A Clean Getaway

Minutes after winning the $10,000 Six-Max No Limit Hold’em event at the 2012 WSOP Greg Merson was doing the requisite interviews with poker media. Still in a state of shock from accomplishing one of his life goals, Merson navigated his way through the usual barrage of questions that are asked, in repetition, of every winner each summer.

What does this mean to you?

Who was the toughest opponent?

What are you going to do with the money?

Merson rattled off answers pretty easily. Then somebody asked him about what his parents would think about his accomplishment and Merson got one or two words out before the interview had to stop. Standing in a room full of hundreds, if not thousands, of poker players, and with a number of his closest friends standing just a few feet away, the 24 year old was doing everything he could to conceal the tears that were running down his face.

Greg Merson“I didn’t know what was going to happen in terms of my reaction if I won and then as soon as I won it just took over me,” Merson recalls. “I couldn’t stop crying. It was pretty embarrassing.”

After a few minutes Merson regained his composure, finished the interview and headed off to the cashier cage with his friends to collect his million dollar payday. Merson’s tears were long gone, but it didn’t take long for the story behind them to emerge.

Turns out Merson, who grow up in small town suburban Laurel, Maryland, was a recovering drug addict and that victory, that moment, was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of pain, heartache, disappointment and struggle.

To fully understand Merson’s joy, you have to go back to the 2011 WSOP and understand his pain.

“That summer I was taking Adderall every day and smoking weed every single night to go to sleep. It was a vicious cycle,” Merson says. “Every single day for the whole Series, wake up, take Adderall, go play, take more Adderall during the day when I’m coming off of it, come home so wired that I couldn’t sleep because I’m on so many uppers and then smoke tons of weed in order to fall asleep and then wake up the next day burnt out.”

That vicious cycle initially had Merson sitting on a pile of cash. Dedicating himself mostly to the cash games at the Bellagio, Merson was a big winner in the first four weeks of the summer. He was grinding every day and believed that the Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat ADHD, was helping him stay focused and play longer. When the cycle caught up with him midway through the Series it took him from a winning year to a losing one in a hurry.

“I was probably the biggest winner at $20/$40 (No Limit) at Bellagio the first four weeks of the summer. It really messed me up though,” says Merson. “I also had a shot at winning a bracelet last summer. I had all the chips in the $2,500 Six-Max and felt like being under the influence certainly made me mess up that opportunity and certainly made me play like shit in the Main Event.”

He also found himself in Bobby’s Room playing $250/$500 and eventually $500/$1,000 all while under the influence. Merson left Vegas with a depleted bankroll and headed to Toronto to begin the rebuilding process playing on PokerStars. Before leaving Las Vegas he flushed his remaining supply of Adderall but that doesn’t mean the drug use stopped there too.

After four months in Toronto Merson returned to Las Vegas in December 2011 to play the cash games during the Five Diamond World Poker Classic. It was while there that Merson came face to face with good friend and fellow Maryland native Christian Harder.

“I hadn’t seen him that much because he had moved to Canada to play online and I hadn’t. I don’t know exactly, but I hadn’t seen him for months. So I didn’t really know what his deal was, I didn’t know he was doing drugs again,” says Harder. “I was pretty disappointed, I saw him and I told him ‘you worked so hard to get clean before I know, and I can just tell by your state and how you’re feeling and how you’ve been doing in poker the last six months’ – 2011 was probably his only losing year of his life and I think a lot of that had to do with his doing drugs – ‘you’re going to be happier and you’re going to do better in poker. You don’t want to do this, look at you, you’re sick in bed.’”

Merson had a hard time ignoring the reality that Harder had painted so vividly for him.

“He wasn’t even functioning that well. I called him out and he kind of broke down right there, called his mom and told her. I guess he’s been clean since then,” says Harder.

Merson, who was using Roxies or Oxycodone, a prescription drug meant to help people with chronic pain,spent the next three days locked in his hotel room detoxing himself. He’d been through drug therapy before, when he was 18, and knew what he was up against. From there, he headed back home to Laurel to talk with his family and friends.

