From the depths of a debilitating drug addiction, to the heights of having achieved poker’s pinnacle crown, Greg Merson’s roller coaster ride from nobody to addict, to World Series of Poker Main Event champion and multi-millionaire has been a remarkable, inspiring journey.
After all, in Merson’s small, conservative hometown of Laurel, Maryland, people didn’t “gamble” for a living. Especially his traditional, 9-5 father Stan, the Chief Financial Officer for RLO Contractors, an excavation contractor in Dayton, Maryland, and a man with whom Greg would frequently butt heads with over some of the young Merson’s professional and personal decisions.
Like almost every other professional poker player under the age of 40, Merson’s interest in poker developed from watching Chris Moneymaker’s magical ride in the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
His first game was came against his older brother’s friends – a $10 buy-in game. The rookie lost of course, and despite losing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars since then, Greg calls that first losing session, “the worst loss of my career.”
He rebounded and began playing more frequently with high school buddies. The group organized a little “mini-WSOP” once a month, with $10 buy-ins and a field full of 24 or so players. In a foreshadowing of things to come, Greg would win the first two tournaments, finishing second in the third event.
Even though they were little tournaments, with first place money in the $100 range, Greg used the money from these, and his part time job, as bankrolls for is initial forays into the online poker games after his 2005 graduation from Resevoir High School in Fulton, Maryland.
Greg stepped up his online play while a student at the University of Maryland, sticking with just tournaments. However his heart was more focused on well, hearts and clubs, rather than studies. He dropped out after two years, partly due to his passion for poker, and partly due to his increasing dependence on drugs. Merson says what had initially started out as occasional weed tokes quickly progressed into a cocaine habit.
Not surprisingly, Merson’s drug-fueled brain didn’t help him his poker game. He quickly went broke, sobered up, and jumped back into school, this time enrolling at Howard Community College.
(Greg makes a bluff at the 2012 Main Event Final Table)
Poker kept calling however, and Greg left Howard to play poker as his profession. He experienced incredible success, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars – this time playing cash games (mostly 6-max No-Limit Hold’em), along with forays into the PokerStars Sunday Million tournament.
After Poker’s Black Friday shut down the online game for U.S. residents, Merson relocated to Toronto, and continued to successfully grind online.
But having such wealth at age 23 and 24 can help produce a healthy ego in a young male, along with poor decision making skills. These two traits led Merson back down the road to drug dependency. (He’s self-described it as having “a pretty serious drug problem.”) The relapse, which would last nine months, was as a horrible period of his life where he lost weight, confidence along with his edge at the tables. He lost half his net worth.
Without the assistance of a professional rehab facility, Merson became clean again on December 10th, 2011. He told the Washington Post that he did it himself, by locking himself in a room at the Aria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to spend three days shivering and vomiting the drugs out of his system. So far it has worked.
Greg says that there is temptation on the poker tour (the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles always reeks of weed he says), but has fortunately been able to stay clean. He even has an app on his phone that calculates – up to the second – how long he has been sober.
A month after becoming sober, Greg once again hopped back in the online games. A sharper, uncloudy mind once again led him to financial success on the felt. More importantly, it led to more personal success. He told the Bernard Lee poker podcast that he now does Yoga, and is more reflective. Rather than concerns about win rate and online earnings, he focuses more on sobriety, happiness, and becoming a better person.
Greg Merson and the 2012 WSOP
The 2012 WSOP would be one for the ages for the young Marylander. He would go on the have four cashes, while making three final tables, winning two bracelets, and nearly $9.8 million in cash.
Merson’s first career bracelet came in the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em 6 Handed event.
A 6-Max No-limit specialist who has played what he has estimated as “millions” of hands of 6 max online, Greg says he was looking forward to the $10K 6-max event more than the Main Event.
There were few soft spots in the field of 474 players, and the final table include a murder’s row of high stakes pros, including Layne Flack, Shannon Shorr, and LuckyChewy, a.k.a. Andrew Lichtenberger.
The first place prize, his biggest at the time, was $1.136 million. In the crowd to watch that first bracelet was Greg’s dad. Understandably, after what he had gone through already in his short life, Greg became very emotional after the win, shedding tears in this post-win interview.
