, in our particular business, he didn’t think that anyone would think it was odd what he was doing once the reason was explained. But there are those borders that cannot be crossed and, in the Esfandiari example, those borders were blown apart. Prop bets are great fun but, in the future, let’s grow up a bit and
make sure that they don’t force someone to potentially do something dangerous or something that might get them in trouble…at the minimum, let’s at least make sure it doesn’t become public knowledge to networks like CNBC.
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