A Poker Life: Aaron Mermelstein
Mermelstein Survives Roller Coaster Year On The Tournament Circuit
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 for online 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.”
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