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A Poker Life: Zach Gruneberg

Gruneberg Overcomes Addiction and Achieves Incredible Summer Results


Zach GrunebergZach Gruneberg is only 24 years old, but he has already experienced the highs of being on top of the poker world, as well as the lows of hitting rock bottom after Black Friday. The Pennsylvania native was considered one of the best online poker players in the world after a fast start to his career, but a battle with drug addiction nearly ended his career and could have done much worse.

Instead, with the help of friends and family, Gruneberg was able to turn his life around and rebound in a big way at the 2014 World Series of Poker. Crediting his new clean and sober lifestyle, Gruneberg was able to make three final tables, with his summer tournament earnings totaling $546,000.

A Hard Fall

Gruneberg was just 19 years old when he broke out on the poker tournament scene. At the 2009 Aussie Millions, he won a limit hold’em preliminary event for $24,863 and then finished sixth in the main event for another $138,431.

He then took that new bankroll back home to Boalsburg, a suburb of State College, Pennsylvania, and began grinding online under the name HustlerGrune. A few months later, Gruneberg won the PokerStars Sunday Warmup for $118,692. He also won the $200 Rebuy and the Sunday Mulligan on Full Tilt Poker while becoming a regular final-table fixture in the high-stakes online tournament rotation.

In 2010, he finished sixth in the Card Player Online Player of the Year race and in 2011, he climbed as high as fourth in the world. In total, he has won more than $2.7 million online. But then it all came crashing down.

“I obviously wasn’t happy with the world at the time,” Gruneberg said. “Black Friday had taken my job away, I lost the $40,000 I had stuck on UB. There was also the big Jerry Sandusky scandal that hit at Penn State, which is where I’m from. I wasn’t happy. I had always been down to experiment, try something at least once. I had no idea what addiction really was back then, or at least, I didn’t think it could happen to me. I got hooked on Oxycodone, Roxicodone, and then towards the end, even heroin.”

Gruneberg tried to keep playing by making trips outside of the United States, but the drugs were too powerful to overcome.

“My life fell apart in pretty much every way imaginable,” he admitted. “The drug totally controls you. You can be the greatest, nicest guy, but you’ll find yourself doing anything you can, horrible things, just to get high again. I remember believing I was thinking really clearly, but if you look at my results it was very obvious that my game completely tanked. I made trips to Costa Rica and Canada to play, but I was battling the drug at the time and couldn’t get anything going.”

Hitting Rock Bottom and Getting Help

All of Gruneberg’s hard work in the poker world was erased with nearly three years of addiction. His game had crumbled. His bankroll was depleted and even worse, he didn’t care.

“I became numb to everything,” he recalled. “It didn’t matter who I screwed over, as long as I could put enough money together to keep using. My family and friends actually organized an intervention. Even then, I didn’t really want to get clean, but it was the first time in a while that I had experienced real emotion. I sat in my dining room and listened to my brother tell me that he didn’t want to see me die. A week later I was back in rehab.”

It was Gruneberg’s second try at getting clean, but this time, he was determined to make it work. He checked into the St. Joseph Institute for Addiction and immediately began the recovery process. He suffered through agonizing withdrawals, vomiting, shakes, and then a wave of emotions washed over him as he came to realize the severity of his actions over the last few years.

It certainly didn’t help that Gruneberg identified himself to his caregivers as a professional poker player.

“One of the hard things about rehab is trying to explain to people that I wasn’t a gambling addict,” he explained. “I came in for my drug addiction, but then they hear what I did for a living and automatically assumed I had a problem with gambling as well. Nobody ever believes that poker isn’t some part of an addiction though. Fortunately for me, my sponsor, Mark Herm, is a professional poker player, so I have someone in my corner who understands.”

Getting Back To Poker

Gruneberg left the facility in February of 2014 and has been sober ever since. In March, riding high with confidence, he was able to charm a local girl named Cathryn into a date and she’s been in his corner ever since. Slowly but surely, Gruneberg was able to repair the damage he had done.

With a very limited bankroll, Gruneberg planned a very short trip to Las Vegas for the summer just to play the WSOP main event and a couple of smaller side events, but a message from his old backer, Eric “Sheets” Haber, gave him some good news.

“During my addiction, I really screwed over my backer,” he admitted. “I was taking [my stake] money offline and using it to buy drugs. After rehab, I sent him a message to let him know I was clean and that I was going to make things right, and he didn’t respond. That was fine. I needed to show actions, not just speak words. Then right before the summer he reached out to me and I guess he saw a real change because he was nice enough to do some business. I am really happy that I had such a good summer, for him, since he really believed in me.”

A good summer is putting it mildly. Right off the bat, Gruneberg took fourth in a WSOP $1,000 no-limit hold’em event for $104,594. He then notched another cash in a $1,500 event, taking 45th for $8,263. In late June, he finished eighth in the $1,500 monster stack event for another $163,238. Then a couple days later, he picked up the biggest score of his career, banking $270,299 for a third-place finish in another $1,500 no-limit hold’em event.

In total, he had pocketed nearly $550,000 for finding his way through fields of 2,563, 7,862, 1,594 and 2,043, respectively.

“I thought I was going to ease my way back into poker with a few smaller buy-in tournaments this summer. The $1,000 event that I finished fourth in to start things off was actually just the second tournament I had played since rehab. I guess it’s like riding a bike. I just needed to remember and get a feel for it again.”

When asked how he was able to navigate his way through tournaments with such large fields, Gruneberg once again credited his sobriety.

“In these fields, people are so transparent that it allows me to play a lot more hands,” he explained. “So I’m seeing more flops in position than I might in a tougher tournament. It also helps that my radar has been spot on now that I’m sober. I feel like I always know where I’m at, which is right where you want to be as a poker player.”

Moving Forward

There are many young poker players who swear by the use of marijuana or other recreational drugs, claiming it helps them focus during long stretches of tournament play. The breaks are littered with players looking for a discreet area to get their fix, but Gruneberg believes he no longer needs any outside substances to help his game.

“I feel like I’m playing the best poker of my life. I used to be just like all of the other young online guys who felt that weed was somehow improving my game, but looking back, I now realize it was just a crutch. I understand the argument that it can slow things down and give you some patience, but it also clouds your judgment. Eventually, your tolerance gets to the point where you’ll need more and more and that’s when things get dangerous.”

He may have a bigger bankroll these days, but Gruneberg isn’t looking for an excuse to fall back into his old habits.

“I’m going to do things right this time,” he insisted. “When I got to the WSOP this summer, I was just happy to be there. I was broke, but it was the best I’ve felt in years. Now that I got some money in my pocket, I’m not going to let that affect all of the progress I’ve made.” ♠