2012 WSOP Main Event
Fresh off his win in the $10K 6-Max event, Merson would unbelievably go on to win the next (and last) $10K tournament of the series: the 2012 WSOP Main Event.
The tournament attracted 6,598 runners.
Down to just 3 big blinds at one point on day 5, Merson made an incredible comeback to make the October Nine. Normally it is the “November Nine,” however the final table was moved up a week so as not to conflict with the presidential election in the United States.
Going into the final table, Merson was behind Phil Hellmuth in the points race for World Series of Poker Player of the Year. In fact, prior to the October start of the tournament, it was revealed that the only way Merson could overcome the Poker Brat for the POY title was to finish in first place.
Good game Phil.
Merson’s second bracelet of the series ensured he’d have his enlarged face on a banner hanging from the Amazon room the next year. There’s also the matter of an $8,531,853 first place check and title of 2012 WSOP Player of the Year.
Incredibly, Merson would follow up with a deep run in the 2013 WSOP Main Event.
Still with 23 big blinds and down to just 167 players remaining, Merson pushed all-in pre-flop with….the Ace/2 of diamonds. He was called by Brett Richey’s Big Slick (Ace/King) and eliminated on the river.
If not for the questionable move (a move Merson says he still regrets and thinks about), his deep run would have likely been much deeper.
Other than the Main Event, his 2013 WSOP was not a success. In 2014, however, he would go on to cash in three WSOP tournaments.
More impressively, at the 2014 PCA (PokerStars Caribbean Adventure) at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Greg would finish second in the $25,000 Higher Roller No-Limit event, good for $948,966.
Nowadays, Greg spends weeks at a time playing in the high stakes cash games in Macau. In the fall of 2014, for example, the stayed there for six weeks. He says he continues to develop his Pot-Limit Omaha game, and only plays in bigger buy-in tournaments. Mentally, he says, he does not have the patience to play in lower limit games or tournaments.
Upset about not getting into the juicy high stakes game in Ivey’s Room at the Aria Poker Room, Merson caused controversy in the poker world and on poker forms after posting a series of angry tweets in the summer of 2013.
In them, he accused the room’s host Jean Robert Bellande of sucking up to the rich fish in the game and shutting out others in the game. Other players have gone to the Nevada Gaming Commission with complaints about what they allege is a private game held in a public casino – and therefore a violation of gaming rules.
Greg Merson’s Girlfriend
Greg has been in long-term relationship (since roughly the spring of 2012), with
Julie Sosenko, from Johnson City, New York. She studied physical therapy at SUNY Upstate Medical University, and – based on her Twitter account – travels all over the world now with Greg on the tournament scene.
Greg says that although he had met her in person earlier, the two reconnected online after he become sober. In fact, he gave up income potential in online games in Toronto in order to stay in the United States, closer to Julie.
Greg Merson Tidbits
* He’s won more money in live tournament poker than any other person from Maryland
* Greg Merson’s Twitter handle: gregy20723
* In the 2012 World Series of Poker, Greg cashed in 5 of the 7 events he played in.
* Greg says the biggest pot he has won online was for $80,000.
* He once cashed in four consecutive tournaments in a row in which the buy-in was at least $10,000, and he monitors his ranking on the Hendon Mob’s all-time money list.
* When Full Tilt Poker was stopped on Black Friday, Merson had $86,000 on the site. He sold his account for 80 cents on the dollar, just a few days before Full Tilt announced they were broke. (All players were eventually paid three years later).
* He spent the 2010 WSOP living with Tom Marchese. Not a bad choice, considering Marchese, (screen name “KingofCards”) would go on to win the CardPlayer Magazine’s Player of the Year for 2010.
* He once lived with Phil Hellmuth at Hellmuth’s Palo Alto residence for a few days to receive some life and career mentoring advice from his fellow former WSOP champion. Merson says the Poker Brat shared with him the importance of branding, bracelets and developing a financial footing outside of the poker room.
* He’s one of only 30 people in the world to have won over $10 million in live tournament poker winnings.