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World Series Of Poker Finalist 'Lucky To Be Alive' After Drug Downswings

Greg Merson Battled Addiction To Have Shot At Main Event


In one way, 24-year-old Greg Merson is the most experienced player to ever make the World Series of Poker main event final table in its more than 40-year history.

The Maryland native, who has made a living from online cash games, said he’s played about seven million hands on the virtual felt. Has Merson played more than any other finalist?

When asked about it, Merson said: “I’ve never really thought about it, but I’d certainly think that it’s not even close. I’ve been playing 20-24 tables at time, putting in 1,500-2,000 hands an hour, for the past four or five years. There aren’t many people who do that.”

Christian Harder, a fellow poker pro, said that Merson is likely in the “top 25 all time in terms of hands played.” Poker on the Internet has been around since the late 1990s.

To rank Merson, also a recent bracelet winner, up there in experience level with other great finalists of their time, such as Dan Harrington in 2004, Phil Ivey in 2009 or Stu Ungar in 1997, might sound crazy, but by factoring in volume of no-limit hold’em hands seen, it’s not a stretch.

Although winning the main event would be OK, Merson is trying not to be like Ungar in one way — falling victim to the perils of drug use. Ungar passed away in 1998 after years of addiction. Merson was abusing a slew of drugs in 2011, before fearing death en route to getting clean about 10 months ago.

The Drug Downswing

After rising through the online poker ranks, Merson, a byproduct of home games around Maryland that have included legends such as Scott Palmer, Dan Cates, Dan Smith, Anthony Greg and Harder, began last year by losing command of his finances. He had three $100,000 losing sessions in the first six weeks of the year. He had about 20 days where he lost $30,000.

He had lost more than half of his bankroll.

Merson became addicted to drugs at 18. He was clean at 19 and then sober for about three and a half years. In addition to synthetic heroin, Merson said he has also been addicted to cocaine and adderall — used in conjunction with overindulgences of marijuana and alcohol.

He relapsed during the downswing, and things started to spiral. It was February.

One of his worst moments around this time was in a game at Bellagio in Las Vegas. He was playing at a table with blinds of $200-$500 and lost a huge sum. He was high on adderall during the session, which was the drug he abused every single day at the 2011 WSOP, he said.

“It was a big disappointment,” Merson said. “It’s always a dream for a cash-game player to take a shot in Bobby’s Room [at Bellagio] and play with the best in the world. I felt like I was ready for it skill wise, but at the same time I’d lost my grip on reality.”

He stumbled through fall 2011, before hitting rock bottom near the end of the year. Merson got clean on his own in the unlikeliest of places — a hotel room at a casino in Las Vegas.

“It was the worst fucking week of my life,” Merson said of his detoxification process.

He was sharing a room at Aria with Harder and Gregg, both good friends. There was a big tournament in town that attracted pros from all around.

“Christian saw me using at one point during that trip, and I was also losing a lot of money, so he called me out on it — super hard,” Merson said. “It’s all kind of a blur to me because I was so messed up, but I obviously knew how badly I was fucking up. I was really depressed. Something clicked though. I still had about 15 pills the next day. I didn’t throw them away because I wanted them to be in the drawer right next to me when I detoxed.”

Merson said he didn’t get out of the hotel bed for nearly three straight days.

He eventually regained his strength and made a flight back to Maryland. He still remembers Dec. 10, 2011 as the day he last used drugs. He hasn’t even had a beer since.

“Even if I win the main event [in October], I’m not going to have a drink,” Merson said. “The most important thing to me is staying sober.” About $8.5 million is on the line when play resumes.

Harder said he doesn’t remember exactly what he told Merson during that fateful week: “I just know that he knew I was disappointed with him. The drugs put him in such a bad state.”

While Harder might have uttered the right words to embarrass Merson enough at the time, he said that Merson “deserves all the credit” for figuring out a way to snap out of it.

As for the possibility of another relapse, Harder isn’t worried.

“I think he sees how well he’s doing when he’s clean and realizes how much better he feels,” Harder said. “Greg has only done well [at poker] when he was clean.”

The Upswing

Since getting clean, Merson has had a remarkable run. He entered the WSOP on a huge heater. In contrast to his disastrous 2011, his largest downswing this year has been just $40,000. And he’s still playing some of the priciest stakes around.

The key for Merson is, as always, both simple and difficult: knowing when to quit.

“My emotional control and ability to walk away when I’m tiling or about to tilt is so sick these days,” he said. “I avoid the super big losing sessions.”

Merson was out of debt to Gregg, his backer for live games, before the $10,000 buy-in shorthanded event, but he decided to keep the deal in order to feel less financial pressure. The decision paid off. Merson won the event for more than $1 million. With the bracelet and all the attention that it brings, Merson had some tangible proof that he had somehow turned his life around.

“I’m just so lucky to even be alive,” Merson said. “When I won that bracelet I just started fucking crying. To have a second chance at life and to do what I want to do — it’s amazing. It really is.”

Merson remembers how easily everything could have been so different.

“My daily [Roxycotin] use was at a pretty high dosage last year,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to not even realize you are overdosing. You just nod out and don’t wake back up. Your heart stops beating. You die peacefully. That easily could have happened to me.”

Less than two weeks after his huge win, Merson outdid the performance. He was standing among the final nine in the $10,000 buy-in main event, poker’s most prestigious and largest tournament of the year. He now has a shot at millions more, a lot of which will be sent to Gregg thanks to their business relationship. “I will be writing him a big check,” Merson said. “But, I’m not bitter at all. He’s done so much for me in my career. To repay him like this is so cool.”

Merson really couldn’t be much happier. He’s staying focused on the game’s nuts and bolts.

Since making the final table, Merson has been playing in private games in the Baltimore area, ones that he previously had a hard time getting into. As a poker celebrity these days, he’s found invites.

Aside from playing more and spending some money on his family, Merson said he has only spent about $500 on himself — just some new clothes. Online grinders like Merson are known for playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in mesh shorts and the most casual of t-shirts while in front of a computer. Don’t expect Merson to change if he soon has multiple millions sitting in a checking account.

Merson, while humble, said that it’s been nice to obtain some recognition after spending years grinding almost anonymously. But, again, it likely won’t change him: “I’m not going to think that I’m better than I actually am. There’s still plenty I need to improve on.”

Merson added that he’s “not going to ride off into the sunset” after the incredible summer. He wants to remain in the trenches, playing for a living and perhaps helping promote the game as its online version begins the slow process of attempting a U.S. comeback.

The recovered drug addict and college dropout has positioned himself to be a part of it.

“The six-max victory validated him as a live pro, and the main event is making him a legend,” Gregg said shortly after Merson, who was down to just a handful of big blinds on day five, made the final table. “It’s crazy. It doesn’t seem like real life.”

Follow Brian Pempus on Twitter — @brianpempus