“I flew home, told my parents, my brother and his wife and some of my close friends what was going on, what had happened. They didn’t really know because I had been in Canada and had been hiding it. I started going to meetings right away and then spent my first New Years Eve in a while, sober,” says Merson, who now won’t touch alcohol, fearful that getting drunk could lead to bad decisions to use drugs again. “I started going to meetings right away. My parents were sick with worry about me going back to Canada (but) I needed to work. So I came (to Toronto) and used poker as an awesome way to keep myself busy and focused.”

“I also went to my (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting up here every Saturday at a church a couple of miles north of my place. I started doing yoga, I did pilates, I did this spinning class in my building, I went to the hot tub in my building four or five days a week. I started eating better and started getting the proper amount of sleep,” says Merson.

That drastic change of lifestyle, coupled with being clean of any drugs or alcohol, has Merson personifying exactly what Harder told him last December. He’s happier now and is back to beating pretty much any game he sits in.

“It’s not even close. When I first got clean and started climbing the cash game ranks, I went from 24-tabling $1/$2 to 24-tabling $5/$10 in less than a year and half,” says Merson. “It’s really important to have that mental stability when you’re playing a game that involves so much emotional control and be clear-minded at all times and if I don’t think I’m in the right mindset before I start a session to just relax and not play at that moment.”

In most cases Black Friday was a negative life altering event for players who made their living playing online in the United States, but it may have actually saved Merson’s life. After the 2011 WSOP Merson moved to Toronto to continue playing and found himself without all the comforts – and crutches – of home. When he left his family in January 2012 and returned to Toronto he knew that getting clean and rebuilding his bankroll was going to be all on his shoulders.

“That’s the thing. I haven’t really seen (my family). I spent the first 4.5 months up here and then I was home for a week and then I spent seven weeks in Vegas. I’ve been home now for five weeks or so, so it’s nice to see them and catch up, but for the first seven months of the year, I never really saw them,” says Merson. “It’s kind of been all on me, and being up here with a limited group of friends and not having the distractions of back home actually ended up being really good for me because I got to spend a lot of time figuring out what type of person I wanted to be. I’ve learned so much about myself being up here.”

The shift in Merson’s personality is obvious to those who know him best. Harder sees a major difference and knows that Merson’s a smart enough guy to put two and two together.

“He’s more fun to be around. He’s more himself. He’s just been crushing everything he’s touched in poker since then. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, that he was crushing online when he was in Canada before the WSOP, he’s probably going to be WSOP Player of the Year and he doesn’t even play tournaments. I know he realizes that sobriety has helped him so much,” says Harder.

Being clean helped him enough to become a WSOP bracelet winner and get him to the Main Event final table with a shot at a second bracelet, WSOP Player of the Year honors and a cool $8.5 million when the October Nine reconvene in Las Vegas at the end of October. Winning that first bracelet though was extra special for Merson since it came in Six-Max – the game he specializes in.

“It was definitely nice to make a name for myself in the poker community. I know a bunch of players in the community know who I am, but I don’t travel the circuit and play all the tournaments. I never really cared about being on TV or being a famous poker player. I just wanted to be well respected by my peers,” says Merson. “How many chances am I going to have to win a bracelet knowing that I was a cash game player and I don’t really play that many events? So to capture that title early in my career and get that huge monkey off my back early just relieves a lot of pressure.”

The Narcotics Anonymous meetings Merson attends often put him in a tough spot. Part of the process at these meetings is to share your story, the good and the bad, with other attendees. Nobody is there to judge but Merson doesn’t feel that a room full of addicts would understand what he does for work.

“I don’t traditionally share because if I were to share, I’d want to share my whole story and the fact that it has to do with gambling,” says Merson. “The people that are in there with a drug addiction could never understand that I gamble for a living, normal people can’t even understand, so I usually don’t go into that part of my life.”

It’s not just poker that’s going well for Merson right now. In September Merson went to his usual Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Toronto but this time he brought a  guest. Harder, in town to play the PokerStars WCOOP, walked with Merson into that church in Toronto and watched as Merson was given his nine-month chip.

“Greg deserves all the credit for getting clean but I’m very happy that he’s clean and happy and being so successful and yeah, I’m a little proud and happy that I helped him,” says Harder.

Should Merson manage to emerge from the Main Event final table with another bracelet to his name the scene is going to be a familiar one to him. He’ll be embraced by family and friends, he’ll rattle off answers to questions from even more reporters and he’ll have no trouble finding the strength to cry.

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October 2012